1973: Lifetime of memories for this 'kampung boy' writer

Singapore's original swim queen Pat Chan showing Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee her lucky mascot, a teddy bear, after receiving the 100m backstroke gold medal from him. Heather Merican clearing the last barrier to win the 200m hurdles easily from tea
Singapore's original swim queen Pat Chan showing Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee her lucky mascot, a teddy bear, after receiving the 100m backstroke gold medal from him. Heather Merican clearing the last barrier to win the 200m hurdles easily from team-mate and silver medallist Gan Bee Wah. The 24-year-old housewife completed a brilliant double on the final day of the 7th Seap Games' track and field programme at the National Stadium after winning the 100m hurdles.ST FILE PHOTOS
Singapore's original swim queen Pat Chan showing Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee her lucky mascot, a teddy bear, after receiving the 100m backstroke gold medal from him. Heather Merican clearing the last barrier to win the 200m hurdles easily from tea
Singapore's original swim queen Pat Chan showing Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee her lucky mascot, a teddy bear, after receiving the 100m backstroke gold medal from him. Heather Merican clearing the last barrier to win the 200m hurdles easily from team-mate and silver medallist Gan Bee Wah. The 24-year-old housewife completed a brilliant double on the final day of the 7th Seap Games' track and field programme at the National Stadium after winning the 100m hurdles.ST FILE PHOTOS

1973. It was a time when foreign talent was unheard of. And overseas training still a novelty. When four-room Housing Board flats averaged $15,000 and mid-sized saloon cars much less.

It was also the year when Singapore first opened its doors to an international multi-sports event - the 7th South-east Asian Peninsular Games. The new National Stadium laid out the red carpet for 1,600 competitors from seven countries. In the next eight days, they crossed swords in 16 sports.

The modern stadium was a dream venue to go faster, higher and stronger. Built at a cost of $32 million, it could seat 55,000 and had first-class facilities. Lush football pitch, tick. Eight-lane tartan running track, tick. Auditorium, tick. Weights room, tick. State-of-the-art electronic scoreboards, tick. And many more.

When the biennial event came to our shores 42 years ago, I was a 23-year-old reporter who had never been abroad before. No kidding. So I was both amused and puzzled to hear so many foreign languages spoken. It was all Greek to me. But their supreme human endeavour spoke volumes and transcended languages.

Frankly, I don't remember the intense action much. I can't say for sure if their eyes were popping or their mouths wide open and gulping for air to fuel their muscles as they streaked to the finish line. Neither can I recall if they cried unashamedly. Or hugged their coaches till they turned blue.

What sticks in my mind were their accomplishments. Together, the foreign athletes and locals helped lift the human spirit and we who witnessed them were enriched.

Among them was home-grown Patricia Chan, who interrupted lives all over the island whenever swimming was screened on television. Her thirst for success was insatiable as she added six more gold medals to the 33 already sitting prettily in her trophy cabinet.

Then there was Elaine Sng, Chan's team-mate and the older sister of Junie. The unassuming freestyler kept the success wheels turning briskly with five golds, including an Asian Games record in the 400m freestyle.

Together with other swimmers, a diver and the water polo team, they contributed 23 of Singapore's 45 golds - just two short of champions Thailand.

The Land of Smiles did not exactly look at their rivals with a kindly expression in track and field. Anat Ratanapol was their meanest machine. He gunned them down in the mother of all races of any athletics competition: the 100 metres sprint, crossing the line in 10.5sec with hardly any hint of sweat.

He added the 200m for good measure. Anat's reign of terror began in 1967 and ended in 1977 and brought him 13 golds in all.

Two other foreign athletes who remained on top of their craft for what also seemed like aeons were Burma's indestructible Jimmy Crampton and the evergreen Jennifer Tin Lay.

Crampton, the undisputed middle distance king, amassed 12 golds from 1969 to 1979. Not to be outdone, Jennifer heaved and huffed to success in shot put (nine golds from 1967 to 1983) and discus (six golds from 1973 to 1983).

But it was home-bred hurdler Heather Merican - she of the drop-dead glamorous looks and model figure - who set hearts fluttering. It did not matter that she was already a mother of two when she claimed the 100m and 200m hurdles double. Just thinking of her poise and technique as she cleared the hurdles effortlessly still gives me goose bumps.

Also memorable was the Games Village, featuring four 25-storey blocks in Toa Payoh. It was the first time that the Games athletes were housed in high-rise apartments.  Previously, they were put up in school hostels or low-rise accommodation.

But it was not all cold bricks and mortar. The warm kampung feeling was everywhere. Look out the windows, and the athletes could see patches of vegetable gardens beside many ground-level residences of the estate and dogs, cats and chickens roamed freely.

The media were taken on a tour of the flats before the athletes' arrival. The experience was both frightening and exhilarating for a kampung boy like myself. Seeing cars and buses reduced to matchbox size from the penthouse was thrilling even though my knees were knocking furiously.

I've suffered from vertigo ever since. But I will put up with this slight inconvenience all over again for the rich legacy of the  event and the Grand Old Lady of stadiums left me.

Thank you for the memories.

stsports@sph.com.sg

The writer joined The Straits Times in 1967 and over the next four decades, covered the Olympics, Asian Games and SEA Games for ST and other SPH publications like Streats and The New Paper. He retired last year.

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