Cover Story – Brunei’s Olympians

The Bruneian Contingent at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games pose with HRH Prince Haji Sufri Bolkiah,
President of the Brunei Darussalam National Olympic Council, in front of the Olympic Rings


We had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Maizurah Abdul Rahim, Fakhri Ismail and Jaspar Yu, the three Olympians who represented Brunei in the Rio 2016 Games. Even though it has been two months since the Olympics, they reminisced about the event just like it was yesterday. We spoke about the tension prior to their big games, the flag bearing moment when Fakhri marched into the Maracanã stadium during the opening ceremony and we even got a peek at the pictures of the superstar athletes that they rubbed shoulders with whilst there.

Having spent almost a month together in Rio, the strong bond and chemistry between the athletes was very obvious. The three of them had many personal traits in common. They were engaging, down to earth and confident. And they all adored Usain Bolt and got to take selfies with him. However, underlying their easy-going attitude; all three of them had made great sacrifices to get to their level. Throughout our conversation, it became apparent that these three are fiercely competitive and have a hunger to achieve more and to set even higher standards.

Jaspar, for example, decided to defer completing his university degree in order to train in Indonesia for a year, and subsequently spent many lonely months in Japan and Korea training at the highest level. Fakhri spoke about his strict diet with Energy Kitchen prior to the Olympics and the gruelling daily training regime (physical training in the morning, speed training in the afternoon, seven days a week). Meanwhile, Maizurah had just one year to switch gears from being a long distance runner to a 200-metre sprinter.

Photo courtesy of Fakhri Ismail, Jasper Yu & Maizurah Rahim

1) Jaspar with Tony Parker. 2) Fakhri holding the Brunei Flag proudly during the Opening Ceremony. 3) Bruneian Contingent with HRH Prince Haji Sufri Bolkiah in the Athletes’ Dining Hall. 4) Fakhri with Nickel Ashmeade. 5) Maizurah with Justin Gatlin. 6) Fakhri competing in Round 1. 7) Jaspar with Novak Djokovic. 8) Maizurah with Trayvon Bromell. 9) Fahkri with Pau Gasol. 10) Jaspar with Neymar. 11) Maizurah with Allyson Felix. 12) Fakhri with Usain Bolt. 13) Jaspar with Lin Dan

Looking back at all the hard work, these Olympians unanimously agreed that the sacrifices had been worth it for this once in a lifetime experience. This experience at the Olympics has only increased their resolve to continue trying to beat their own personal best records at future international events. Fakhri, for example, who only just returned from the Malaysia Open last week, won bronze in the 4x100m relay for Brunei; while up to a week ago Jaspar competed in Korea and will be competing in Taipei next weekend. On the other hand, Maizurah who is just 17, is continuing to prepare for her GCE O’Levels, but is already eyeing next year’s SEA games, hoping to take part in the Heptathlon.

So what does it feel like to have your dreams come true?

Jaspar described the experience vividly, as he recounted how he tried to savour the full 50 minutes of his second (and last) game. “It was a full capacity crowd in the indoor stadium. The Brazilian fans were supportive and passionate, just like you would expect them to behave when you watch a Brazilian game of football. They even shouted out my name, Jaspar! Jaspar! Brunei! Brunei! I have never experienced anything like this before and I didn’t want it to end. Even though I played a good game and had some good chances against World No 34 Pablo Abian of Spain, he was simply too good! Things went into slow motion towards the end. I was fully present in the moment, thinking about how to outdo my opponent, taking in the surroundings and appreciating the crowd. I had to hold back tears after the game, it was indeed a dream come true for me. It was really emotional.”

As for Fakhri and Maizurah, it was a completely different experience altogether, as their sprints only lasted less than half a minute. “The competition went by so fast that it was over before you could even digest what had happened. But nothing compares to running before a capacity crowd of 75,000.” Recalled Fakhri.  Incidentally, Fakhri made history for our country by becoming the first Bruneian to progress from the preliminaries to Round 1 of the Men’s 100m with a time of 10.92s; while Maizurah achieved her personal best crossing the line of the Women’s 200m in 28.02 seconds.

We invite you to read on to get a better insight into their experiences:

Photography by Riley Khoo & Greg Chin

Describe to us the experience of being a flag bearer for Brunei at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
I felt honoured being a flag bearer at the Olympics because it was a once in a lifetime experience. It was a very proud and happy moment for me to represent my country to march into a stadium full of people with the world watching and family and friends cheering at home. It is truly hard to put the experience into words, as I am still smiling thinking about it today.

At this year’s Olympics, Brunei was represented by three athletes. While we may not be at the level of medal contention, being represented in the Olympics has made the whole country proud. How has racing alongside the best runners in the world shaped you as an athlete?
I was nervous and excited. Running against world-class athletes gave me the boost to run my best even though there was a big difference in our levels. It doesn’t get better than the opportunity to run before a crowd of 70,000 people in a fully packed stadium watching you. It was almost unreal.

What was your experience like in Rio?
We spent almost a month in Rio. It was hard to adapt to the weather because it was very cold for me. On the other hand, the atmosphere encouraged me to want to wake up early to train; watch my diet; and focus only on the game. I was motivated to train much harder and to push myself even further, the way that world-class athletes train both on and off the track. A highlight for me was definitely at the dining hall, where we got to mingle with athletes from all over the world and we would sometimes run into some sports stars.

