Sports Guide

Singapore's 10 greatest Olympic moments

By Kurt GanapathyEvents - 27 July 2012 2:35 PM | Updated 30 July 2012

Singapore's 10 greatest Olympic moments

From the early days where our sporting pioneers competed under the British flag, to the golden years of the '60s and '70s, through to the present, Singaporean Olympians have followed the flame in search of glory. Though only a few have stepped up on the podium, our Olympic history is filled with stories of perseverance, adventure and triumph in the face of adversity. As Team Singapore prepares for another outing in London, we revisit the giants on whose shoulders they stand.


lloyd valberg
Lloyd Valberg. Photo: SNOC

10. Lloyd Valberg becomes the first Singaporean Olympian in 1948

It's been 64 years since London last held the Games, and by coincidence, 64 years since Singapore's Olympic story began. As the world emerged from the ashes of World War II, the honour of being the first athlete to compete for the then British colony fell to a 26-year-old firefighter named Lloyd Valberg.

A hurdler and jumper who broke the national record for the high jump the year before, Valberg made it to the 1948 Olympics without a coach or even access to proper equipment for training. He marched at the opening ceremony as part of the smallest team present ― just himself and his captain.

Competing in the high jump while nursing an injury and adapting to the weather and massive crowds at Wembley Stadium, Valberg's best effort measured 1.8m, placing him 14th in a field of 20. He would go on to claim a medal at the 1st Asian Games in New Delhi in 1951, a bronze in the 110m hurdles which was won by compatriot Ng Liang Cheng. Our first Olympic hero retired to a town outside Perth where he passed away in 1997.

 

Tang Pui Wah
Tang Pui Wah. Photo: Lastingstrides.com

9. Tang Pui Wah blazes the trail for Singapore's women athletes in 1952 

With Valberg setting the stage for all Singaporean athletes, our ladies wouldn't have to wait too long for their time to shine. Fresh from a three gold medal haul at the 1951 Malayan Amateur Athletic Association meet and a respectable fourth place finish in the 80m hurdles at the 1st Asian Games that same year, Tang Pui Wah became Singapore's first female Olympian at the Helsinki games in 1952.

The 19-year-old Tang competed in the 100m and the 80m hurdles and, though she did not progress past her heats, would lead the way for future track queens. Janet Jesudason and Mary Klass emulated her feat in qualifying for the Olympics four years later, while the likes of Glory Barnabas, Heather Siddons, K. Jayamani and Chee Swee Lee would eventually strike gold at the SEA Games and Asian Games in the early 1970s. Tang herself went on to win the bronze in the 80m hurdles at the 1954 Asian Games in Manila, before settling down to life as a homemaker.

 

men's hockey
Singapore vs US 1956. Photo: WikiMedia Commons

8. The men's hockey team holds its own in Melbourne

1956 was a big year for Singapore in terms of team sports, with basketball, water polo and hockey being represented at the Melbourne Games. The basketballers were swiftly dismissed and the water polo team ― Asian Games gold medallists in 1954 ― lost all its matches, but on the hockey pitch, things went differently.

Singapore started brightly, thrashing the United States 6-1 before continuing their good form with a 5-0 drubbing of Afghanistan. With everything to play for, they then took on the might of India in their final group game. The Indians were gunning for their sixth consecutive gold medal and had already mauled the Americans and Afghans with an aggregate score of 30-0, so Singapore didn't stand a realistic chance of winning.

They did however restrict them to a 6-0 victory, only missing out on the semi-finals as a result of a peculiar seeding system. India would go on to win the gold without conceding a single goal as Singapore eventually finished eighth out of 12 teams.

 

P. C. Suppiah
P. C. Suppiah. Photo: Lastingstrides.com

7. P. C. Suppiah runs the 10,000m in Munich barefoot

At the SEAP Games (now known as the SEA Games) in 1971, a 22-year-old runner from Singapore won the 10,000m in a dramatic last lap finish, overcoming his opponent's 70m advantage to reign supreme.

