The sporting side of Indonesia
By Joaquin Henson Updated March 01, 2009 12:00 AM
MANILA, Philippines – There’s more to sports in Indonesia than just badminton which has, by the way, delivered six Olympic gold medals for the Southeast Asian country with a seam-busting population of close to 250 million.
I found this out during a recent visit to Jakarta with a side trip to Bali. My balikbayan sisters from the US, my wife Menchu and I took the PAL non-stop evening flight to Jakarta. We got in early morning and it was a perfect time to check in at our hotel, the Atlet Century Park, without a minute’s wait.
Although badminton has been Indonesia’s Olympic gold mine since joining the Summer Games in 1952, football is undisputedly the No. 1 sport of the masses. Indonesians are in love with football as Filipinos are with basketball.
Even as Indonesia was ranked only No. 144 in the latest world football standings, it is bidding to host the World Cup in either 2018 or 2022. For the record, only two milestones in Indonesian football history stand out from an international viewpoint. In 1938, Indonesia qualified for the World Cup in France. And in 1956, Indonesia made it to the final round of the Olympics.
But alas, at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in 2007, Indonesia didn’t even qualify for the semifinals.
What is evident in Indonesia’s program for elite athletes is its focus. The Indonesian National Committee or KONI (Komite Olahraga Nasional Indonesia), headed by Agum Gumalat, is not wasting time and energy on sports where the probability of achieving success is low. The concentration is on specific sports where Indonesia has a competitive advantage. It’s no wonder Indonesia has collected its 25 Olympic medals from only three sports — badminton, weightlifting, and archery.
“Indonesia does not excel in football internationally but Indonesians love the game,” said a local sports promoter. “Politicians use football to make themselves known. The giant cigarette brand Djarum is the biggest sponsor of football. There are no real Indonesian soccer stars. But teams pay big money to bring in players from South American and Africa to play as imports. Football is the most popular sport, followed by badminton and boxing.”
Boxing is another sport where Indonesia has made some global headway. So far, Indonesia has produced five world boxing champions — Ellyas Pical in 1985, Nico Thomas in 1989, Suwito Lagola in 1995 and Muhammad Rachman and Chris John in 2004.
Luckily, our hotel was in front of the National Sports Stadium so when I found out John was training across the street, I immediately went over to meet the WBA featherweight titlist. The meeting was arranged by Indonesian sportswriter Martinez dos Santos and boxing promoter Tamuzin Rambing.
“There’s a lot of pressure on me to win,” said the 29-year-old John, a Catholic in a predominantly Muslim society. “But I’m used to the pressure. I’m Indonesia’s only world champion today and my countrymen are banking on me to make them proud. I’m proud, too, to fight for my country.”
Basketball is low on the popularity totem pole but media mogul Erick Thohir has big plans for the sport as the Southeast Asian Basketball Association (SEABA) president. Thohir, 37, owns Republika, the largest Muslim newspaper in Indonesia, and controls at least two TV networks and a large coal mining company. His family is reputedly among the top 10 richest in the country with interests in mining, media, real estate, and banking.
In an interview, Thohir mentioned that the Indonesia league currently employs two Filipino coaches, Bong Ramos in Surabaya and Boysie Zamar in Medan. There are 10 teams in the local league which runs from January to May. At the end of each year, the league organizes a tournament where rookies and free agents are invited to play on a trial basis before the next season begins.
Thohir said Jakarta will host the FIBA-Asia Champions Cup on May 12-20 and proudly pointed out that Indonesia won the last SEABA Champions Cup, a tournament which allows each team to play two imports.
“The PBA was the model we used in organizing our league,” said Thohir who recently met SBP chairman Manny V. Pangilinan during the PBA game between San Miguel Beer and Talk ‘N’ Text in Singapore.
Learning about sports in Indonesia wouldn’t be complete unless you visit the Museum Olahraga, a three-story building inaugurated in 1989 in the Taman Mini park complex. The facility stands as a monument to celebrate the history of Indonesian sports and to glorify the country’s athletic heroes.
The first floor features the Hall of Fame, an exhibit of the 1997 Mount Everest conquest by intrepid Indonesian adventurers, a photo tribute to Indonesian athletes in various sports promoting the values of Olympism, discipline, physical fitness, a sound mind and sound body, and a metal sculpture of three divers in different poses connected by suspension wires at the open center of the circular museum strung up from the upper level to the ground floor.
The second floor features individual exhibits of Indonesian achievements in several sports, a photo history of the National Games, and a display of the traditional equipment in indigenous sports. On the third floor is a display of life-sized figures depicting action in traditional sports like jumping huge rock formations in the Nias island, Pasola where horseback riders battle it out with lancers in a simulation of actual combat and a race where each entry is a rider holding the reins of two bulls.
In Bali, most tourists indulge in a variety of water sports, primarily surfing. I found the only squash facility in the Kuta district, the Discovery Kartika Hotel which has two courts. I played two straight days with a pro Nur Al-Lim. Our daughter Cristina joined us in Bali with her cousin Rica Nolasco and they actively took part in their favorite sport, shopping.
As for shopping, there are real bargains for sports enthusiasts. I got two pairs of indoor Indonesian-made playing shoes (Thomkins brand) for about P1,000 each at the Matahari Department Store and a Head microgel 450 squash racket sells about $25 less than amazon.com at Metro Sports in downtown Jakarta.
Sports in Indonesia has also come to light with the ascendancy of US President Barack Obama, a basketball-crazy weekend warrior who lived four years in Jakarta with his American mother Ann Dunham and Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro. Obama, who speaks fluent Bahasa, was six when he moved to Jakarta with his mother and her second husband. In 1971, when he was 10, Obama moved to Honolulu to live with his mother’s parents.
In just a few days in Indonesia, I found out how important sports is to a country as a source of national pride, a maker of role models and an inspiration to the youth.