Tan Howe Liang
Tan Howe Liang’s journey to an Olympic medal in 1960 is a story of perseverance in the face of great adversity. He overcame personal and financial hardship to triumph among the best athletes in the world.
After defeating 33 competitors during a 10-hour struggle, Tan claimed Singapore’s only medal at the Olympic Games—a hard-won silver at the 1960 Games in Rome. Only the Soviets did better that day. In the under 62.5 kg lightweight event, Tan lifted a total of 380 kg. In the clean and jerk event, he set an Olympic record of 155 kg.
It was a shining moment for a quiet man, who has steadfastly avoided the limelight for much of his life. He was one of seven children born to a poor family in Swatow in Southern China. Tan’s father tried his luck in Hong Kong and Vietnam before settling in Singapore. Tan added Tuan Mong Secondary School and played every sport available. However, he didn’t focus on a particular sport, in part because he helped support the family. However, shortly after the end of the Second World War, Tan tried weightlifting ‘just for the fun of it’. With no coach and a single set of barbells, he began training in earnest.
Little more than a year later, Tan won both the National Junior and Senior Weightlifting Championship titles in the lightweight category. He was only 20 years old. The following year, he placed a solid fourth at the 1954 Asian Games in Manila. In 1956, he made his first trip to the Olympic Games in Melbourne where he placed 9th of 18 contenders.
From therein on, he would dominate the lightweight division in the sport, culminating in his Olympic medal. At the 6th British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1958, Tan won the world and set a world record in the lightweight jerk division with a lift of 347 lbs. He took home the gold from the 3rd Asian Games as well as the top honours at the inaugural SEAP Games in Bangkok in 1959.
As the 1960 Olympic Games drew closer, Tan struggled with the reality that he lacked the funds to pay for his training. He worked as a store clerk, which didn’t cover his living expenses in addition to the costs associated with training. Chua Tian Teck, the President of the Singapore Amateur Weightlifting Association and Tan’s ‘godfather’, stepped forward to pay some expenses out of his pocket.
Tan Howe Liang is the only Singaporean to medal at the Olympic, Commonwealth, Asian and SEAP Games. Every medal but one was gold. In 1984, long after he had retired from competition and become a successful coach, Tan became the first recipient of the International Weightlifting Federation’s Gold Award. He also received the IOC Silver Pin in 1989 for his silver medal performance in Rome.