'I ran for passion, not money'

'I ran for passion, not money'
Mrs Glory Barnabas, former sprint queen.



Training on grass and bitumen tracks with no promise of thousands of dollars in prize money, national sprinter Glory Barnabas still blazed a trail winning medals at international meets. She also set longstanding national records. Sheer grit and passion motivated her, as did her faith. Now in her early 70s, she tells Goh Chin Lian how a 1973 speech by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew gave her and her track teammates an unintended boost at the South-east Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games. They helped Singapore's track and field athletes achieve a gold medal haul at a regional meet that has yet to be surpassed.

What led you to shine in athletics?

As a child, my brothers and I as well as our neighbours would race one another. I was fascinated by the long jump. I made a sand pit in front of my house and would jump into it.

But netball was my first love in my school days at Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' Secondary. I played the centre position, so I could run almost the entire court.

The teachers knew I had the speed and endurance to last the whole game.

We never had specialised physical education teachers. My teachers, Mrs A. Thomas and Mrs C. Poulier, would conduct PE as best as they could; Mrs Thomas in her sari and Mrs Poulier in a long skirt.Occasionally, the teachers sent me for national school competitions. I remember running in the 200m, my favourite, and beating girls from Raffles Girls' Secondary School.

How did you get into the national team in 1962?

I was in the second year at Teachers' Training College (now National Institute of Education). I took the place of a girl who fell ill.

The late Tan Eng Yoon, a lecturer at the college, saw me coming in first with no training. He said: "You must come for training." That's how I got into the nationals.

How was training for athletics then compared with now?

My teachers managed to get the services of Mr T. Kanaga Sabapathy (the art historian and critic), the brother of one of the athletes. He coached us on the rudiments of track running and racing.

We didn't have a proper place to train because our school was rather small. One girl said the principal at her former Playfair Primary School would allow us to use its 300m grass track.

Only when I entered teaching did I train at Farrer Park, which had a bitumen track. It was hard, like running in a carpark.

The National Stadium, which opened in 1973, had a synthetic track. It gave us the bounce to do better timings.

Then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew opened the stadium in July 1973, two months before the Seap Games were held there.

Mr Lee said they were not interested in medals. They built the stadium so that more people would take sport as a lifelong pursuit.

We, the athletes, were so angry. We were going for medals. The girls were all worked up: "We must show him!"

At the Games, we won six gold medals in athletics alone, including from myself (200m and 4x100m), Heather Merican (100m and 200m hurdles) and Eng Chiew Guay (100m and 4x100m).

(Gan Bee Wah and Sheila Fernando were also in the 4x100m team; Noor Azhar Hamid won the sixth gold in men's high jump.)

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