How Jesse Owens unearthed a Singapore track star

A young Kesavan Soon during his Victoria School days. Photo: Kesavan Soon

05 May 2020

By Justin Kor

Kesavan’s friendship with his fellow team mates span over 60 years – from left to right: Olympians Mary Klass, Ajit Singh, Tang Pui Wah and Kesavan. Photo: Lovorth Media

Kesavan Soon’s track career began on a field. In 1955, the 16-year-old student was playing rugby in Victoria School, when his powerful acceleration and purposeful running caught the eye of a particular track legend standing nearby.

It was none other than Jesse Owens, the black American athlete who had singlehandedly crushed Nazi white supremacist views with four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. The track star was in Singapore to give a lecture, and he required someone to assist with a running demonstration.

A slightly perplexed Soon was Owen’s choice. “I didn’t know who he was then. All I know was that I had to do some running,” said the Singaporean with a laugh.

But he did more than that, as the schoolboy impressed the Olympic legend. Six decades later, the 81-year-old still remembered the exact words that followed. “Jesse Owens called me over and said ‘Look son, you’re very good. I think you should train hard – you have a good future.’”

These words sparked a track career that picked up speed at a dramatic pace. Within a year, the teenager would be competing against the world’s best at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, as the only student in the Singapore contingent.

Before turning 20, he would make another appearance at a major Games – the 1958 Asian Games. Such was his prowess on the track that the now defunct New Nation paper gave him the moniker, ‘King of Sprints’.

Soon spoke about sport with a childlike enthusiasm that belied his advanced years. “In those days, sport was the only past time we had. Every evening, we were on the field. I became an athlete from very young, and I enjoyed it.”

Kesavan’s efforts paid off after being spotted by Jesse Owens. Soon, he started to win local championships. Photo: Kesavan Soon

The teenage track sensation

Following Owens’s advice, Soon began training seriously, coming under the tutelage of then national sprint champion Ali Ahmad. Sessions were relentless as they worked together to shave off the seconds, with daily two hours sessions under the blistering afternoon sun after school.

Results soon followed. Four golds at the 1956 Singapore Amateur Athletics Association (SAAA) championships quickly established Soon as one of Singapore’s top sprinters. It became clear that this teenage sensation was too good to be just competing locally.

At the urging of his principal, he decided to try for the Olympics that same year. As the long nails on his spikes were better suited for the grass tracks common during those days, he had to file them down to run on the hard cinder track at Farrer Park, where qualifications were being held.

A time of 10.7 seconds in the 100 metres secured his plane ticket Down Under. “I was surprised at myself. I qualified, and I went to the Olympics. I never dreamt of it,” he said. He managed this feat just a few days before his birthday. It was a perfect way to turn 17.

Kesavan flanked by fellow 1956 Olympians Janet Jesudason (left) and Mary Klass (right). Photo: Kesavan Soon

Mixed feelings in Melbourne

There was hardly any time to prepare – Soon was off to Australia the following month. From racing boys on grass tracks, he was now competing with the world’s best within the famed confines of the 100,000 seater Melbourne Cricket Ground.

But there was a major hurdle, as the four-man Singapore track team had arrived unaccompanied by any coaches. There, among athletes from Olympic powerhouses such as the United States and Soviet Union, the schoolboy felt lost and terrified in a world of men.

“It was very frightening,” he said. “We trained alone, and we felt so shy seeing athletes from these big countries like the USA with coaches. How were we going to run there?”

It was a lesson he remembered after becoming SAAA’s vice president in 1962.  “I made sure every athlete who went overseas to compete must have a coach,” he said.

The chilly Melbourne wind did little to help assuage his fears and seemingly froze his limbs as well, as he only managed to clock 11.4 seconds in the 100 metre heats. “It was very cold down there, and our tracksuits weren’t enough,” he recalled. Soon did not fare much better in the 200m heats, coming in fifth.

But the memories made off the track compensated for the disappointments on it. “In Australia, wherever you went in a uniform, they gave you high respect. Everyone wished you well.”

The 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo was the only other major Games that Soon would compete in. Injuries sustained from playing rugby later derailed a track career that lasted only five years.

But it was a career that was very much like the sprints that he ran – fast, short, and with plenty of highs. The last in particular, is advice that he has repeatedly given to athletes today.

“Enjoy your sport. Don’t worry too much about winning or losing. If you can’t win, never mind. Only one gets to win. But make sure you enjoy it.”