Tang & SNOC, you've come a long way

SNOC president Tan Chuan-Jin chatting with 1952 Olympic hurdler Tang Pui Wah at the launch of the Project 0812 book yesterday.
SNOC president Tan Chuan-Jin chatting with 1952 Olympic hurdler Tang Pui Wah at the launch of the Project 0812 book yesterday.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

It was the first time she was competing in the Olympics. Tang Pui Wah remembers it as a "privilege" for she felt pride at representing Singapore and, almost as fondly, how she flew to Helsinki in 1952 on a plane "with four propellers".

Her infectious personality captivated all who were at the Singapore National Olympic Council's (SNOC) premises yesterday at the Sports Hub. The organisation celebrates its 70th anniversary this year and it culminated with a book launch and a screening of a documentary titled When the Stars Align.

The film, directed by Brenda Er and Jasmine Teh for non-profit organisation Honour Singapore and is available on YouTube, salutes the country's pioneer female Olympians and focuses on hurdler Tang and sprinters Mary Klass and Janet Jesudason (both of whom competed in 1956 in Melbourne).

From SNOC president Tan Chuan-Jin to national swimmer Tao Li, they all wanted to listen to the plucky 84-year-old Tang recount tales of her Olympic experience.

And she did not disappoint.

There were no long-haul airliners to Helsinki 65 years ago, she recounted. Instead, she had to catch connecting flights in India, Pakistan, Egypt, England, Denmark, Sweden and Norway before arriving in Finland.

Transits usually took more than a day. At night, she would barricade the hotel door with chairs because she was only 19 then. Flights could be delayed by a day and trains would be missed, but, instead of whining, she remained nonplussed.

"I made full use of my time to explore and have fun," recalled Tang, who was joined in a Q&A session by former national sprinter and 1956 Olympian Kesavan Soon.

In Rome, Tang hurled pennies into the Trevi Fountain to re-enact scenes from the movie Three Coins in the Fountain. She marvelled at the size of sunflowers, which she saw for the first time, in Cairo.

"They were bigger than my face!" she exclaimed, the memory still fresh - because she meticulously keeps all her old photos.

"I frequently look at the old photos. The experience is priceless."

Tang, who also excelled in the long jump, high jump and 100m sprint, took part in her pet event, the 80m hurdles, in Helsinki.

But she arrived with no coach, not even a stopwatch. A Chilean athlete borrowed her starting block and did not return it in time. Still, off she went even though she was disadvantaged. She did not clock a personal best but, with the experience gained, she won a bronze medal at the Asian Games in Manila two years later.

Tao Li, who won two Asiad titles, was thrilled to have her photo taken with Tang and paid tribute to the octogenarian.

She said: "She is really inspiring. The younger generation has lots to learn from her. She had nothing and still went for the Olympics. Now, we have the best coaches, the best equipment and the best training. We can do much more."

Yesterday was also the launch of Project 0812, written by Peh Shing Huei, a former Straits Times journalist. The 181-page book chronicles the Republic's quest for an Olympic medal after a 48-year wait, delivered by the women's table tennis team with a silver in 2008 and capped by Joseph Schooling's gold in Rio de Janeiro last year.

From a young lady thrilled to ride on a propeller plane to a young man who became the butterfly king, the SNOC - and Singapore sports - have indeed come a long way in 70 years.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Tang & SNOC, you've come a long way'. Print Edition | Subscribe