A year later, P. C. Suppiah found himself at the 1972 Olympic Games. Lining up against future world record holders Emiel Puttemans of Belgium and David Bedford of Great Britain, Suppiah became the first Singaporean to complete the 10,000m in under 32 minutes; a stunning achievement, considering he ran the race without shoes.

Suppiah had been unable to afford proper footwear in earlier years, and he believed that he could run faster barefoot. He bettered his timing in 1973 with a run of 31 minutes and 19 seconds and it is the oldest track and field national record that still stands today.

 


Ronald Susilo. Photo: ronaldsusilo.com.sg

6. Ronald Susilo shocks the World Number 1 in Athens

Born in Jakarta, but a resident of Singapore since he arrived at the age of 14 for his studies, shuttler Ronald Susilo achieved the unthinkable at the 2004 Games. Susilo had won the Thailand and Japan Opens while reaching the semi-finals of the All England Open Badminton Championships in the 12 months before, but he faced a daunting opponent in the first round ― World Number 1 Lin Dan of China.

Widely regarded today as the greatest badminton player of all time, Lin Dan had already been tipped for stardom as he arrived at the games fresh from China's Thomas Cup success and his maiden All England win. In a battle for the ages, Susilo raced ahead in the first set to lead 10-5 before Lin reeled him in. Outwitting his higher-ranked opponent, Susilo pulled away again to win the first set 15-12. Lin threatened to turn the tie on its head in the second set but the Singaporean capitalized on his unforced errors to win 15-10 and cement his place in our sporting history.

Susilo's fairytale run continued as he beat Germany's Björn Joppien in straight sets in the round of 16 before he fell to Thailand's Boonsak Ponsana in the quarter-finals. Ronald Susilo was named Sportsman of the Year in 2005 and today is still active in the sport as a coach.

 

5. Tao Li qualifies for the 100m butterfly final in Beijing

Tao Li. Photo: Andrew JK Tan / WikiMedia Commons

A prodigious talent deemed not good enough to make China's national swimming team, Tao Li came to Singapore as a 13-year-old barely capable of speaking English. She quickly announced her arrival with three golds at the 2005 SEA Games.

In 2006, she reached three finals at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne before claiming the gold in the 50m butterfly at the Asian Games in Doha. In early 2007 she became the first Singaporean to reach a final at the FINA World Championships. Despite those successes, Tao Li was seen as an outsider in Beijing until she won her heat and finished third in her semi-final with the fourth fastest time overall.

With that, she became the first ever Singaporean to qualify for an Olympic swimming final. Tao Li was unable to build on her earlier performances, finishing fifth behind winner Lisbeth Trickett of Australia, but her accomplishment may well signify the beginning of another golden age in the pool for Singapore. 

 

4. Singapore's paddlers win the country's second Olympic medal in 2008

There are few issues that divide Singaporean sports fans more than the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme. Opponents suggest that it's all about the money, that sporting glory cannot be bought and that if countries with similar or smaller population sizes like New Zealand, Croatia and Jamaica can win with home-grown athletes, we should be able to as well.

On the other hand, supporters point to Singapore's history as a nation of immigrants, the desire of these athletes to compete for the country and that the scheme is only meant to be a foundation for future success. Whichever side you stand on, the silver medals brought home by Li Jiawei, Feng Tianwei and Wang Yuegu drew huge media attention and sparked conversations about sport on every street corner.

That's perhaps the best way to look at this moment. The team's success may well have inspired a generation of young talents to pursue their sporting dreams with the knowledge that it can be a legitimate career path. And whether or not people really supported the team, countless TV sets across the island were tuned in to the broadcast that day in August to see if history would be made. For the first time in a generation, we watched a Singapore flag raised at the Olympics, and experienced the greatest part of the Games ― its ability to unite people. 


C. Kunalan
C. Kunalan. Photo: Lastingstrides.com

3. C. Kunalan breaks the national record for the 100m in Mexico City

Growing up near Gillman Barracks, C. Kunalan honed his athletic talent at an early age, literally running errands for his family and timing himself with a wall clock. A keen footballer, his ability caught the attention of the already accomplished sprinter Tan Eng Yoon. A successful Asian Games campaign soon followed, where Kunalan finished second in the 100m to the great Malaysian sprinter M. Jegathesen in a photo finish. Two years later, he headed to the 1968 Olympic Games.

