Running barefoot in the Olympics

THE 1972 Olympic Games in Munich will forever be etched in record books for the unprecedented terrorist attacks. But for Singaporean P.C. Suppiah, he made heads turn when he lined up against the world's best long-distance athletes.

In taking on future world record holders Emiel Puttemans of Belgium and David Bedford of Great Britain, he became the first Singaporean to complete the gruelling 10,000m in under 32 minutes - a stunning achievement, considering he ran the race without shoes.

Mr Suppiah had been unable to afford proper footwear in his earlier years, and he believed that he could run faster barefoot. He bettered his timing in 1973 with a run of 31 minutes and 19 seconds and it is the oldest track and field national record that still stands.

"I remember my photo was posted all over the Olympics Village, running without shoes," he smiles as he recalls the memorable moment 40 years later.

"They thought I was from a Third World country, not able to afford a pair of running shoes and almost immediately after the race, I had offers from many globally-renowned sportswear sponsors to offer me free shoes!"

He also looks back to the 1971 SEAP (South East Asian Peninsular) Games in Kuala Lumpur as one of his "most memorable life events" as it changed his life. He was a Malaccan-born migrant and his Singapore citizenship papers arrived at the Games village just a day before he was to run the race of his life.

"The citizenship papers were given to me personally by Mr E.W. Barker (the-then President of the Singapore National Olympic Council) just before the race," says Mr Suppiah. "Mr Barker said, 'Make Singapore proud!' I did just that."

Running for the first time for his adopted country, he made Singapore stand tall, winning the gold medal for the 10,000m race, in dramatic style as he sped past his strong Burmese opponent in the last lap to clinch the gold for Singapore, breaking the Games record.

"I couldn't let Singapore down and despite being 70m away from the favourite Burmese runner, I sensed the leader's energy waning. I seized the opportunity and gave everything I had although I was also tired. It fired me for a final push in the last 150m to win the race," he says.

"Mr Barker ran down the VIP Box to the track to hug me and I just cried because as a 22-year-old, I delivered a gold medal, just when I became a Singapore citizen."

The SNOC (Singapore National Olympic Council) later rewarded him with the Sportsman Of The Year accolade - the highest individual sporting award.

This victory opened the gates for him to compete at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, which was also an "unforgettable experience" because of the murder of 11 Israeli Olympians. On Sept 5, a day before the Games were to begin, eight Palestinian militants entered the Olympic Village and seized members of the Israeli Olympic team.

Two of the hostages were able to wound two of their captors before they were killed. The hostage-takers demanded the release of 234 Palestinians who were being held in Israel. During a failed rescue attempt, all the remaining hostages and five of the hostage-takers were killed.

"It spoilt the mood. I dreamt so much of running my favourite events, the 10,000m and 5,000m but after this incident, we just went through the motions with no passion to compete like genuine sportsmen," he said.

Now 62, Mr Suppiah works as a business manager in Kuala Lumpur, after spending three decades at Singapore Pools (the national lottery company) and wishes Singaporean athletes get more recognition for their sporting contributions.

"The Government and the private sector must motivate the athletes with financial grants and job offers for them to rise to international levels," he says. "We have many talented younger athletes calling it quits early because they are not inspired to train, in a full-time way, to reach regional standards.

Today, along the sidelines, he actively serves as the vice-president of Singapore Masters Athletics, which caters to veteran runners. He says, with the gutsy tone of an Olympian: "The fire is still there to play a role to promote track and field and to be a role model."

Get a copy of tabla! for more stories.