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Kunalan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremonies

It was the summer of 1964 and Singapore was in crisis.

Singapore’s leader, Lee Kuan Yew, had brokered a deal with the British Government and the leadership of Malaya to be included in a nation called Malaysia, established in 1963. This was not a match made in heaven. Racial tensions were part and parcel of the daily lives in the region between Singapore, which was a mixture of Indian, Malay and Chinese, but had a predominant population of ethnic Chinese, and the rest of the Malaya Federation, which was primarily Bumiputra and Islamic.

In July and September, Singapore felt the political tension born of the delicate balancing act that brought Singapore and Malaya together, and at times, the tension boiled over. Race riots broke out where shophouses were burned down, police and military were called out to restore order and enforce curfews, and people were beaten and killed.

This is the atmosphere in which athletes in Malaysia and Singapore were preparing for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Canagsabai Kunalan was a promising 21-year-old sprinter, talent spotted only a year before by the Malaysia track coach, Tan Eng Yoon. After a successful sprinting debut in 1963, Tan believed Kunalan was ready for the Tokyo Olympics, and recommended him for the 4X100 relay team, along with Mazland Hamzah, John Daukom, and Mani Jegathesan.

Tan Eng Yoon and Stan Wright with Malaysia team
3 weeks prior to Tokyo – standing: Tan Eng Yoon and Stan Wright; sitting (L to R): Kunalan, Wong Fey Wan, Kuda Ditta, M Jegathesan, and Dilbagh Singh

But the make-up of the 4X100 relay team did not sit well with Wong Fey Wan. Another talented sprinter, Wong defended his record, and called out Kunalan publicly in the press:

I beat Kunalan in the 100 m finals in the national championships in which I finished second to Jegathesan, and I beat him again in the Government Services Meet in the 100 m final on Saturday in which I finished third…. I am willing to race against Kunalan again to prove I am the better man over 100 m. If I am wrong I will quit athletics.

Coach Tan did favor Kunalan, perhaps for his work ethic, perhaps for the belief that Kunalan was stronger around the curves and a better choice as back up for the relays. Maybe Wong did not have the political support as he was self-taught and did not have the benefit of a coach lobbying his case as Tan did for Kunalan. Maybe race was influential. As explained through Kunalan’s state of mind at the time in the biography, “C. Kunalan – Singapore’s Greatest Track and Field Athlete”, Kunalan was unhappy.

Whatever the true reason for Wong’s exclusion – be it sporting or political, this incident affected Kunalan, who regarded this as “one of the saddest moments” of his running career. He never knew for sure whether he had been chosen on the basis of merit, but he wished that Wong had been chosen instead, knowing how much Wong had been looking forward to competing at the Olympic Games.

It was Kunalan instead who went to Tokyo. Just three days before his 22nd birthday, the Malaysian 4×100 team finished last in their round one heat, and that was that.

While Kunalan had no control over the make-up of the 4×100 Malaysian relay team, during a period of racial and political strife in his country, he did indeed have control over more important, personal decisions – with whom he would marry.

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Kunalan and me

Teammates in track, Kunalan first met Chong Yoong Yin, captain of the Raffles Girls School track team, and a member of the Malaysia national track team. They had track in common, but to their parents, little else. Kunalan was ethnic Indian and was brought up in the Hindu religion. When Kunalan had returned from the Tokyo Olympics and his parents realized that his relationship with the ethnic Chinese woman, Yoong Yin, was still intact, they gave their son an ultimatum: “leave that Chinese girl or never return home again.”

Kunalan walked out.

Yoong Yin received the same ultimatum from her father and her uncle. And she too left home, joining her mother, who was estranged from her father.

Distraught after being shunned by their own families, they struggled momentarily, wondering what would happen. But Kunalan in the end was resolved. “We’ll have our own friends who will accept us.”

Wedding Day

Engaged in October 1965, with a wedding date set for October 1966, the parents of Kunalan and Yoong Yin eventually saw that there was no fighting the bond between the two. Kunalan’s father surprised his son with a visit, and said he would bless the union, but only if Yoong Yin would take on an Indian name and convert to Hinduism. Fortunately, that was not a problem for Yoong Yin, and the two sprinters were married in a Hindi ceremony. Subsequently a Chinese wedding dinner was held by Yoong Yin’s mother.

Fifty-two years later, Kunalan and Yoong Yin are still happily married. And Kunalan proudly proclaims that diversity and the need to be inclusive of all races and nationalities is vital to world peace. “I am not nationalistic,” he told a Singaporean magazine. “I am more of an internationalist.”

His children, a blend of Indian and Chinese DNA and heritage, have lived their parents’ creed, marrying members of other nationalities. Kunalan is proud of to be an inter-racial grandparent.

