The Tiger who became a gladiator in Rome

08 Sep 2020

By Justin Kor

In the years preceding the 1960 Rome Olympics, a flurry of movements – most of which were tied to the Cold War – created a continuous flux in the global landscape. As the Soviet Union and the United States duelled over their ideologies, the world saw its fortunes tied to a war of attrition.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the establishment of a communist regime in Cuba and Soviet and American involvement in Korea and Vietnam, among other Cold War events, saw the superpowers battling everywhere except on their own soil. Elsewhere, former African colonies began to establish independence.

Amid the geopolitical tensions, the global powers would meet at the Rome Games, substituting political duels for sporting tussles. The United States-led West versus the Soviet Union-led communist bloc. The stars versus the sickle. But amid the clash of the titans, a tiny state, which was not even independent, wanted to make its mark. One man in particular, stood ready to fly his homeland’s flag at the biggest sporting competition. Tan Howe Liang would ensure Singapore left its maiden Olympic mark in the Italian capital.


Carrying the hopes of a nation

Tan Howe Liang (second from right) shakes hand with then-President of Singapore Yusof Ishak. SNOC President CC Tan (third from left) and chef de mission Chua Tian Teck (right) look on.

It was not an exaggeration to say that Singapore’s first Olympic medal hopes were pinned on Tan’s stocky shoulders. His dominance at the Asian, Commonwealth and South-east Asia Peninsular Games in the late 1950s made the Olympics the next natural target – especially after his first attempt in 1956 went badly.

Following Tan’s performances, Oscar State, honorary secretary of the British Empire Weightlifting Federation, singled him out as “the man who will cause a big disturbance in this year’s Rome Games” in February 1960.

In May that year, Singapore Amateur Weight-lifting Federation president Chua Tian Teck went further by boldly proclaiming that only two Russians – Viktor Bushuev and Akop Faradzhyan – stood in the way of Tan’s Olympic gold medal. The duo had placed first and second respectively at the 1959 World Weightlifting Championships. But Tan was consistently lifting 395kg in training, well above the world record of 390kg.

Such was Chua’s confidence that he promised Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak that Tan would definitely bring back a medal.

“We promised that we will do our very best to see that Singapore’s flag fly in an Olympic victory, and the competing nations hear our national anthem,” said the then 65-year-old, who was leading Singapore’s five-man contingent as Chef de Mission for Rome 1960.

Chua knew it was a heavy load for his protégé to bear, but he was sure the young man could shoulder that burden. After all, he had guided Tan to become one of the strongest men in the world in his weight class. It was now time to crown that achievement with an Olympic medal.

While most people were optimistic about Tan’s chances, Singapore Olympic and Sports Council president C.C. Tan offered words of caution: “Our hopes are of course centred on our weightlifter Tan Howe Liang. However, much has been said and written about Tan and what is expected of him that I fear he may leave with too heavy a sense of responsibility.”

He added: “We realise that there may be no absolute guarantee of success at the Games.” And as Tan and Chua would find out, obstacles would appear even after the best preparations.


A sense of foreboding

A farewell party was organised to wish Tan Howe Liang (fourth from left) well as he departs for the Rome 1960 Olympic Games

Rome 1960 was a watershed event of sorts. It was the first commercially-televised Olympic Games, saw China boycott the competition due to Taiwan’s inclusion and most of all, was Italy’s first major sporting event as hosts since the end of World War II. The Italians were keen to present their rebirth to the world, following the fall of the Fascist regime. Singapore’s eyes, however, were focused on the weightlifting arena.

Familiar faces greeted Tan at the Palazzetto dello Sport on September 8. Rivals such as Iran’s Henrik Tamraz, South Africa’s Harry Webber, Britain’s Ben Helfgott and Burma’s Nil Tun Maung were all vying for a place on the podium. Tan had beaten them all in previous major Games – there was nothing to worry about, or so it seemed. But the Singaporean’s 10-and-a-half-hour trial had just begun.

Tan stepped up in his white leotard for the press. Unlike previous competitions, there was no swagger of a champion-in-waiting. Instead, he looked a little nervous – perhaps slightly in awe of the occasion.

His first press of 115kg was deemed to be a faulty one by the judges. Chua was not having it. The silver-haired manager protested to the jury of appeal by depositing 2,000 liras – the old Italian currency – which was about 10 Malaya and British Borneo dollars, the currency used by Singapore from 1953 to 1967.

