The finest champion always combines success with humility, and in Singapore there can be no finer champion than Canagasabai Kunalan. A sprinter and relay runner, Kunalan earned his spot in the record books and Singaporean hearts by winning 5 medals (1 silver and 4 bronze) at 4 Asian Games and 15 medals (4 gold, 8 silver, 3 bronze) at 7 South East Asian Peninsular Games/South East Asian Games.
At the Mexico City Olympic Games in 1968, Kunalan ran the 100 metres in 10.38 seconds, setting a National record that stood for 33 years. He was named Sportsman of the Year in both 1968 and 1969.
Ironically, Kunalan came late into the sport. He was a footballer but was persuaded to take up running when he was going to teacher’s college. He was 21 years old but with only five months of training, he was running 100m in 10.9 seconds, the 200m in 22.3 and the 400m in 50.9.
In 1970 injury pushed Kunalan into his ‘first’ retirement. Even then, though, he never lost his love of competition. He anchored the 4x400m relay team at the 1975 SEA Games, adding another gold medal to his collection. In 1977, he won a bronze medal at the SEA Games in the 100m with a time of 10.81 seconds. He was 33 years old.
Kunalan confounded traditional thinking when he took up running. And he maintained his gracious, modest manner, regardless of the number of medals he won. He has a welcoming smile and easy manner for fans of all ages and walks of life. As an assistant professor at the National Institute of Education, he is revered by students as “Mr. K”. But to everyone else, he is simply Kunalan, the runner who won many medals and even more hearts.