Local hero: C Kunalan, 70, retired athlete

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Now a spokesperson for the 45-65: Liberation, Unrest… a New Nation exhibition at the National Museum, Canagasabai Kunalan, is widely regarded as Singapore's greatest ever athlete. He sits down with Ashika Wong and looks back at his career with his wife, also a former national sprinter.

First published on 27 Jul 2012. Updated on 27 Jul 2012.

Canagasabai Kunalan is widely regarded as Singapore’s greatest ever athlete, competing in sprinting events at two Olympic and Commonwealth Games. A footballer-turned-athlete, at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City he ran the 100m in 10.38 seconds, a national record that stood until 2001. He also twice missed out on a gold medal in the Asian Games by just 0.01sec. Now a spokesperson for the 45-65: Liberation, Unrest… a New Nation exhibition at the National Museum, he looks back at his career with his wife Elizabeth Choong Yong Yin, also a former national sprinter.

How did you both get involved with competitive sports?
Elizabeth and I didn’t come from sporty families. She represented her school athletics team before joining the sports club at the Teachers’ Training College in 1962. I came into sports late at 20. I was playing football for the Teachers’ Union when the national athletics coach noticed me running and said, ‘Your legs move very fast.’ We joined the SWIFTS athletes association at TTC – it was a unique thing in the ’60s to join a sports club that had proper coaches. After Elizabeth stopped competing in 1966 to raise our kids, I continued running at the Asian Games, SEA Games and Olympics until 1979. When I pulled a hamstring muscle at the SEA Games in Indonesia, that was the end of competitive sports for me – you have to realise when you’re too old to go on.

What’s been your greatest achievement?
Getting married! [Laughs.] Sport gave me benefits and rewards, but meeting Elizabeth in 1963, close to the racial riots and curfews of the time, it was hard. We received objections from both sides of the family and were given ultimatums, though we continued dating. Once, we were escorted home after a date at Mount Faber, because we were out past the curfew hours. We didn’t know! Against the odds, though, we got married in 1966, and here we are.

What was it like to pursue a sporting career in Singapore?
There were very few sporting fields or tracks to train back then. [Drinks company] Fraser and Neave had a sporting hall and field for their employees and corporate activities, and allowed schools to use it. We also trained at a single cinder track at Farrer Park. It was bad if you fell. They improved the tracks to bitumen before the rubberised tracks in 1973. There were also not many professional coaches – all the coaches were teachers. Coaching wasn’t a low-paid job; it was a non-paid job! But back in the day when coaches didn’t know sport science, they had instinct and experience, along with colour-coded planners and training schedules. Right now, academic pressure gets in the way for many potential athletes. It isn’t the athletes’ fault, nor their parents’. It should be the country’s effort to groom our athletes. Athletes need time for training and recovery.

By Ashika Wong
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