The protest was approved and Chua was refunded, meaning Tan’s attempt was registered. But on his second try, his lift of 120kg was also deemed a fault. A chorus of boos rang out in the arena. Chua, who decided to protest again, was denied the call this time, losing his deposit. He felt aggrieved but it was Tan who felt the brunt of the verdict.

“Howe Liang was discouraged and in his third attempt at the same poundage, he failed,” Chua told The Straits Times.

It was the same story when it came to the snatch category. Tan had cleared 110kg in his first attempt, but his second one at 115kg was considered a fault by all the judges, which meant that Chua could not protest. The Singaporean then failed in his final attempt.

Despite Tan’s shortcomings, he held third place going into the final category – his favourite clean and jerk. “I was happy as at the least he would win the bronze medal,” said Chua. “He holds the world record of 347.5 pounds (157.6kg) for the clean and jerk.”

With that, Chua registered Tan for a 150kg lift. There was a 90-minute wait before the weightlifter took the stage again. Suddenly, Chua’s plans were thrown into disarray when Tan came to him with a pained expression.

“Uncle, my legs hurt,” Tan grimaced. He had developed cramps in both his thighs.


Disintegrating hopes

Tan attempting a lift to fight for a medal at the Rome Olympics

A helpless Chua could not believe his eyes. Tan was barely able to stand. Chua enlisted the help of Malayan featherweight lifter Chung Kum Weng and the duo carried the stricken Tan to the resting room. There, two doctors and a nurse, along with American weightlifters Bob Haufman and Johnny Terpak, attended to him. It was an hour to Tan’s turn to lift and Chua desperately awaited the diagnosis, which did not look good.

“Mr Terpak advised me to take Howe Liang in an ambulance to the Olympic Village to have both his thighs bandaged, which meant that he would not be able to continue lifting,” said Chua, who added that the medical team called for Tan to have a complete rest.

But Tan refused to yield. “Howe Liang wept and told me not to take him away,” added Chua.

The weightlifter then went into a trancelike state, mumbling to himself – he was praying. Chua joined him. For a while, it seemed a futile effort. But with 30 minutes left, “a miracle happened”, Chua recounted.

Tan felt the cramps leaving him and told his manager that he was feeling better. Gingerly, he was helped to a sitting position by Chung and Chua. Tan then summoned the strength to stand up on his own. Chua got him to warm up with increasingly heavier weights, just in time to make his first attempt at 150kg.

Chua could be forgiven for thinking their ordeal was over. Lift, and go home with a medal as a reward for Tan’s valiant effort. Little did he know one final drama was about to unfold.


A tiger towards his prey

The iconic photo of Tan which many Singaporeans are familiar with

Tan stood before the bar, ready to hoist it like he always did. As he attempted to jerk the bar up, he suffered a slight blackout and dropped the 150kg weight. Echoes of Melbourne surfaced – Tan collapsing again in front of a crowd during his lift. Only this time, things would end differently.

Chua hurried to Tan’s side, wondering if he should have let the lifter continue despite his pained cries just an hour ago. Moments later, Tan regained consciousness, enough to hear the crowd roar as gold medal favourite, the Russian Bushuev, had cleared 150kg – the Olympic record – on his second lift, giving him a near unassailable lead of 397.5kg in total.

“Howe Liang seemed very downhearted. He then asked me the weight he had to lift to win the silver medal and I told him 155 kilos,” said Chua.

But Tan showed a determination that embodied his status as Asia’s strongest man. He got up and walked to the centre of the stage, where the 155kg bar was waiting. A successful lift would see him leapfrog Iraq’s Abdul Wahid Aziz, who also lifted 380kg in total but was the heavier man. Chua had admitted it was “a big gamble”, given that Tan had failed to lift 150kg. What he saw next reassured him that it was one worth taking.

“With determination and courage, Howe Liang got on the stage. He approached the weights like a tiger towards his prey,” recalled Chua.

In seconds, it was all over. Face scrunched in concentration, muscles squeezing every ounce of strength into holding steady and an Olympic record rewritten, Tan had lifted the bar high above his head – an iconic image seared into the minds of many Singaporeans decades after this feat.

Tan Howe Liang in recent years with the other Singaporean Olympic medallists at SNOC’s 70th anniversary celebrations in 2017. From left to right: Li Jiawei, Joseph Schooling, Wang Yuegu, Feng Tianwei and Tan Howe Liang (seated)