From Swatow to Chinatown to Olympic Glory (The Straits Times, 5 August 2004)

But Singapore’s only Olympic medallist wants to be left alone in his gym



EVERY four years, we drag Tan Howe Liang out of his National Stadium gym, wanting him to relive that glorious September evening when he won a silver weightlifting medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics.


But Howe Liang’s now 71 years old and just wants to be left alone with his bars and benches. Whatever memories he has, he wants to keep them for himself.


Some say he is bitter that his Olympian efforts 44 years ago have not been appreciated by a nation lacking sporting heroes, by a nation now prepared to fork out $1 million for an Olympic gold and half that for a silver.


He has received no pot of gold for his medal, just a job which he thankfully still has despite silver hairs


Howe Liang will not breathe a controversial word, and not because he is a gym supervisor. He is a gentleman


He even finds it tough turning away friends from the media whom he has known for years. He offers to take us to a coffee shop next door, he even suggests giving some lifting tips to a portly scribe to help lose weight


‘But, please lah, don’t interview, no pictures. What for? So many young sportsmen for you to interview. I’m old already,’ he says


All the while, he is smiling


Howe Liang looks good. In fact, he looks even better than when I last saw him some five years ago


So we left and headed for the archives. And there, the faded clippings, the sepia-ravaged newspaper articles, tell the story about how a boy from Swatow, China, and then Chinatown Singapore, kept his word to a father he hardly knew


‘One day,’ he had promised, ‘I will be the strongest man in the world.’


No one knew why he made that vow. His Teochew dad had died in a Sago Lane death-house when he was 14.


His mother returned to Swatow, leaving the young boy under the care of his granduncle and grandaunt.


Howe Liang’s Olympic initiation came in 1956, in the middle of a bitterly cold Melbourne night, when he blacked out midway through the competition, never to complete his three lifts.


But he put the setback aside and won the 1958 Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games. And in 1959, he completed a hat-trick of titles at the South-east Asian Peninsular Games.


But it was the Olympics that Howe Liang was craving for, his only theatre to deliver that promise he had made.


The Chinatown boy was actually tipped to win the lightweight category in Rome.


Two targets were set for him: Get the gold and the clean-and-jerk world record which he had set during the Commonwealth Games.


In June 1959, he had also bettered Russian Viktor Bushuyev’s world lightweight record of 390kg when he totalled 403kg at an exhibition at the old New World Park. However, this could not be ratified as it was not achieved during competition.


So Singapore was hoping that Howe Liang would use the bigger Olympics platform to set the records again.


But everything went wrong for him in Rome, save his courage and determination.


First, the judges were unfriendly. Three of his lifts were deemed ‘incomplete’, though Singapore officials thought otherwise.


One protest was upheld, another turned down. The third ruling could not be appealed as all three judges had voted red.


The weightlifting competition then comprised three lifts: press, snatch and clean-and-jerk.


Bushuyev tore apart the record books. He equalled the mark of 125kg in the press, raised it to 122.5kg in the snatch and matched the jerk’s 150kg.


His 397.5-kg total was a new world record.


After the first two lifts, Howe Liang and his managers realised the gold was gone. But with lifts of 115kg (press) and 110kg (snatch), he was sure of a bronze.


Iraq’s Abdul Wahid Aziz was also ahead of the Singaporean with 117.5kg and 115 kg respectively.


Howe Liang had a 90-minute wait before the jerk. While hanging around, he suddenly whispered to manager Chua Tian Teck in Malay that his legs were hurting. Chua and Malayan lifter Chung Kum Weng then helped him to the changing room.


Chua sought advice from American weightlifters Bob Haufman and Johnny Terpak. Two doctors and a nurse were summoned and they started massaging him.


There was only an hour left to show time.


Trpak and one of the doctors suggested that he be taken to the Games Village hospital and have the thighs bandaged. That would mean quitting the competition – for the second Olympics.


Howe Liang cried and asked Chua not to do that.


Both prayed. Recalled Chua: ‘He was deeply troubled. But half an hour to go before he had to appear on stage, a miracle happened. While he was lying down, he felt the cramp leaving him.’


Chua and Chung helped him to sit up on the bench. Then they watched as Howe Liang stood up slowly.


‘Boleh,’ he told them.


Howe Liang failed his first attempt at 150kg. Disgusted, he turned towards Chua and asked what was needed to beat Wahid: 155kg.


As Chua said: ‘That would mean breaking the Olympic record of 150.’


Howe Liang did it. His total tied Wahid’s 380kg but the Singaporean won the silver on lighter body weight.


But the ‘wayang’ was still not over.


During the prize-giving ceremony, Games organisers hoisted the Japanese flag.


Then his flight home arrived a day earlier, the telegram officials sent from Rome not reaching anyone over the weekend. So the wild welcome back never materialised.


Howe Liang was feted at the Istana by the then-head of state Yusof Ishak and later awarded the Meritorious Service Medal.


It is almost 50 years since that September day in Rome. It may be argued that it is perhaps a little late to reward him financially.


But what about this: You know that little gym at the National Stadium where the champ still works out daily? Why not call it the Tan Howe Liang Gym?


The Ministry of Community Development and Sports should consider it.


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One response to “From Swatow to Chinatown to Olympic Glory (The Straits Times, 5 August 2004)

  1. Pingback: Paying tribute to Tan Howe Liang « The Singapore Sports Fan Says…

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