I’ve had the thrill of competing at two Olympic Games, although not for the same country. In a small way, my personal history at the Olympics reflects the changing map of South East Asia. My first trip was to the Tokyo Games in 1964 as part of the Malaysian team. Malaysia had just become an independent nation, and the ‘new’ country wanted to send a large team to the Olympics. Four years later, I would be running in Mexico City for another ‘new’ country, Singapore.
However, the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo were the first time that the Games were held in Asia. I had only started running the year before, so I had no illusions about what to expect. And, indeed, the Malaysian relay team was eliminated in the first round. But it didn’t matter to me because the whole experience can only be described as grand.
Nothing in my life could have prepared me for the thrill I felt at being shoulder to shoulder with the best athletes from all over the world and their coaches, who also were considered the best in the world. I went to the Olympics as an athlete but, in hindsight, I believe that being there helped shape my convictions about the importance of sport as a unifying force in the world.
More than 40 years later, I am still struck by the power of my experiences at the Olympic Games and the Olympic Village: Training on the Village track, collecting autographs from anyone and everyone, eating a multitude of unlimited, good food, including fried pigeons, exchanging badges of friendship, being shocked by how cold it was in October in Tokyo (the officially recorded temperature was only 9 degrees Celsius on the opening day!), the songkok (the traditional hat for Muslim men) that was part of our official uniform.
I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed watching the competitions from the grandstands. At one point I sat next to Mona Sulaiman, a sprinter from the Philippines who had won gold medals in the 100 metres and the 200 metres at the 1962 Asian Games (as well as a bronze in the shotput), held in Indonesia. Unfortunately, she was either not allowed to take part in the Olympic Games or had declined to take part due to the gender test.
I saw the great African runner Abebe Bikila win the marathon, the first athlete to ever win the marathon over two consecutive Games. Only six weeks earlier the Ethiopian had been in hospital, having his appendix removed. He was a simply phenomenal athlete, who immediately began doing calisthenics on the grass after the finishing line.