Tan Howe Liang's Rome feat still inspires

Tan Howe Liang's Rome feat still inspires

He was Singapore's first Olympic medallist and 55 years later, the memory of his greatness persists.

On Sept 8, 1960, at the Palazzetto Dello Sports Hall in Rome, Tan Howe Liang, 27, stood with his muscles straining, his teeth gritted in concentration as he lifted a total of more than 380kg over his head to clinch a weightlifting silver.

That momentous achievement has topped a poll conducted by The Sunday Times sports desk to identify the top 10 greatest feats in Singapore's sporting history.

We compiled a shortlist of 25 key achievements - dating back to pre-independent Singapore - and asked 45 current and former national athletes, coaches, officials and sports journalists to choose their top 10 from it. We collated their results to determine a final ranking.

Joseph Schooling's Fina World Championships bronze medal was second, followed by Ang Peng Siong's world-leading 50m swim at the 1982 US Championships.

Although four-fifths of those polled were not even born when Tan won his silver, his feat featured in all but one of the 45 lists, reinforcing his impact across different eras.

"What Mr Tan accomplished has inspired future generations of local athletes," said two-time Sportsman of the Year and ex-national shooter Lee Wung Yew.

Seven sports featured in the top 10, with swimming taking three spots and table tennis two. There was also an equal gender division, with each occupying five slots.

Half the feats were achieved in the past decade - a factor that sets Tan's deed apart from the rest, noted veteran sports administrator Annabel Pennefather. "Compared to the level of support now for our athletes, there was precious little back then but that never stopped people like Howe Liang," she said.

From the initial shortlist, 10 feats received first-place votes. Tan received the most with 25 and the next best was Schooling with five.

Quah Ting Wen, who was at poolside when Schooling became the first Asian to swim under 51sec in the 100m butterfly, was stunned by her compatriot's feat.

"The level of competition was so high and he was on the outside lane, but he still pulled it off. It's something I will never forget," she said.

Fandi Ahmad's goal for Groningen against Inter Milan in a 1983 Uefa Cup second-round match was one of only two feats to receive first-place votes without making the top 10. The other was Ben Tan's Asian Games gold in 1994.

Nevertheless, for Lim Wei Wen, who last year won Singapore's first Asian Games fencing medal, that clip of his childhood idol was inspirational. "Fandi's goal showed me that local sportsmen could become legends too," he said.

Therein lies the power of a single act. And that is why, among Singapore's sporting epics, Tan Howe Liang's Italian masterpiece stands apart.


Additional reporting by Alvin Chia, Deepanraj Ganesan and Jeremy Lim.

This article was first published on August 30, 2015.
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