He remembers 1964. He recalls seeing the worst in the race riots of Singapore, and the best in the gathering of the world’s best athletes in Tokyo. And he believes that we are capable, through sports, to co-exist in peace and love.

Canagasabai Kunalan is living proof.

The International Family

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Singapore’s Feng Tianwei, Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu pose with their silver medals on the podium after the table tennis women’s team finals of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Singapore has been aggressive in recruiting foreign athletic talent. Trying to punch above its weight, this nation of 5.6 million has a government program called the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme (FST) in which the government recruits foreign athletes with promises of income and training support. In exchange, the incoming athlete takes up Singaporean nationality and represents Singapore in international sporting events.

In 2008, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained that the FST is one tactic in a strategy to bring the world’s best talent to Singapore, and thus continue to raise the capability bar.

In the Olympics contingent, there are 25 members, half of whom are new Singaporeans. Why do we need them? Make a single calculation. The Chinese have 1.3 billion people. Singapore has a population of four million … If we want to win glory for Singapore and do well not only in sports but in many other areas, we cannot merely depend on the local-born. We need to attract talent from all over … Look at the Beijing Olympics. Tao Li, the swimmer, she’s done very well. The women’s table-tennis team … they have won an Olympic medal. We welcome foreigners so they can strengthen our team, and we can reduce our constraints. So let us welcome and let us encourage them.

When Feng Tianwei, Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu won the team bronze medal for Singapore at the 2012 Olympics in London, it was a moment of mixed feelings for Singaporeans. Yes, Singaporeans won an Olympic medal. But were they Singaporean, or mercenaries? According to this 2012 blog post, this did not resonate as a Singaporean victory.

According to a poll by Yahoo! Sports, 77 per cent of the 17,227 respondents polled over three days said they would not be proud if a foreign import won an Olympic medal for Singapore.  It is not clear if the respondents had in mind Singapore’s table tennis teams, which were almost entirely made up of China-born athletes, but they were the only athletes representing Singapore with any real chance of winning any medals.

However, when swimmer Joseph Schooling triumphed over legend Michael Phelps of the US, Chad Le Clos of South Africa, and László Cseh of Hungary in the 100-meter butterfly finals in Rio this past August, Singaporeans went mad over the hometown boy who beat the very best in the world. Schooling is a third-generation Singaporean, and that makes all the difference in the world, according to this blog post from The Online Citizen.

Whenever someone from this little Red Dot goes overseas to represent the country, be it sports, music or arts, people want to feel a part of themselves being represented. Someone whom they can relate to, someone who can speak Singlish, someone who knows his la, lor and leh, someone who loves fried carrot cake, like Joseph Schooling, someone who went through the rigorous Singapore education system. Basically, the Singaporean Identity.

When we bring in foreign players to represent the country, I have no doubt they are going to go to the Olympics to play their hearts out (so those who comment that they will not give their 100%, I think that’s uncalled for), but there is always that nagging feeling that something is missing. The Singaporean Identity. These players do not speak like us, they spent their childhoods somewhere else, they do not have to serve National Service, which is a very integral part of being Singaporean. They may be carrying the pink IC and the national flag, but deep within, where is the Singaporean Identity?

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Joseph Schooling Celebrated in Singapore

What’s interesting to me is that Schooling did not develop his world-class skills in Singapore. He did so at the University of Texas in the United States, where he competed among the very best, including Phelps. According to this article in Today Online, some of the comments in support of the Foreign Sports Talent scheme were Singaporean athletes, who “called on the universities to improve on and emulate the United States’ National Collegiate Athletic Association’s competitive environment by attracting top athletic talents to local institutions to compete and train among local athletes.”

Here’s how Singapore Sailing Federation president Benedict Tan and Minister for Social and Family Development argued the point.

By attracting world-class talents here and being in the system, it raises standards, and when you have real competition, they really level up. (Local) universities have been very forthcoming. But whether we create an (sporting) atmosphere or culture … it’s whether we have a critical mass of athletes.

This debate between head and heart is like a ping pong rally, back and forth…hopefully unending….

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Singapore exploded. The Southeast Asian nation of over 5 million, affectionately self-proclaimed as the Little Red Dot, blew up their part of the Twitterverse with exaltations of pure bliss – one of their boys took gold at the Rio Olympics.

And it wasn’t just any gold. It was one destined to land in the hands of Michael Phelps, arguably the most successful Olympian ever.

Joseph Schooling, a 21-year-old third-generation Singaporean, lept to a great start in lane 4 of the 100-meter butterfly finals. Schooling quickly took the lead, held it at the 50-meter turn, and never relinquished it. He led from start to finish and defeated the favorites by a clear margin. Phelps, Chad Le Clos of South Africa, and László Cseh of Hungary finished in a tie for second, 0.75 seconds behind the University of Texas third-year student.

