A Teaching Moment at the Singapore Sports Museum
A Teaching Moment at the Singapore Sports Museum

Canagasabai Kunalan strolled through the Singapore Sports Museum, walking his guest through Singapore’s greatest sporting achievements, explaining the history with enthusiasm, with the skills honed over decades as a teacher.

But C. Kunalan was more than just a teacher. As we walked through the corridors, passers-by would recognize the fit, elderly gentleman as the man who held the title, Singapore’s fastest, for decades. In fact, Kunalan had held at different points the fastest marks in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters in Singapore track history.

It was 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, when Kunalan set the Singapore record for 100 meters, a mark that stood for 33 years.

Jim Hines set the world record in the 100-meters in Mexico City with a time of 9.95, considerably faster than Kunalan’s 10.38. But when you think about it purely from a statistical perspective, Singapore had a tiny talent pool. The population of Singapore in 1968 was 2 million, only 1% of the entire US population, and roughly the same population of Hines’ state of Arkansas that year.

C Kunalan in Mexico City_2
Kunalan finishing third (719) in a 100-meter heat to advance. Eventual gold winner Jim Hines strolls into the finish.

Kunalan defied the odds, advancing beyond the first round at the Mexico City Games to be recognized as one of the top 32 fastest men in the world. And if you know the history of Southeast Asia in the 1960s, you know that in 1968, Singapore was only in its third year as a sovereign nation. It wasn’t clear until the last days before departing Singapore whether Kunalan had the funds to even travel to Mexico.

In the end, Kunalan made it to Mexico City, and he was there to compete. But he knew, as a sprinter, he and his teammates were significantly behind those in the advanced industrial economies, or in the nations under the flag or influence of the Soviet Union. In his biography, C. Kunalan – Singapore’s Greatest Track and Field Athlete, written by Steven Quek, a one-time colleague of his in the National Institute of Education, Quek explains how support and role modeling by others contributed to his development.

At the Mexico City Olympics Kunalan recalled simple but powerful gestures: USA Assistant Track Coach Stan Wright offering Kunalan the use of Team USA’s masseurs for a pre-competition rub down, or Bahaman sprinter Tom Robinson coming up to Kunalan to suggest that the Singaporean be aware that he was exerting too much effort into the first 20 meters of his sprint, when he should in fact be conscious of staying relaxed. “Tom, a world-class athlete, was willingly sharing advice with an unknown from Asia. Kunalan never forgot this.”

After Kunalan’s competitions ended, he was then able to watch the very best athletes in the world demonstrate the highest levels of physical achievement:

Ever the teacher, Kunalan understood that for Singapore athletes to succeed internationally, to reach the world-class levels on display at the Olympics, their training must improve, as he explained in a letter to his wife:

We must get very serious about training. There are about 6 short men all doing 10 or 10.1. Why? Arms and legs big!! Mine only 1/2. You know darling! If I can get their strength, I will be doing 10 sec too.

C Kunalan in Mexico City_1
C, Kunalan in Mexico City

Kunalan would retire from track in 1970, but would go on to become one of Singapore’s most successful primary and secondary school teachers, twice being recognized as “Teacher of the Year”. He currently works for the Singapore Sports Council, in offices near the Singapore Sports Museum.

Maybe you’ll be lucky to see him there, get a tour like I did, and learn from a man who has literally lived the history of Singapore sports.

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Mel Pender_100 meter_1968
Mel Pender starting strong in 100-meter finals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics_from the collection of Mel Pender

I cannot explain why I came in sixth place in the 1968 Olympics when the 100 meters was my best event. I could have won that race, and thought I should have. My start was great! I was out in front, but it was like I lost all my momentum and fell way behind.

So wrote Mel Pender in regards to his 100-meter finals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, as described in his autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story. In fact, 1968 was in one respect a repeat of 1964 – a sixth place finish in the 100-meter finals. As Pender is painfully aware, there is no acclaim for the Sixth Fastest Man in the World.

But one significant difference between 1968 and 1964 was that at the Tokyo Olympics, Pender was running with a torn muscle in his ribcage, and was hospitalized after the individual 100 meters. In 1968, Pender had one more chance for a medal, as a member of the 4×100 meter relay team. And yet, while he was officially penciled in as the runner of the second leg, there was talk not only of replacing the injured lead-off man, Charlie Greene, but also Pender because of his age and his sixth-place finish in the individual finals.

