Tears roll down at Swift Athletes Association (SAA) 70th anniversary bash

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Suresh Nair

FRIDAY’S nostalgic get-together of track and field greats from the 1960s downwards for the Swift Athletes Association (SAA) 70th anniversary bash at a Toa Payoh seafood restaurant was one of the most tear-jerking sporting moments.

Seldom have I ever seen an awesome array of star-spangled athletes lined-up to celebrate the oldest athletics club in town, hailed as the “Manchester United” of Singapore track and field.

Yeah, I teared, too, as it brought back memories of yesteryears which I’ve always cherished. A “Who’s Who” of running celebrities from Olympians to award-winning athletes and even the younger crop of runners, in inspiring scenes that probably replicate Singapore’s version of “Chariots of Fire”.

What an evening of nostalgia and entertainment as some even got on to the stage to showcase their singing talents, like 1960s sprint hurdling champion Osman Merican and football legend of “Kallang Roar” fame Sockalingam “The Camel” Rajagopal.

“It’s a rarity to come to an event and meet your running mates, some of whom you’ve not met for probably 30 to 40 years. It’s tear-jerking  as we exchanged notes and sometimes even wondered how we’ve changed physically, mentally and socially,” says Natahar Bava, 72, the award-winning rugby coach, who was SNOC ‘Coach of the Year’ and also a SEAP Games medal-winning sprinter and relay-quartet runner.

I felt Friday’s event was like a beacon of long-overdue hope as the Swift stalwarts exchanged notes, clicked plenty of selfies, laughed and merry-made over seafood dinner and spoke of the triumphant era of the 1960s and 70s, when Singapore produced its best medal-winning regional athletes.

GRASS SURFACES

Track and field in those days after the post-war era from the 1950s were not on state-of-the-art grounds with the norm being grass or cinder surfaces, at Jalan Besar Stadium, Victoria School, Raffles Institution and St Joseph’s Institution or even on the SRC or SCC Padang, and later on the bitumen track at Farrer Park Athletic Centre.

Today, from Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic games, the track is colourfully in blue!  Mondo, the company in charge of the design and installation of the track, employed nanotechnology to change the molecular make of the track surface for it to sustain extreme use from the world’s top athletes.

Credit for the organisational success of ‘SAA: 70’must go to the 70-year-old SAA President Loh Lin Kok, who has extraordinarily led the club for 44 years (and also served as Singapore Athletics Association President from the 1980s) and organising chairman Sarvinder Singh Chopra, a rare breed of sportsmen who donned regional colours for athletics, weightlifting and judo.

Loh, who is reveredly addressed as “Mr SAA”, said it was important for athletes to celebrate the club’s rich heritage and the values passed down by the pioneers. He says: “This SAA 70 bash is an opportunity to look back on the vision and hard work of previous generations who have made a difference to the Swift AA story.”

I remember Loh, a middle-distancer in the 1960s, for his outspoken personality that sometimes put him at odds with officials and even athletes. He was like football’s Nadesan Ganesan aka “Mr Kallang Roar”, who always enjoyed massive grassroots support because he spoke with extraordinary pride and passion.

GOOD ‘OLE MEMORIES

Sarvinder Singh, in his welcome address, recollected the “meeting so many familiar faces here tonight which brings back the fond memories of our good ole Farrer Park days”.

“It was at Farrer Park that I started my journey and love with track and field as a discus thrower,” he says. “I used to see most of you like C. Kunalan, Yeo Kian Chye, Glory Barnabas, Sheila Fernando,  Mirza Namazi, Major Singh, Avtar Singh, P.C. Suppiah,  K.  Jayamani pounding the track . Wong Chong Sai on the pole vault and Noh Azhar on the high jump. Leslie Sheperdson a specialist in the triple jump and (the late) Lim Boot Hian on the long jump.

“These athletes truly propagated the Swift AA motto: Faster, Higher and Further. We produced, like Manchester United, the very best. These athletes sacrificed the comfort of their homes just for the want to excel. No monetary gains as rewards. Only the mind set of wanting to succeed. I have seen these athletes stay in the changing room of Farrer Park which was converted into a dormitory for centralised training. This is truly admirable.”

POIGNANT MOMENTS

The most poignant moments were a number of long-distance congratulatory video messages, particularly from former Asia’s ‘Fastest Man’ Dr Mani Jegathesan from Malaysia. The “Flying Doctor”, who won three gold medals at the 1966 Asian Games in Bangkok at 100m, 200m and 400m, praised SAA for the early sporting guidance when he was studying at the University of Singapore in the late 1950s.

“I rose because of the camaraderie of Swift AA and leadership educators like (the late) Tan Eng Yoon, who was instrumental in my sprinting success,” says Jega, who went on to be the first Malaysian to qualify for the 1966 Commonwealth Games 220-yard (now 200m) final. He also competed in three Olympics at Rome (1960), Tokyo (1964) and Mexico (1968).

Many brought nostalgic photos of yesteryears, in their high-tech mobile devices, to share the never-to-be-forgotten memories when Singapore reigned as one of Asean’s leading track and field powers.

I relished as I watched older members tremble with delight as they looked through the memorabilia, painstakingly collected by the organisers. Old articles, photos, trophies, letters, gathered the attention of those who attended the gala bash.

