Homecoming is a pleasant word.
Soothing to the ears, the term provides a welcome feeling.
But homecoming, rather surprisingly, also emanates pressure.
And it is not always about home advantage.
As the South-east Asia Games (SEA) arrives on our island for the fourth time and after 22 years, the consensus is that our athletes have an edge over their 10 competing rival nations.
But that was not how high jumper Noor Azhar Hamid felt when he competed at the 1973 South-east Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games, forerunner to the SEA Games.
"I was the overwhelming favourite. I was the record-holder. So I went into the competition with a load on my shoulders," recalled the affable Noor yesterday.
"Even days before the competition, I wondered 'what if I fail to deliver?'," said Noor, now 66.
And on the morning of the September afternoon 42 years ago, Noor, then 24, asked himself: "What if my bothering left knee gives way? How will the home crowd react?"
His coaches, Tan Eng Yoon and C A Abdeen, tossed positive vibes in his direction hours before the event at the spanking new National Stadium in Kallang.
So he kept an optimistic outlook, managing the hosts' pressure as he played mind games with his closest rivals, Malaysia's Yon Ismail and defending champion Sin Sitta of Cambodia.
In the process, with his gravity-defying leaps, he dwarfed the opposition when he cleared 2.03 metres, 2.06m, 2.09m and 2.12m - all in his first attempts.
And the 10,000 crowd - the biggest for an athletics event - went wild, giving Noor a standing ovation, the noise decibels detonating the stadium.
They did not stop, for they wanted more from the genial buck-toothed Noor, who naturally broke into a sunshine smile.
Not surprisingly. For it was announced that Noor's fantastic leap was better than Japanese Kuniyoshi Sugioka's 11-year-old Asian Games mark by 1¾inches and smashed Sin's SEAP Games record by 15cm (6 inches).
And that leap put him then among the world's top 10 high jumpers and only third in Asia behind Iran's Teymour Ghiassi (2.16m) and Japan's KasuNoori Koshikawa (2.15m).
The crowd craved for another barrier to fall, a mental one this time.
That 7-foot mark, a mighty hurdle then.
It did not happen, though; despite Noor having achieved that in training several times.
He explained: "I was overjoyed at winning the gold for myself, my country and the fans. That overwhelming happiness overcame me, and I lost a bit of drive and ambition."
In a post-event interview then, Noor said: "I was jubilant. I did not expect to do so well. I am extremely happy and my only regret, if there is one, is that I did not break the seven-foot barrier."
In the days when the metric system had not displaced the imperial system, his winning height translated into 6ft 11½in, way above Yon's 2.0m and Sin's 1.95m.
With that mighty leap, Noor won, hands down, the Sportsman of the Year award that gave him the top-of-the-world feeling.
It was a great leap of faith and fortitude for the lean, soaring machine who, as a Whitley schoolboy of 15, made major headlines by breaking record after record.
In an era when many high-jumpers were switching to the "Fosbury Flop" - made famous by gold-medallist American Dick Fosbury at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, Noor stuck to the Straddle.
He believed more in this technique because he admired and worshipped Valery Brumel, the one-time world's best who was said to have touched the basketball hoop with his toes from a standing jump.
"I had a big picture of him at my bedside," revealed Noor, who took inspiration and encouragement from the athletic Russian with a lithe frame.
SPRING IN HIS STEP
Noor had a spring in his step, and he perfected the art of jumping with deep involvement in sepak takraw, playing for a local club in the league.
The high leaps and smashes were his trademarks, for he was known as the "killer", always putting points to bed with his powerful finishes.
His first coach was Whitley schoolteacher Koh Kia Wah, who once recalled: "I knew Noor had great potential from the way he walked, a leisurely stroll, very relaxed. You could see that he had lots of explosive energy."
As a security officer with Shell then, Noor recalled happily the support of his employers as to time-off for high-jump training.
He also remembers how he started high jumping, landing on pure sand, then gunny sacks with pieces of sponge - a far cry from today when high foam mattresses help you break your fall.
"That was why injuries were common, and I had a left-knee operation that gave me so much trouble," he explained.
The father of two drives a taxi these days, and occasionally his passengers remember him as an athletics hero.
"It's nice when people acknowledge you," said Noor, who now is a sports television buff, enjoying football, tennis, bowling and golf.
Shy of the glare of attention, the quiet sportsman who had so often let his limbs do the talking, is happy that the SEA Games is returning to Singapore.
And his message to our contingent is: "Learn to take the pressure, for sport is full of it."
Full name: Noor Azhar Hamid l
Born: Feb 8, 1949 (age 66) l
Height: 1.82m l
Event: High jump l
Personal best: 2.12m (1973) SEA(P) GAMES MEDALS l
1967 SEAP Games: Bronze (1.91m)
1969 SEAP Games: Gold (1.94m)
1971 SEAP Games: Silver (1.95m)
1973 SEAP Games: Gold (2.12m)
1975 SEAP Games: Gold (2.01m)
1981 SEA Games: Bronze (1.97m)
This article was first published on Apr 16, 2015.
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