“Running against world-class athletes gave me the boost to run my best…”

Who were the famous sports stars you saw in Rio?
I saw Usain Bolt, Serena Williams, Pau Gasol, Rafael Nadal, Justin Gatlin, Yohan Blake and the list goes on. These people are larger than life on TV. When you see them in person they have the aura of champions but at the same time, they are also ordinary people. It is really hard to describe.

What were some of the events that you enjoyed watching live at the Olympics?
Definitely track and field. I enjoyed watching all my favourite athletes competing. Especially the Men’s 400m when Wayde Van Niekerk broke the world record and also my idol Usain Bolt winning the Men’s 100m.

Our neighbour, Joseph Schooling won the first Gold Medal for Singapore in the Men’s 100m Butterfly swimming event. How has this audacious achievement inspired you and the national Bruneian team?
I was surprised actually. An athlete from ASEAN winning a gold medal! It felt like Brunei had also won a gold medal. I was inspired and he proves that anyone from ASEAN can win a gold medal at the Olympics with the right amount of dedication and support from family, friends, government and private organisations.


Describe for us your experience of competing at the Olympics.
I have learned a lot from competing at the Olympics because this was my very first time competing in the biggest competition of my life.

The experience of competing with world-class athletes is a precious feeling that I will never forget for the rest of my life. It taught me how to be brave and to overcome obstacles. Competing against world-class athletes (who are much more stronger/faster than me and older than me) taught me that nothing compares to competing on this stage. I also learnt how to adapt to the weather conditions in Rio, which at that time was very cold. I am very grateful to have experienced the world’s biggest competition at my young age, as this could be useful someday for my future preparations as I still have a long journey ahead of me in order to make my dreams become reality. I also felt proud and grateful to be able to create history for my country – being the youngest female athlete from Brunei to compete at the Olympics.

How did you prepare for the Olympics?
I trained almost every day in the afternoon as I had regular classes to attend in the morning. During my preparation for the Olympics, of course there were some obstacles and there were also ups and downs. I just had to get through them no matter what – I just kept on working out and Alhamdulillah, with the support of my family, friends and people around me, I managed to get through it positively.

“The experience in Rio made me more dedicated to train smart, to dream big just like the most successful athletes do.”

Did you ever imagine being an Olympic runner before you were selected?
Yes, of course. I always imagined being an Olympic runner before being selected. I always watched YouTube videos about Olympic dreams. While watching these videos I would remind myself that someday I would be able to compete at the Olympics. I combined effort, determination and dedication in order to achieve my hopes and dreams.

How has this experience in Rio changed you?
This experience in Rio has changed me a lot especially my mindset. It made me more dedicated to train smart, to dream big just like the most successful athletes do. It also helped me in terms of having self-discipline in all aspects of my life, especially in training.

What was your most unforgettable moment?
My most unforgettable moment was being able to step onto the Olympic track and compete against world-class athletes and being able to run for the Nation.

Which games did you enjoy watching live in the audience during the Olympics?
I really enjoyed watching Athletics, especially the 100m events because Usain Bolt was there!


How has the experience of participating in this year’s Olympics helped you to raise the level of your game in badminton?
After the Olympics I felt better and stronger as an athlete. I know what I am good at and where I need to put in a lot more effort. The Olympics has made me realise that I can compete against the best players in the world at the highest level if I continue to work hard. Rio 2016 has given me a new found confidence, a new Jaspar!

What is the most important lesson that you learnt from participating in the Olympic games?
The atmosphere at the Olympics was very addictive. It is the best place to be if you’re an athlete and it will make you crave for more. I have learnt that making it into one Olympics is not enough. I am now a lot more serious and my expectations for myself to do well are a lot greater than before – all because I want to perform at the highest level again. I can’t predict the future, but if I’m in peak condition the ultimate dream will be the challenge of being at the Tokyo Games in 2020.

“I strongly believe that formal education and co-curricular activities can co-exist and it should never be used as an excuse if neither works out.”

Is playing badminton your full time job? What advice would you give to talented young individuals wanting to pursue your career path?
I was never a full time athlete. I always had to juggle school, university, work, training and tournaments abroad. Young athletes in Brunei who wish to go far in sports must be good with time management. I strongly believe that formal education and co-curricular activities can co-exist and it should never be used as an excuse if neither works out. When you’re in class, give your full attention. When you’re self-studying, make sure you learn. When you’re in training, make sure you’re focused. In this day and age, everyone is entitled and should aim to achieve excellence in both formal academics and co-curricular activities. I wish our young athletes all the very best!

Tell us about your training regime leading up to the Olympics.
Prior to the Olympics, I spent about two months in Japan training with the Yonex Badminton Team. Back in 2014, I also spent eight months in NTT East Badminton Japan so I feel very comfortable whenever I’m in Japan. I trained for about eight hours a day in Japan, a typical 9am – 5pm on weekdays and half-day during the weekends. It was very tough but never once did I think about giving up. The Japanese are known to be workaholics and are extremely disciplined people and I feel I have learnt that well. I am extremely lucky to be doing something that I enjoy and will absolutely give my 100%.

How do you see your badminton career in the future?
I am 27 years old now. Looking into the future, there will be two more major events, which I will be working really hard towards. The 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2020 Olympics. In between both major events, I expect there will be countless obstacles, big challenges and tough times to pull through. So I’m always taking it one step at a time. I will be setting realistic targets every few months and seeing how I progress every now and then. No one can see too far ahead, but having self-confidence going forward is very important and also staying very positive about the future.

This article was published in the Oct-Dec 2016 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!