1983: Ten golds turn Singapore Games into Sng Games

Swimmer Junie Sng retired aged only 19. She won 10 golds in 10 days. The opening ceremony of the 12th SEA Games at the National Stadium on May 28, 1983 was so wet it made it look like the 'Umbrella Games' instead.
Swimmer Junie Sng retired aged only 19. She won 10 golds in 10 days. The opening ceremony of the 12th SEA Games at the National Stadium on May 28, 1983 was so wet it made it look like the 'Umbrella Games' instead.ST FILE PHOTO
Swimmer Junie Sng retired aged only 19. She won 10 golds in 10 days. The opening ceremony of the 12th SEA Games at the National Stadium on May 28, 1983 was so wet it made it look like the 'Umbrella Games' instead.
Swimmer Junie Sng retired aged only 19. She won 10 golds in 10 days. The opening ceremony of the 12th SEA Games at the National Stadium on May 28, 1983 was so wet it made it look like the 'Umbrella Games' instead.ST FILE PHOTO

Singing in the rain was the four-word headline on the front page of The Straits Times as the slippery skies cruelly opened up to almost mar President C.V. Devan Nair declaring open the 12th SEA Games at the National Stadium on May 28, 1983.

What looked more like the "Umbrella Games" got under way after an hour's delay in front of 35,000 (much less than the expected 60,000) spirited Singaporeans. And Alan Hubbard poignantly described the wettest-ever opening ceremony with these words, "the only dampness most of us were aware of was around the eyes".

It was, in accordance to the renewed alphabetical rotation of hosting duties, Brunei's turn. But because it was preparing for its independence from Britain, Singapore took over, with the Games Village extraordinarily set at the Nanyang Technological Institute in Jurong - present-day NTU.

Almost like a wet blanket, 1983 stood out for political significance too; Cambodia returned, as the People's Republic of Kampuchea after an eight-year absence since the Khmer Rouge seized power.

I remember the late sprint champion Tan Eng Yoon, Singapore's first gold medallist at the 1959 South-east Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games. He was then 55 years old, drippy and drizzly, as he sprinted up the 145 steps to plunge the flaming torch into the stadium cauldron.

But over the next 10 days, tears welled in the eyes, as a Singaporean swimmer made unparalleled waves with 10 golds. The singular icon of the 1983 Games: 19-year-old Junie Sng Poh Leng.

Like the crest of a tsunami, she swept past 1,823 athletes in the 18 sporting events from eight countries - Brunei,  Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Thailand,  Kampuchea and Singapore.

Having covered sports for close to three decades, I'd rank her as the most serious Singapore-born world-beater, if not for her unusual early retirement.

She made her SEA Games debut even before finishing primary school at 11, in 1975.

Eight years later, she retired in perhaps the best grandstand finish ever, after winning 10 gold medals over 10 days. In the process, she became the first woman in Asia to swim the 800m freestyle in under nine minutes.

She is, in a nutshell, my Singapore idol. Simply because no athlete, on home soil, has ever emulated her feat, not before in 1973 or later in 1993, or I ever doubt even in 2015 or thereafter.

She was, like Singapore's first "Golden Girl" Patricia Chan (who took to the pool at 11 at the 1965 Kuala Lumpur Games and retired at 19), a supreme symbol of swimming Singaporeans: young, disciplined and determined to succeed.

Junie's feat was a mermaid-like meridian, rarely to be repeated unless another tsunami strikes. In today's sporting climate, at 19, the athletes are just about to rise to the big occasion, like what US-based Singaporean swim prodigy Joseph Schooling may well be doing this time.

Yes, I remember, too, Junie accounted for close to a third of Singapore's final medal haul, which was 38 golds (38 silvers and 58 bronzes, too) to finish fourth in the standings.

Another 19-year-old regional wonder who burned the tracks with a golden sprint show was Lydia de Vega, ranked Asia's fastest woman in the 1980s. Likewise, another pin-up girl from the Philippines, the sexy four-time world bowling champ Olivia "Bong" Coo proved unbeatable.

Other local stars were Henry Tan, Ronnie Ng and S.Y. Loh, who broke the world record in the trios with 3,620 pinfalls, and Wong Shoon Keat, who shocked the region's best singles shuttlers.

Football, unfailingly, garners the loudest roar and after the drenched opening ceremony, the much-awaited Causeway clash with neighbours Malaysia should have made it a water polo duel!

The Lions warmed thousands of hearts with a 2-1 win, courtesy of Fandi Ahmad and V. Sundramoorthy, the only two Singaporean footballers who made their European professional mark.

But the Kallang Roar was disappointingly muted, on the last day of the Games on June 6, when they went down 1-2 to Thailand in the final, continuing the curse of never winning the gold.

Thankfully, the water polo wonders proved to be Singapore's biggest team face-savers, continuing their extraordinary unbeaten stint since the sport's debut in 1965.

And, in my mind, what opened the heavens in a flood of memories, 32 years ago, was a made-in-Singapore 10-gold hero, who rightly used home-ground advantage to splash the 1983 event as the "Sng Games".

stsports@sph.com.sg

The writer made his writing debut at the 1979 SEA Games in Jakarta and, over more than three decades, covered multiple international sporting events for the SPH stable of newspapers

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