OLY-CYCL-TRACK-MALAYSIA:Malaysia pedals hard for elusive Games gold
By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Aspiring Malaysian track cyclists have had to contend with infrastructure issues and the national obsession with soccer and badminton but coach John Beasley believes he has a team that could deliver the country's first Olympic gold medal.
Up-and-coming cyclists have a choice of two velodromes across the steamy Southeast Asian nation of 28 million on which to hone their craft.
One offers a bumpy ride on a circuit built for the 1998 Commonwealth Games in the capital Kuala Lumpur. The other, an older outdoor track in the central town of Ipoh, invariably offers waterlogged timber due to monsoon downpours.
Infrastructure issues aside, Beasley, the Australian in charge of the country's elite programme, says his team can challenge the best of the West at the London Games.
"I'm very quietly confident," the burly 50-year-old told Reuters as he watched over his three Olympic hopefuls at a sleepy suburban velodrome in southeast Melbourne.
"We've got to get it right on the day, but I'm hoping worst case scenario we'll get a medal in the keirin and best case we'll win it.
"We're not scared of racing Chris Hoy or anyone else."
Pint-sized world silver medallist Azizulhasni Awang, nicknamed the 'Pocket Rocketman' for the power he generates from his five-foot-seven frame, is likely to lead a small, but plucky, charge for Malaysia at the London velodrome where British great Hoy is expected to defend his keirin title.
'WHAT IS THIS SPORT?'
Azizul will battle with two-times Olympian and Commonwealth Games champion Josiah Ng to be Malaysia's sole cyclist in the individual sprint and keirin, while the much-improved Fatehah Mustapa is set to become the first Malaysian woman to compete in Olympic track cycling, also in the keirin.
Ng, a 32-year-old rider raised in California, broke new ground for Malaysia when he made the final of the keirin at the 2004 Athens Games.
"That was probably the first time that everyone in Malaysia opened their eyes and said: 'Who is this guy? What's this sport? Oh, it's not badminton! Wow!" Ng, who like his team mate Azizul, has defied his slim build to reap global success.
Under the silver-haired Beasley, who joined the team in 2006 as Ng's coach after training a clutch of Australians onto Olympic podiums, Malaysia's top riders have shifted up a gear, transformed from Asia's easy-beats to tyrants.
Soccer remains the country's passion, while badminton remains the only sport to reap Olympic medals, but cycling has become its highest achiever in terms of international results.
Sprinter Rizal Tisin clinched bronze in the men's kilometre time trial at the 2009 world championships in Pruzskow, Poland, to announce the country's arrival before then-21-year-old Azizul stunned the field by pushing powerful French sprinter Gregory Bauge all the way in the sprint final.
The success has seen authorities and local sponsors falling over themselves to back the team's London campaign, handing Beasley carte blanche to prepare his charges in Melbourne, where facilities and technology are world class.
'ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN'
Beasley has 11 Malaysian riders under his instruction in Australia's second city, including a clutch of talented juniors hand-picked for the next Olympic cycle leading into the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
For the immediate task at hand, however, the coach rates 23-year-old Fatehah a dark horse and definite medal contender in her debut at London.
But Beasley is at his most animated when talking of Azizul's chances in his second Games, despite his modest showing at April's world championships in Melbourne.
Malaysia's flag-bearer at Beijing, Azizul crashed out of the first round in the sprint and finished ninth in the keirin as he continued his slow comeback from a serious knee injury that sidelined him for several months in the second half of 2011.
"I think Azizul is ready to step up," said Beasley. "He wants gold obviously, so he'll be disappointed if he doesn't get it. If he makes the final, anything can happen."
The team's success has seen an explosion in registered cyclists in Malaysia, which have soared from about 200 when Beasley joined the national fold to more than 7,000, he said.
Cycling power Australia, by comparison, has about 20,000 registered riders competing across track and road formats.
"It's exploding, it's a matter of the sport needing to keep up with the explosion," said Beasley.
Local sports authorities have grand ambitions and have modelled Malaysia's elite training architecture on Australia's vaunted Institute of Sports system.
A flat bitumen track is under construction in the southern state of Malacca, with plans for another two velodromes in the country's north.
But sports science programmes and high performance training for coaches still lag, and Beasley complains that the local federation has yet to organise regular track meetings to push grass-roots development.
"We've certainly put cycling on the map over there and it's a lot more attractive for young kids to get involved," he said. "But there are a lot of areas we need to tackle.
"The authorities are trying to make sport part of the culture like Australia. It'll take one or two generations but they've come a long way in a short time."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)