When I was an Olympian

Barefooted, but feeling covered in glory

At the 1972 Olympics, P.C. Suppiah clocked 31min 59.2sec in the 10,000m race, breaking his own national record.
At the 1972 Olympics, P.C. Suppiah clocked 31min 59.2sec in the 10,000m race, breaking his own national record.

The Olympics is the pinnacle of an athlete's career. Singapore has sent athletes to the Summer Games since London 1948 and has a modest haul of two silvers and two bronzes. What has been worth its weight in gold however, has been the memories garnered from these experiences. Jonathan Wong and Yogaraj Panditurai speak to three former Olympians about their unforgettable moments.

With my bare feet, I stepped onto the track in Munich's Olympiastadion and headed towards the start point for my 10,000m heat.

The other runners stared at me, wondering if I was either crazy or just plain poor to turn up with no footwear. A few thought I was from a poverty-stricken part of India.

Even the race officials were worried. One came up to me - then just a slender 23-year-old standing at 1.68m - and said: "You forgot your shoes! Don't worry, we'll wait for you to go back and grab them."

Little did they know I was already in my element. When I first ran at age 17, I could not afford shoes and ran barefoot.

After many rounds at MacRitchie Reservoir, I soon enjoyed the feeling.

In my youth, I also worked at the Singapore Polo Club and took care of the horses. To build up my stamina, I ran alongside them regularly.

  • P.C. SUPPIAH

  • AGE: 66
    OLYMPIC PARTICIPATION: Munich 1972, Athletics (59th in 5,000m, 45th in 10,000m)

I went on to clock 31min 59.2sec. I broke my own national record (32:18.8) and also became the first Singaporean runner to go below 32 minutes in the 10,000m.

Moments after I crossed the finish line, my name was announced on the loudspeakers and I was congratulated on breaking the national record.

I received a certificate, on the spot, recognising my achievement and I still keep it until this very day.

At the Olympic Village, adidas and Puma approached me. They wanted to sponsor my shoes and sportswear. I accepted both but only to give the products to a local charity.

I achieved what I came to do in the Olympics - going below 32 minutes. I was also happy with the national record.

But growing up, I could not have imagined myself becoming Singapore's first long-distance runner in the Olympics.

Football was actually my first love and that was where my passion was. However, I eventually decided to focus fully on running.

I took the 5,000m silver and 10,000m gold at the 1971 Kuala Lumpur Seap (South-east Asia Peninsular Games) Games, was crowned 1971's Sportsman of the Year, and enjoyed a memorable Munich Games.

Looking back now, I hold no regrets about making the switch to running.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'Barefooted, but feeling covered in glory'. Print Edition | Subscribe