In 1964, there were 20 new countries participating in the Tokyo Olympic Games. Malaysia was participating for the first time, a newly formed federation that included Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo.
If there is one thing you need to know about Malaysia, it is a part of Southeast Asia, which means temperatures are high. As they say in that area, there are three seasons: Hot, Hotter and Hottest. October in Malaysia is probably in the season “hotter”, with temperatures routinely around 27-30 degrees centigrade (80 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit).
Unfortunately, on the day of the 190 kilometer road race in the Western part of Tokyo, it was rainy and cold.
The new Malaysian Olympic squad had 9 cyclists, including Hamid Supaat of Singapore, a long-distance road racer. Supaat found the conditions very difficult. “My cheeks were red. My hands were very cold. And I could see smoke coming out of mouth,” he told me. “My coach told me to stack newspapers under my shirt to keep me warm. I had never raced in that weather before. It was always hot, hot, hot for me.”
Supaat was a spry 19-year old, someone who had raced long-distance road races many times. In fact, he had participated months before in the Tour of Malaysia, winning two stages and two time trials. But nothing prepared him for the cold. And the lack of experience didn’t help either.
The Europeans were all up front, and most of the Asians were in the back. The roads were wet, so it was very slippery. In the first few kilometers, we were all in one big bundle as we entered the first climb, where the road was very narrow. A few cyclists crashed, so those in front sprang ahead, while the rest got stuck.
Supaat was fortunate that he did not fall, but he had to do quite a bit of waiting before he could pick up any speed behind the crowd. He said he remembered everyone talking in many different languages how they were stuck and couldn’t do anything. In the end, the cold, wet weather took its toll on about 25 of the 132 cyclists who failed to complete the 190-kilometer course. Supaat told me he lasted only about half the race before he bowed out.
But he said it was a great experience as he had a clear view on how the Europeans, the best in the business, ran their race: what gears they used in the climbs, how they took turns, what kind of bicycles they rode. “The Europeans were all very tall and strong,” said Supaat. “If we were motorcycles, they were 1,000cc machines, and we were 500cc.”
Supaat had similar feelings about being in Japan. As the bus took the Malaysian team from Haneda Airport to the Olympic Village, Supaat marveled at the multi-layered network of highways, the tall buildings, the billboards advertising the latest consumer technology, the trains. “My country seemed so old fashioned to me when I came to Japan,” said Supaat.
To Asians, Japan was the shining symbol of progress and possibility in 1964.
Decades later, it is Supaat’s own country Singapore, transformed from a mosquito-infested British colony into an independent modern, business and financial center at the heart of Southeast Asia, which is now the envy of much of the world.