Ninety minutes before he was due on stage, Tan Howe Liang limped over to his manager Chua Tian Teck and whispered in Malay: “My legs. My legs are cramped. I cannot walk,” he moaned. Chua was worried. The weightlifting gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics’ lightweight category was gone. Russian Viktor Bushuyev had lifted a combined 397.5kg, a new world record. But Tan still had a chance for silver. Chua massaged his legs but Tan yelled in pain. Chua called on American weightlifters Bob Haufman and Johnny Terpak for help, and two doctors and a nurse were summoned to attend to the Singapore lifter. The pain racked Tan’s taut body, biting into his contracted muscles. Chua suggested going to the hospital. But Tan shouted: “No, no, I don’t want to go. Don’t take me away from here.” The impasse drove Chua to the brink of a breakdown. “We were in a dilemma. There he was, crying, beating his chest, suffering – and we could do nothing. Tears flooded my eyes. We had come so far. We had the silver medal in sight. And now… this. What irony! What bad luck,” he told The Free Press in 1960.
Tan could only rest and hope. He started praying. “I sat down beside Howe Liang, who had suddenly become silent. I saw his lips moving. He was praying and I began to pray, too,” said Chua, who was also the Singapore chef de mission.
“Perhaps God answered our prayers. Howe Liang sat up and said he was feeling better.” Thirty minutes before he was to go back on stage, Tan said he was ready. “Boleh,” he told Chua. He practised the clean and jerk, slowly lifting heavier loads. It was working. He was recovering. But when he stood on stage, he blacked out and stumbled. Two attendants caught him, preventing a fall. Dazed, he asked Chua how much he needed to lift to win the silver. The answer was 155kg. “I will. I must,” said Tan. He did. “Howe Liang took the chalk, rubbed his legs, hands, then stood for a while facing the weights,” said Chua. “Suddenly, like a tiger pouncing on its prey, he grabbed the bar. He cleaned the weights, rose and jerked up. He had won the silver!”
The story of Tan Howe Liang is a screenplay waiting to be written. A boy from Swatow in southern China, who emigrated to Singapore with his family when he was four years old, in 1937. He was the third of eight siblings living in a cramped home in Chinatown and was left fatherless when his Teochew dad died in a death house when he was 14. His mother returned to Swatow, leaving the young boy under the care of his granduncle and grandaunt. But somehow, the young man had an ambition beyond his impoverished background. “One day, I will be the strongest man in the world,” he had promised his father before he died. His drive and his dream etched Singapore into the Olympic annals and for nearly half a century, set a benchmark that seemed impossible to repeat.
His story of the silver in Rome ought to be a household tale in Singapore. But alas, except for those in sports and those who pay attention to the local scene, most Singaporeans would not remember details of his dramatic feat, achieved before the era of television, live broadcast and the Internet. It did not help Tan’s cause that the accomplishment came in a time of much strife in Singapore.
The country was about to enter a brief and ill-fated merger with Malaya, Indonesia would wage Konfrontasi, a violent conflict with Malaysia, and racial riots consumed the self-governing Singapore, still under the rule of Britain. Amid the exigencies of life and living, Tan’s medal was quickly eclipsed in the national psyche and memory. When his newly independent country pushed ahead after 1965 with building an economy, military and an endless list of survival-related demands, there was no appetite to add to Singapore’s collection of one Olympic medal.
But a group of men kept dreaming, quietly. They hoped for more Singaporean athletes competing at the Olympics. As Singapore’s sporting success stories slowly, and mind you, it was glacial, increased, from South-east Asian to Asian, they began to let their imagination run a little wild. Could another Singaporean repeat Tan’s feat? In 2006, these men, led by International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Ng Ser Miang, took a bold step never attempted by Singapore before. They decided to fund, support and energise Singapore sports’ attempt to win an Olympic medal. They called their experiment Project 0812 – a push for Singapore to score a medal at either the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the 2012 London Olympics or, better yet, both.
This book details the scheme, which is initiated by the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) and supported by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), the Singapore Sports Council (SSC) and the various national sports associations (NSAs). The project “remains a rare initiative of such magnitude in Singapore sport where all partners involved united, took the genesis of an idea and turned it into reality”, said SNOC President Tan Chuan-Jin in an event by the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) in 2016.
To capture the story of Project 0812, the book is divided into three sections. In the first, it details the genesis of the scheme which Mr Tan spoke of, delving into the barren years post 1960 and how Project 0812 was first conceived. The second section of the book looks at the four sports chosen by Project 0812 – table tennis, badminton, sailing and shooting – and how they overcame challenges to reach Beijing 2008. The third section focuses on the Singapore table tennis team, the stars of Project 0812. It digs deep into the struggles which bedevilled the team in the lead-up to Beijing, the drama on the way to winning a silver and the equally colourful aftermath, all the way until the London 2012 Olympics. In the epilogue, swimmer Joseph Schooling and his parents shared how their journey to the Rio Olympics had a major fillip during the Beijing Games, adding the latest pages to the legacy of Project 0812.
The book was written through more than 30 interviews with officials, coaches, parents and athletes. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes in this book are from these interviews. Most of those approached have obliged with face-to-face interviews. For those who declined, I have attempted to capture their voices by citing previously reported comments made by them. I have also referred to books, newspapers and magazines in my research, as well as monthly reports submitted by the NSAs, minutes of meetings and internal documents of SNOC. Project 0812 was not completely smooth sailing. As with most things groundbreaking and monumental, it had its dissenters and disagreements. Not every one agreed with the direction, pace and style. But critically, the various partners were able to set aside their disagreements to make the project work. Instead of glossing over the differences, I have tried to capture and reflect the differing views objectively.
In this way, the book can hopefully provide a blueprint of sorts for the progress of sports in Singapore. Project 0812 was built on decades of hard work. As Mr Ng said: “The build up to Beijing 2008 was not a one- or two-year effort. It was a period of 20 years or even more.” It also involved many little-known officials, who were content to stay in the background. Hear it from swimmer Tao Li. “A performance goes beyond just the athlete,” she said. “It involves everything around the athlete. Without Project 0812, I wouldn't have been able to achieve what I did.” More importantly, it involved courage. For decades, said Project 0812 working committee chairman Tan Eng Liang, “we dared not dream” of an Olympic medal. But eventually, they did. This is the story of a bunch of men and women who turned a dream into reality.