Schooling Sets Olympic Record

“I’m really honored and privileged to swim alongside some of these great names, people who changed the face of our sport,” he told Channel News Asia. “I can’t really tell you how grateful I am to have this chance to swim in an Olympic final and to represent our country.”

Phelps did not add to his treasure trove of gold, instead settling for silver. But as noted in this wonderful New York Times article, Phelps has no one to blame except himself. Ever since Phelps began collecting gold medals at the 2004 Athens Games, he has inspired young swimmers all over the world. Le Clos idolized Phelps as a child, and had the umbrage to defeat Phelps in the 200 meter butterfly at the 2012 London Games, albeit by a mere .05 seconds. Phelps came back to defeat Le Clos in the same race at the Rio Games.

Phelps and Schooling
Schooling, age 13, meets his idol, Michael Phelps in 2008
Schooling is no exception, as he explains in this article. “As a kid I wanted to be like him,” said Schooling, who got his photograph taken with Phelps before his eight-gold medal performance at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “It’s crazy to think of what happens in eight years,” Schooling said, adding, “A lot of this is because of Michael. He’s the reason I wanted to be a better swimmer.”

While most casual observers of the sport wondered who the heck Schooling was, his competitors were aware. After all, Schooling is the reigning NCAA champion in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly in the US. And the fact that Schooling was in lane 4 indicated he was fast in the heats leading up to the finals. Two days prior, Schooling had won his heat, defeating Phelps. In the semis, he posted the fastest time of all competitors.

But even so, with Le Clos and Phelps in the mix, Schooling’s victory was not a given. And as the winner of Southeast Asia’s first gold medal in swimming, Schooling’s victory is significant, as all trailblazing accomplishments often are, and will no doubt impact the dreams of millions of young athletes in Asia for years to come.

Phelps Le Clos and Cseh celebrate silver
Phelps, Le Clos and Cseh celebrate silver, while Schooling awaits his golden reward.
Schooling’s father, Colin, was ecstatic, but also aware of the responsibility his son now carries.

Singapore, he did what you all wanted and he did it in style. The most important thing is to be an ambassador for all our children in Singapore that gives them hope that they also can do it. There’s nothing special about him, just a boy who is interested in the sport.

Yes, just a boy…a boy who would be king.

Aleks Duric father and brother
Aleks (left), when he was 9 years old with his dad and older brother Milan at a restaurant where his dad always visited. (Photo © Aleksandar Duric)

Before he was junior kayaking champion of Yugoslavia, before he was an Olympian for the first Bosnian-Herzegovinian team at the Barcelona Games in 1992, before he would go on to a long and successful soccer career, Aleksandar Duric was his father’s son.

And being the son of Mladjen Duric was a challenge.

As Duric wrote in his fascinating book, Beyond Borders, his father was a “rugged, simple man, with little education”, whose mother abandoned him and whose father was killed in World War II. He was also an alcoholic and abusive to his wife and children. “When he was sober my father was a good man, not the sensitive or talkative type, but honest and unselfish – he would give you his own blood if you needed it. But drinking changed him; it turned him into an animal.”

beyond borders cover duricThe kayaker from Doboj, Bosnia recalled when his father got so drunk, he crashed and destroyed his car, in which so much hard-earned money was invested.

Our relationships was at breaking point at that stage. I was sick of him bringing shame to our family, sick of how he treated us all. I shouted at him, “You’re completely wasted. You’re a disgrace!”

“How dare you speak to me like that? I’m your father!”

It escalated from there. We had a blazing argument and my mother stepped in to try to calm things down. That made him angrier. He made a wild move to grab my mother and hit her. I got in between them, grabbed a kitchen knife from the counter and pointed it at him, saying, “If you ever touch her or Milan again, I’ll kill you. I swear to god, I’ll cut you into pieces.” The scary thing is, I meant it.

A few years later, Duric served as an officer in the Yugoslav People’s Army, just as the diverse and increasingly hostile parts of the Bosnian region of Yugoslavia – Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks – began to splinter. One time, Duric’s commanding officer sent him and his team on a convoy mission to protect trucks transporting weapons and ammunition into areas at the heart of the Bosnian conflict. Duric, who was personally wrestling with the suspect reasons why the Yugoslav’s People’s Army was fighting the battles it was, reluctantly took his team on the tense trip through hostile territory. When he and his team completed the mission successfully, he was asked again to take his team on another mission. Duric pushed back saying that he and his team were promised they would be able to return to their base and safety if they had completed the one mission.

