Many have worn the country’s colours with pride in the Olympics. But few are remembered. And fewer have found fame and fortune. Now may be the time to honour them all.
THE greatest sports show in the world is here. London, home of the modern-day Olympics, celebrates today as the Games kick off.
For Malaysia, too, it is very meaningful. For once, we are really in the running for medals – it could be gold in badminton or a medal of any other colour in cycling, or even in diving. And there are millions in cash and solid gold as reward for the winners.
It was also in London that Malaysia, then Malaya, saw its first Olympian.
It was 1948. Britain’s capital was hosting the Games after the 1944 Olympiad had been called off because of World War II. And our first Olympian ran onto the hallowed turf. He was a footballer. His name? Yeap Cheng Eng.
What, you may ask, was a footballer doing there when Malaysia only qualified for Olympic football in 1972 (Munich) and 1980 (Moscow – which we boycotted).
Yeap, you see, was handpicked by China to play for them. He was the skipper of the Penang football team and had joined a team of overseas Chinese from South-East Asia on a tour which included a stop in Shanghai.
The Chinese were impressed. And no wonder.
I have had the honour of playing with the man. Well, not exactly playing with him. We were coached by him. He was 60-something then and we were a bunch of 20-somethings who believed we could walk in the boots of any Ardiles or Maradona.
Yeap set us a simple task. One lad had to throw a ball at him and another had to rob him of the ball before he could bring it under control and get it past the opponent.
Not one of us could rob him of the ball. Not one! He was that good at 60-plus. He must indeed have been something special in his prime. The Chinese obviously thought so, too.
Yeap died in 1994 after a stroke. He had also played basketball, volleyball, table-tennis and badminton.
But so little is known about Malaysia’s first Olympian. Google his name and you get a Wikipedia stub that says he was Malaya’s first representative at the Olympics. Nothing more.
He’s a forgotten Olympian. And there are many like him.
Malaya, the country, had its first contingent when the Games were held in Melbourne in 1956. In the contingent was Koh Eng Tong, “the Iron Man of Malaya”, a gold medal winner of the 1950 British Empire Games, the forerunner to the Commonwealth Games. He later found fame and success as a photographer.
But there were many others in the first Olympiad for Malaysia, the likes of Karuppiah Sinnayah, Lee Kah Fook, Raja Ngah Ali and Kenneth Pereira, among others.
Raja Ngah was probably the first Malaysian to run the 100m at the Olympics. He finished sixth in Heat 1.
Karuppiah was probably the most successful of the sprinters in Melbourne, finishing third in his heats.
Karuppiah, it seems, was known as the Black Horse of Asia, according to his son Karthigesu. After retiring from athletics, he became a faceless Telekom Malaysia staff member. He died in 1990 of throat cancer at the age of 53. And like many others, he is a forgotten Olympian, too.
Tan Sri Dr M. Jegathesan took over from him and the “Flying Doctor” made history by qualifying for the semi-finals of the 100m in the 1964 Olympics. His record in the 200m still stands today.
But the 1996 Sportsman of The Year in 1995 Scientist of the Year has found fame, unlike Karuppiah.
Maybe the time has come for us to revisit the many sportsmen who have worn the country’s colours with pride. Never mind if they did not win medals – to have qualified for the Olympics is an achievement in itself.
We should salute them, savour their memories and make it clear to their families that the country honours them. That’s the least we can do for these sportsmen who gave their everything – for so little in return.
> The writer covered the Athens Olympics in 1994. There are two unforgettable memories – rubbing shoulders with the chef-de-mission Tan Sri Dr M. Jegathesan and walking on Mount Olympus – where it all really began.