KUALA LUMPUR, July 21 — Malaysian athletes hunting for the country’s first ever Olympics gold in Tokyo have to grapple with their own set of challenges in badminton, track cycling and diving, the three sports Malaysia are banking on for glory.

Former National Sports Council (MSN) director-general Datuk Seri Zolkples Embong said although Malaysia had done well in these three sports including at the last Olympics, Tokyo 2020 posed unique challenges to the athletes.

However, judging from the Covid-19-induced constraints faced by the athletes in the run-up to the Games, Zolkples feels that track cyclist Datuk Mohd Azizulhasni Awang is Malaysia’s best prospect to snatch gold.

He said that in Tokyo, Mohd Azizulhasni, 33, stands a better chance of winning in keirin than the sprint event but the 2017 world keirin champion would still find it tough against Great Britain’s Jason Kenny, who has six Olympic golds under his belt.

Zolkples said Kenny, the keirin and sprint champion in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, has extra motivation to excel in Tokyo as he tries to break the six-gold record he shares with Great Britain track cycling legend Chris Hoy.

“We also should not forget that riders from Australia, Holland, France and New Zealand can be medal contenders. So, it’s not easy but not impossible,” he told Bernama today.

Since it was reported that Mohd Azizulhasni would be riding a very expensive bicycle, the people would be eagerly waiting to see if it was worth the investment, said Zolkples, who hopes Malaysia can improve on their best ever haul of four silvers and a bronze achieved at Rio 2016.

Mohd Azizulhasni, the keirin bronze medallist in Rio, will be riding a WX-R Vorteq bicycle, the product of a RM13 million research and development project between the National Sports Institute (ISN) and TOTALSIM Ltd of the United Kingdom.

On Monday, Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Seri Reezal Merican Naina Merican set a three-medal target including a gold for the Malaysian contingent, with badminton, track cycling and diving being the medal prospects.

As for badminton, Zolkples said the Covid-19 pandemic had affected Malaysian shuttlers’ participation in international competitions while lack of information on the current form of the China team would prove to be challenging for the Malaysians in Tokyo.

Aware that All England champion Lee Zii Jia is Malaysia’s main gold medal hope in badminton, Zolkples said the 23-year-old player can expect to be severely tested in Tokyo.

“All of us are excited about Zii Jia because he won the All England, but we must not forget that the championships he won in the build-up to the Olympics did not have the participation of many top players in the world, especially from China. So we do not know their actual strength,” he added.

Zolkples said Zii Jia’s heavy duty in Tokyo would start in the group stage itself as he has to face Brice Leverdez of France, a player who can’t be taken lightly as he had beaten the great Datuk Lee Chong Wei before.

He said Malaysian divers also faced a similar problem of lack of international competitions, and their best chances would be in the synchronised events.

“This is because for synchronised events, China can field only one pair; so if they take gold, our chances for silver and bronze are there. But in individual events they are allowed to field two divers,” he said.

Zolkples hoped that the 30 Malaysian athletes participating in 27 events covering 10 sports would achieve their personal bests even if they could not win medals.

“For measurable sports, clocking their personal bests would be considered a good achievement, what more to set national records. For non-measurable sports, they should put up a strong challenge and not lose in the first round,” he said.

The Tokyo Olympics will be held from July 23 to Aug 8. — Bernama