“Over time, universities are investing more in their sports programs because they see the names of their universities promoted at the national stage” when they succeed in a national LIMA tournament, he said.

Gozali has his own goals. At a time when wealthier Asian countries, like Japan and China, are investing heavily in sports, Indonesia, Asia’s third most populous nation, risks falling behind. Gozali, who spent his college years in the United States, is determined to improve Indonesia’s standing, especially in badminton and soccer, far and away the nation’s two most popular sports.

“We have 250 million people, and a genius is one in a million,” Gozali said. Yet Indonesia’s men’s soccer team is ranked just 177th — out of 211 — in the world.

“I’m a statistics guy,” he lamented. “I just don’t accept that fact.”

In its first year, 2012, around 2,000 student-athletes participated in LIMA competitions. Last year, Gozali said that number was about 5,000.

But Indonesia’s challenges to fielding competitive national teams, and producing top athletes, go deeper than a lack of training and development opportunities. Cities in this fast-urbanizing nation are crowded, hot and lacking in park space, meaning that residents have few places to play, or even to exercise. Limited sidewalk space and public transit options mean Indonesians travel mainly by car and motorbike, compounding the lack of national fitness.

Gozali said he hopes the development of a sports culture may go some way to improving an even more pressing concern: the country’s disastrous state of public health. A recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health predicted that the impact of disease on Indonesia’s work force, troubled by heart and respiratory ailments and diabetes, would drain the country’s economy of $4.4 trillion over the next 20 years — far more, by percentage of economy, than in India or China.

LIMA developed from the efforts of private investors to develop university sports leagues. When LIMA was created, Gozali, its chief executive, combined the separate sports leagues into a single one, with the backing of initial investors. As a result, Gozali is expanding his sports programs into more corners of this ethnically and religiously diverse nation of 13,000 islands. This year, the LIMA badminton competition is limited to athletes from Indonesia’s central islands of Java and Bali, but next year teams from Sumatra and Sulawesi will participate, too.

Gozali, a paunchy Chinese-Indonesian with a penchant for American hamburgers, is perhaps an unlikely apostle for sports and fitness. Raised in Jakarta, he and his family fled the city in the dark of night two decades ago, during the 1998 Asian financial crisis, after rioters blaming Chinese businessmen for the downturn burned Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese areas.

Gozali finished high school in Singapore before heading to California for college. After graduating from the University of California, Irvine, he worked in banking and biotech. But after falling hard for American sports culture, he left that work to indulge his passion for athletics.

In San Francisco, Gozali began working 16-hour days, commuting from a business development job that included work with clients like the N.B.A. and the World Tennis Association to shifts as a manager of a local sports club. “Anything I could get my hands on,” he said.

In 2011, he decided to return to Jakarta, where opportunity beckoned.

Photo

Ryan Gozali, a California-educated sports executive, founded Liga Mahasiswa in Indonesia.

Credit
Kemal Jufri for The New York Times

“In America, it’s a mature sport market — I can do a good job but I won’t make much of a dent,” he said. “In Indonesia, it’s like the wild, wild West, looking for the gold rush.”

His sports league has expanded quickly. This year, Gozali negotiated a television rights contract with Metro TV, one of Indonesia’s largest broadcasters, and he said LIMA’s revenue is already about $1 million a year. The league is already profitable, he added, but he is hoping the television deal — along with ticket sales and added corporate sponsorships — will guarantee its long-term survival.

But 19 years after Gozali first fled Jakarta, tensions are rising again. Hundreds of thousands of hard-line Muslims rallied this year to oppose Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta’s first ethnic Chinese-Christian governor in decades. Basuki, accused of insulting Islam, was soundly beaten in an April election marked by anti-Christian rhetoric, before being sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy in early May. Though Indonesia remains a peaceful democracy, aspects of the political campaign, and the trial, were reminiscent of darker times.

Gozali said there are still people in the country who want Chinese-Indonesians like him to be “second-class citizens.” But he also argued that sports were one way to heal racial tensions.

The challenge, he said, provides him with a sense of purpose. “John F. Kennedy is like, ‘I’m going to put a man on the moon,’’’ he said. “My life goal is to see Indonesia qualify for the World Cup.”

On a recent Sunday, that quest placed Gozali in the stands at a South Jakarta sports complex, watching dueling college badminton teams. The match in front of him was a game with three players to a side — an innovative arrangement that he introduced, and that he hopes will speed up play and make badminton more exciting for TV audiences.

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Jakarta’s badminton stadiums are often sweltering, as all windows in the building must be closed to prevent the wind from interfering with play. Though it was just a qualifying match for the national tournament, college-age fans lined the bleachers, wiping their brows and calling out in triumph after every point won.

With extra players on each team and amateur talent everywhere, it was a long way from a world-class exhibition. But that did not matter to Gozali. For him, this remains merely the start of a long journey.

“We’re on the fifth year and the N.C.A.A. has been around 111 years,” he said. “You can cut us some slack.”

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