In the first round of the century sprint, he finished third in his heat with a time of 10.47s and returned later in the day for the quarter finals. Though Kunalan himself believes that he didn't start or finish well enough, and that the morning race had taken a lot out of him, he broke the national record with a time of 10.38s, finishing just outside the qualification spots for the semi-finals in a quick heat won by eventual bronze medallist Charlie Greene. His record stood for 33 years, and even when it was broken, it was only eclipsed by 0.01s. Kunalan would get his gold, three of them in fact, as he won the hattrick of 100m, 200m and the 4x400m at the 1969 SEA Games. Today he is as much loved for his sporting achievements as he is for being the embodiment of all the Olympic ideals.

 

Ang Peng Siong
Ang Peng Siong. Photo: SSC

2. Ang Peng Siong wins the B final of the Men's 100m freestyle in Los Angeles

For this king of the pool, 1984 will forever be remembered as a case of what might have been. At the US Nationals in 1982, Ang Peng Siong had blitzed the rest of the world in the 50m freestyle, recording the fastest time of the year with an effort of 22.69s.

Unfortunately for Ang, and for the Republic, the 50m freestyle was not an Olympic event in 1984. Still, he'd won the gold in the 100m at the preceding Asian Games and great things were expected of him at the same event in Los Angeles. Ang performed admirably, just missing out on the top eight, but qualifying for the consolation, or “B”, final. Ang dominated the B final, winning with a time of 51.09s to claim ninth place overall out of 68 swimmers.

Four years later in Seoul, the 50m was finally included in the Olympic calendar, and Ang had his chance. Though once again approaching the speeds of the world's fastest, Ang could not repeat his 22.69s best of six years earlier, a timing that would have won him the bronze. He ultimately finished third in the B final for 11th place overall. Ang is still a revered figure and is an ever-present face on the sporting scene. 


1. Tan Howe Liang wins Singapore's first ever Olympic medal in 1960

After 64 years, there still remains only one moment that can truly stand as Singapore's greatest at the Olympics. As any Singaporean kid would have learnt in school, Tan Howe Liang was one of our first national sporting heroes. Competing in the lightweight category in Rome, Tan raised 380kg in total to claim the silver, his achievement made all the more remarkable by his singular route to success.

Born in 1933, one of seven children in a family from Shantou, China, Tan lost his father at a young age and never completed school. He paid for his own training while holding jobs as a clerk and a mechanic, often forgoing meals in the process. Tan came close to withdrawing from the contest after sustaining an injury during his first lift but he rejected medical advice and carried on, beating 33 other competitors for what would be Singapore's only medal for 48 years.

Now, half a century on, he remains an icon, but one who perhaps has not truly been appreciated. Tan has spent most of the years since then as a gym supervisor. He is, after all, a champion who competed before the days of financial incentives; he simply fought for pride, honour and the love of sport.

 

Special Mention

Yip Pin Xiu wins gold and silver at the 2008 Paralympic Games

While the National Anthem has not yet been played at an Olympic Games, in 2008, it was heard for the first time at the Paralympic Games. Yip Pin Xiu, a then 16-year-old swimmer with muscular dystrophy, swam the 50m backstroke in the S3 category, clocking a time of 58.75s to win the gold. She also won a silver in the 50m freestyle, and broke world records in the heats for both events. Yip drew nationwide attention to disabled athletes and soon after her efforts, programs were already being put in place to support Paralympians. Four years on, Yip will soon be commencing her studies at the Singapore Management University, but not before she takes to the pool once again in London. 

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A beer enthusiast first and a writer second, Kurt Ganapathy has tried over a thousand brews from 80 countries. Some of his most memorable exploits include tackling the one-time world's strongest beer - BrewDog's 41% abv Sink The Bismarck! - and getting his name on the wall of an Irish pub in Melbourne for drinking 100 pints of Guinness (not in one sitting, of course).