As related in this book, after being called a coward, and slapped around, Duric was thrown into jail for insubordination, threatened with imprisonment for years. As Duric was being moved to his jail cell, he saw an officer he was friends with and shouted to him to tell his father that he was in military jail. And despite all that he and his father had been through, he knew his father would help. “My father was not an affectionate man and he had plenty of personal demons, but he was not going to let his youngest son rot in some cell in Vukovar.”

In the end, his father shouted, berated and threatened the right people and got his son released. “To this day I don’t know what went on behind the scenes after this. Favours must have been called in, more threats must have been made. But whatever happened, all I know is that he very next day I was escorted out of the cell, handed a couple of sets of keys to some waiting Landrovers with my men already sitting inside them, and told in no uncertain terms to get me out of their sight immediately.

Aleks Duric and kayaking team
Winter in Doboj with the kayaking team. 15-year-old Aleks is second from left, squatting. (Picture © Aleksandar Duric)

Since that time, Duric left Bosnia and laid low in Szegred, Hungary, with little money and little prospects for the future. As explained in the previous post, Duric went on to compete in the Barcelona Olympics, and a 20-year career in professional soccer in Australia, China and Singapore. He did not return to Doboj to see his family again, even when his mother was killed by a Bosnian shell that hit her home in 1993.

But in 2000, Duric received word from his brother that his father was dying. Duric made the trip from Singapore to Doboj, and spent the final days with his father, telling him about his days at the Olympics and his successes on the soccer pitch. And his father, after

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Part of the road cycling route on the Hachioji Highway.
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.”

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Hamid Supaat, third from the right, with his teammates at the Cycling Village in Hachioji, not far from Mt Takao_from the collection of Hamid Supaat
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.

Hamid Supaat 5The 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

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Me, several years after the closing of the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows.

First things first. Novelist and futurist, Isaac Asimov had a caveat. If the world is destroyed by a thermonuclear war, his predictions would be meaningless. Got it.

isaac asimov
Isaac Asimov

Since there has been no nuclear war of significance, here are a few of the predictions Asimov made in the New York Times in August, 1964. Asimov visited the huge, big-tent event in the world that year that was not the Tokyo Olympics – the World’s Fair in New York, which happened to be in my backyard of Flushing, Queens.

By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button. A quick search reveals that available in the marketplace is electroluminescent advertising displays (which are paper-thin flexible panels), electroluminescent paint, electroluminescent wallpaper, and something more commonly known, electroluminescent fashion.

There is an underground house at the fair which is a sign of the future. Suburban houses underground, with easily controlled temperature, free from the vicissitudes of weather, with air cleaned and light controlled, should be fairly common. The reason Asimov gives for this idea is Man’s urge to control its environment, as well as expand the amount of land to grown more food to feed a growing world population. But another reason will be the Mega-city Trend, the continued massive migration to big cities that puts tremendous pressure on the infrastructure. Singapore, where I lived for a few years, has a population of 5.5 million people on a land mass of 710 square km, a country half the size of Los Angeles. The Red Dot, as it is affectionately called, will be considerably more dense as the government predicts the population to grow to 7 million in the near future. Singapore has built upwards with its skyscrapers, and outwards with land-fill areas, but is now planning underground working facilities on a scale not commonly seen. Designs for the 300,000 square-meter Underground Science City will be 30 to 80 meters below the surface, with plans to hold a working population of over 4,000.

Singapore Underground Science City
The planned Singapore Underground Science City

Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. The I.B.M. exhibit at the present fair has no robots but it is dedicated to computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English. It will be such computers, much miniaturized, that will serve as the “brains” of robots. The way Asimov describes robotics, and I suppose, artificial intelligence is far less aggressive than his imagination in his novels. I haven’t read that many Asimov works, but I do know that he was one of the most significant minds behind a philosophical framework or set of rules regarding the relationship between Man and Robot: The Three Laws of Robotics. Additionally, I recall his brilliant character, Hari Seldon in Asimov’s Foundation Series, a man who developed psychohistory, a precursor, to me, of what we now call Big Data.

If you want to watch something historic, as well as geeks geeking out, here’s an incredible video of IBM’s Watson beating two humans at Jeopardy. The two humans are Jeopardy champions.

Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with “Robot-brains” vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver. I suspect one of the major attractions of the 2014 fair will be rides on small roboticized cars which will maneuver in crowds at the two-foot level, neatly and automatically avoiding each other. Two obvious parallels to today’s technology: self-driving cars, which are all the rage, as well as maglev technology. By 2020, there are some who claim that Japan will have significant driverless transportation on the roads when the Olympians arrive.

The maglev train, which is already operational in Shanghai, will connect Tokyo to Osaka in an hour, achieving a speed of 500 kph, although it won’t be in operation until 2027.