Ronnie Ray Smith, Mel Pender, Charlie Greene, Jimmy Hines
Ronnie Ray Smith, Mel Pender, Charlie Greene, Jimmy Hines

And then there was the tension of race on Team USA. On October 16, Tommie Smith and John Carlos took first and third place in the 200-meter finals, and more famously, bowed their heads and lifted their fists in protest on the medal stand as the American anthem played. Their silent plea for equality and justice for Blacks in America created in an uproar in Mexico City and around the world. The IOC president, Avery Brundage, banned Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Village, and thus the Games.

As Pender recalled in his autobiography, Brundage “referred to black male athletes as boys. ‘If those boys act up, I’m going to send them homeā€¦’ was what he said publicly and privately. When the black athletes heard about this, it was more than we could stand. Remember, in April of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Tennessee.”

Members of the US track team, particularly black athletes, with the support of their head coach, Stan Wright, protested Brundage’s decision. But Pender, and other members of the US military had an extra burden, told in no uncertain terms that they “could not be part of the demonstrations based on the oath of service we took.”

Ronnie Ray Smith, Mel Pender, Charlie Greene, Jimmy Hines_2

So, for Pender, Mexico City was not just a sports event, and the 4×100 meter relay was not just a race. It was to Pender, perhaps, an expression of hope, an opportunity to shine a spotlight of achievement for black Americans, and a shot at redemption for the five-foot-five man from Lynnwood Park. The 4×100 relay, an event of immense speed that requires split-second precision in the baton hand offs, was America’s to win or lose.

I took my position on the oval track, awaiting the baton from leadoff man Charlie Greene. Charley ran the first leg, and when he handed the baton to me, we were trailing a bit. Passing the baton was clean. I was in a good Lane; I think was the third lane. It was without those curves that you made you feel like you’re running sideways. I ran the second leg, which proved to be the fastest of the four, and gave our team the lead. When I pass the baton to Ronnie Ray, he did his job, and we maintained the lead. When Ronnie Ray handed off the baton, Jim Hines brought it home.

Greene, Pender, Ray and Hines set a new world record of 38.24 seconds.

 

Mel Pender_1968
Mel Pender_Olympic Trials 1968

When Mel Pender passed the baton to Ronnie Ray Smith, Pender had done his job. He was a captain in the US Army, and a reliable leader. And that’s what he did. He put his team in the lead, and his teammates did the rest. Pender, with Charlie Greene, Ray and Jim Hines, won the gold medal in the 4×100 meter relay at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. With a time of 38.24 seconds, the Americans set a world record.

Pender’s close friend, Greene, was 23 years old. Ray was the kid at 19. Hines was 22. But Pender was nearly 31 when he finally won his gold medal, an old man by sprinter’s standards. While many athletes in the United States who approach world-class speeds got their start in track in high school or earlier, Pender never got those opportunities, growing up economically disadvantaged in Lynnwood Park, a community in Decatur, Georgia.

The first time Pender ever ran competitively was at the age of 25, in Okinawa of all places. It was 1960, and Pender had been sent to the American army base in the western-most islands of the Japanese archipelago. When officers noticed the speedy halfback on the Army Ranger football team, one of them ordered Pender to participate in a friendly competition between the American military and Japanese athletes training for the Olympics.

As Pender explained in his recently released autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story, he hadn’t a clue. “Coach, what are you talking about? Run track? I asked. I never ran track in my life! I wouldn’t know the first thing to do? I continued.” Pender writes that when he first saw track shoes for the first time, with the long spikes and the flapping tongue, he thought they were “ugly, ugly, ugly.”

Mel Pender_Winning his first race
Mel Pender winning his first race in Okinawa_from the personal collection of Mel Pender

 

But that was the beginning of a new life for then Sgt Pender, who would go on to compete at both the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games.

According to Mexico City teammate and 200-meter bronze medalist John Carlos, what Pender accomplished was “phenomenal”.

For him to do what he did at his age was exceptional! Mel was twenty-seven years old in 1964 and thirty-one in 1968. The competition we faced then was beyond world class, and everything he received is very much deserving. I was twenty, I think. We ran against each other in meets, and with each other in meets, all over the world. I don’t know of many, or anyone, who accomplished what he did in that day and time in history.

Mel Pender_Winning his first race 2
The fruits of Pender’s first race victory in Okinawa_from the personal collection of Mel Pender.