From the role-model Olympian sprinters Canagasabai Kunalan, Yeo Kian Chye, Kesavan Soon, a 18-year-old schoolboy at Melbourne (1958) Games and long-distance champion P C Suppiah, who ran bare-footed at the 1972 West Germany Olympic Games. There was the super-active Glory Barnabas, now President of Singapore Masters Athletics (SMA), who was part of Singapore’s track and field “golden generation” that won numerous medals at the SEAP Games from 1965 to 1975.

Her list of career achievements includes two gold, three silver and three bronze medals at the SEAP Games in 1967, 1969 and 1973. She also clinched a 4x100m relay silver at the 1970 Bangkok Asian Games before her final triumph at the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran, where she won a silver and bronze in the 4x400m and 4x100m relays, respectively.

Glory and Maimoon Abu Bakar spoke with pride how the national women’s 4x400m relay record of 3min 43.85sec set in Tehran in 1974 by the two, together with Lee Tai Jong and Chee Swee Lee. still remains unbroken after 43 years.

RACE-WALKING CHAMPION

And the debonair-looking 56-year-old mother of three Komathi Jayaraman, a late-starting race-walking champion, who won a gold medal at the World Masters Athletics Championship Indoor in Daegu, South Korea, in March this year. And mind you, she’s in a demanding and highly technical sport where she has been a late-starter and seriously engaged in this activity for the past 16 years.

Conspiciously missing was legendary track coach Maurice Nicholas, 86, who started coaching in 1959 and won SNOC ‘Coach of the Year’ in 1972 for inspiring P.C. Suppiah and Kandasamy Jayamani, both named ‘Sportsman of the Year’ and ‘Sportswoman of the Year’ respectively. He was away on a working visit to Jordan for the IAAF (International Amateur Athletics Federation), which he continues to serve from 1981.

The oldest was probably long-distance kingpin Parameswaran Pillai, in his mid-70s, who was hardly recognisable as he was one of the fittest and slimmest athletes half-century ago. “I’ve not met some of my colleagues for close to 50 years, and I felt like crying,” he says. “This is an unbelievable occasion to cherish and to reunite and talk of the precious running era of a special generation.”

Barnabas brought her daughter Jennifer. Likewise, Maimoon with her sexy daughter Sherlyn. But neither followed the running heroics of their famous mothers, preferring to concentrate on career and family in a modern-day era of the academic “paper chase”.

“Perhaps it’s a choice of changing sacrifices, the younger generation now have their own priorities,” says Barnabas, who remembers when she joined the national team in the 1960s, training regularly against the wishes of her strict mother, who wanted her to stay home like a “good Indian girl”. She adds: “But few can ever emulate the blood, sweat and tears we endured in the 1960s and 70s, with hardly any monetary rewards for motivation.”

Track author Ivan Goh even brought along his book “Lasting Strides” which recounts the story of athletics in Singapore and dedicated to his heroic late father Goh Teck Phuan (1921-2006), a founder and coach of Swift AA in the 1940s and 50s. The late Goh was the first sports promotion officer in the 1960s at the-then Ministry of Social Affairs during which he organised the Singapore Grand Prix, Pesta Sukan, World Cup Golf as well as umpteen regional sporting events.

THE ROAD MAP

“I want to share this book to use my late dad’s life as a value-added road map in each decade to bring out the highpoints of dedicated athletes and officials,” says the younger Goh. “These are the many unsung heroes and heroines that we pay tribute in the book and I hope to give this book to all schools, libraries and public institutions so that our young will become more aware of some of the legendary home-grown athletes.”

Thank you, Swift AA, for cherishing Singapore athletics and hosting the 70th anniversary bash, and advocating the club’s motto, “Faster, Higher, Further” which even continues to fire the younger generation, even at this year’s SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur  where 30-year-old Michelle Sng clinched the gold medal for high jump – the first Singaporean woman to be crowned the high jump champion at the SEA Games since 1965.

Friday’s event goes to poignantly remind the younger generation of the legendary trail-blazers, who competed with passion to reach regional and international stage, right to the cauldrons of the Olympic Games.

Swift continues to be a blessed Made-in-Singapore club, genuinely preaching the official Olympic motto, which is taken from the Latin “Citius, altius, fortius” – which means “Faster, higher, stronger”. It was proposed by the man considered the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, on the creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894.

In the words of Sarvinder Singh Chopra: “Swift AA is here to stay…such history and culture other clubs can only talk and dream about. For the young athletes, I can only say you have to dream big and live your dream.”

YOUNGER GENERATION

His symbolic parting words to the younger generation: “Swift’s legacy is to aim for the sky and you will possibly achieve some success.  There is much to be learnt from these past icons here. They are all legends…and you can be one, too, if you offer the same ‘blood, sweat and tears’.”

As I left the celebrity SAA dinner I’m reminded by these spiritual sporting words: Running is about going forward. When you are running to compete, you are not running away from someone or something, you are running towards a goal. Although most people think that the goal is simply to win, we must feel that this quote from Pinterest perfectly embodies the goal of a competitive runner.

Remember, folks: Running is about growing stronger and faster. It’s about not letting anything hold you back. This is Swift Athletes Association (SAA).

  • Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who covered track and field from the late 1970s, for the stable of SPH (Singapore Press Holdings) newspapers, watching athletes run on grass, cinder, bitumen and now mondo tracks.