Going Gill: Singapore’s oldest Olympian walks the talk at 90

Suresh Nair

I came across a wonderful liner as I started writing this nostalgic article on Singapore’s oldest Olympian Ajit Singh Gill: “The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”

The only Singapore-Sikh Olympian turned 90 on Wednesday (March 21) and as a passionate familyman, sportsman and gentleman with awesome memories either at home, on the pitch, track or green, he intends to share the best moments of his life with close family and friends at a special Sunday lunch celebration at the Singapore Island Country Club (SICC).

Yes, muscle memory is vital in sports and lifestyle and majority of his proverbial blood, sweat and tears are captured in a family-commemorative book, ‘The Heart of an Olympian’, written by his grandson Luc Gill, 27, a crypto-currency dealer and fitness guru. The awesome-Ajit-special book will be presented to the invited guests.

A video covering the two games he played at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games (against Australia and New Zealand) as a 28-year-old and his exemplary exploits in cricket, track and golf will also be shown.

If ever you meet Ajit, on the cusp of 90, you sense something unstoppable in this bubbly former Kuala Lumpur-born educationist. There’s so much of irresistible fire in his belly that he could probably whip a golf ball or blaze the race-walks even when he hits the century mark.

“I feel like a boy!” he said recently when he took 29 minutes to complete the 3,000 metres walking race at the Singapore Masters Athletics (SMA) X-Country Run/Walk meet at MacRitchie Reservoir.

DISCIPLINED LIFESTYLE

He attributes his continuing good health to a disciplined lifestyle over 1,440 minutes every day. He wakes up at 5.30am and sleeps at 10.30pm every day. He walks and plays nine holes at the Singapore Island Country Club’s Island Course on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and covers 5,000 metres at Yio Chu Kang Stadium on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

The retired educationist, who rose to be a Vice Principal at Queenstown Secondary Technical School, eats more vegetables and less meat these days and also abstains from beer and soft drinks.

“My father used to say, ‘Work doesn’t kill you’,” said the sprightly octogenarian, who has five children, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

“My role model was my father, Milkha Singh,” he adds. “He was my best friend. A very good hearted Sikh, who taught me the values that I carry with me my life. I credit him for my performances, successes and achievements.”

Just about the time I was born, and many young Singaporeans may not know who he is, this strapping 28-year-old Ajit represented Singapore in hockey at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games as a fullback. He competed in many hockey matches against Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Belgium, Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Malaysia.

‘SPORTS IN MY BLOOD’

Talk of sports, and you see Ajit crackling like a toddler given his first toy.

He enthuses: “Sport is in my blood. From the age of four during the colonial era in Malaya and Singapore, I was involved in hockey, cricket and football,” said the Kuala Lumpur-born mathematics, English and science teacher who moved to Singapore in 1951.

Inspiring tales of Ajit, the unstoppable sportsman, has flooded newspapers, magazines and social media as he constantly talks about the importance of active living.

Although set back by some injuries (his back and shoulders sometimes
hurt), he pursues his passions with a strict disciplined approach. He is careful with his diet and destresses with his hobby of gardening at his Teachers’ Estate terrace house in Yio Chu Kang.

He has also embraced a bit of technology to help him watch his health. On his left arm is a Fitbit which shows him his heart rate, the number of steps he has walked and amount of calories burnt. He explains: “My second daughter, Shiv Gill, who is a family doctor, advised me not to let my heart rate go beyond 110 beats a minute. So, my son bought me a Fitbit. I even use this as a stop watch to time my laps when race walking.”

The most priceless sporting moment for Ajit remains the 1956 Olympic Games, which will always have a “very special place in my heart” as it was the first and only time Singapore played hockey at the world’s highest level.

“I will forever remember it as an event which brought everyone together from all walks of life. I was part of the largest Olympic contingent in the Singapore’s history,” he recalls energetically. “There were 52 of us from six different sports. Of course, it was only possible because Singapore sent out an 11-man basketball squad, an 11-man water polo team and the largest of them all – the 18-member hockey team!”

RAISING FUNDS

It was a trip of a lifetime, he says, but it almost did not happen. It cost a princely $30,000 to send the team to Melbourne and the Olympic-bound players and officials had to dig in their pockets to raise funds. Just days before the first match, a fete and funfair was organised at the Padang. Enough was raised to ensure the Australia-dream came true.

He says: “We arrived in Melbourne but some of our equipment did not. It came late. We also lacked the proper training apparel for the cold weather. The team overcame these obstacles in our way and were ready to do the country proud. Our focus was on putting in quality performances in our group games, hopefully good enough to reach the semi-finals.

“The Melbourne outing was also the last time I played hockey competitively. I’m glad to say that I enjoyed the experience in 1956 very much but more so the spirit of everyone coming together to raise money for us. It was truly special. It showcased the Singapore Olympic spirit.”

He recalls that his rip-roaring passion for sport took roots when he was a young boy playing on a little field near his childhood kampong home in Sentul, Selangor.

“Back in those days, before World War II, there were no televisions and distractions. We didn’t have money to go to cinemas…so, we started playing games,” he says. “My father encouraged us by buying some sporting equipment with whatever little money he had. Even when we didn’t have hockey balls, we would play with tennis balls.

“We learnt all sorts of sport! We formed our own teams and competed with each other. We made our own rules.”

MODEL OF SUCCESSFUL AGEING

Today, he walks tall as this ageless sportsman-gentleman is truly a role model of successful ageing.

When asked what his friends thought about his love for sport and healthy lifestyle, Ajit simply smiles, his brown eyes twinkling with pride: “Many people have told me, ‘When I’m your age, I just hope that I’m still able to walk!’”

His sincere advice to the younger generation who want to be another Ajit Singh?

“Work very hard, day and night,” he says. “Keep a healthy body and mind, do not poison your body with intoxicants, do not fill your mind with negative emotions like hate or jealousy of your fellow man. Most important, never give up, anything can be achieved with the right mindset.”

As I end my interview with Ajit, I’m reminded that no one can ever take his mighty memories of 1,080 months from him. Each day over 90 years has been a new beginning.

He simply makes good memories every day. Because memories need to be shared, the Ajit Singh Gill-way.