Where summer never ends, Malaysians chase Winter Olympics dream

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - In the middle of a sprawling construction site in equatorial Malaysia, over a dozen young men sporting ice skates and protective gear hit the skating rink to do their morning drills.

The team, comprised of young professionals and school leavers, has been training full time over the past month as they prepare for the debut of winter sports at the biennial Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, which will be hosted by Malaysia in August.

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"This is the closest we'll get to training like a professional athlete," said Khoo Seng Chee, 31, a senior member of the team.

"We've been training 13 times a week and that's basically all we've been doing."

Having ice hockey recognized as an event at the SEA Games is a dream come true for Khoo, who has played the game since he was 14.

Like many of his peers, he taught himself how to play by watching online tutorials and mimicking moves he saw in movies like "The Mighty Ducks".

Another feature film, based on the real-life efforts of the Jamaican bobsled team to qualify for the Winter Olympics in 1988, provided some inspiration.

"When me and the guys watched the movie 'Cool Runnings', we just started bawling because we could really relate to story," Khoo said.

"We were doing exactly what they were doing."

The entry of winter sports in the SEA Games raised eyebrows when it was announced in early 2016 as none of the countries in the region have naturally occurring snow.

Winter sports are not completely unknown in Southeast Asia, however, according to Mohd Fadzli Johan, the president of the Ice Skating Association of Malaysia.

Most of the 11 countries competing in the Games are expected to send athletes for the three winter sports events - ice hockey, short-track speed skating and figure skating.

"We lobbied to include winter sports in the summer games since 2015 ... the SEA Games officials wanted more Olympic sports to be included, so we saw this as an opportunity for us," Mohd Fadzli said.

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Getting winter sports recognized in Malaysia, let alone regionally, has required years of hard selling, according to Allan Yeoh from the Malaysian Ice Hockey Federation.

The turning point came when they managed to convince a property developer to include a 30 million ringgit ($7.01 million) ice skating facility with an Olympic-sized rink in their latest project in Kuala Lumpur.

"We tried for many years to convince developers to include a proper ice skating rink in their plans, but there were no takers," said Yeoh, a former national team captain who now manages the facility.

"But we're very happy that we now have a state-of-the-art facility already completed."

With the facilities in place and increased local exposure at the SEA Games, Mohd Fadzli thinks Malaysia is getting closer to the ultimate goal of a Winter Olympics debut, perhaps even as soon as the Pyeongchang Games next year.

Malaysia's best chance is world-ranking figure skater Julian Yee, who is currently 37th on the International Skating Union men's singles ranking.

Yee, who will also be participating at the SEA Games, is hoping to qualify for Pyeongchang with a strong showing at the CS Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany in September.

Mohd Fadzli believes an Olympic debut next year could prove a watershed in the generation of interest in winter sports among young Malaysians.

"We are just one step away from the Winter Olympics," Mohd Fadzli said.