The Golden Age of Athletics
by Chan Yew Khee, V.I. Athletics Captain 1960
hen I joined the V.I. in 1955, there was not much interest in athletics as there were hardly any people training on the school field in the evenings. In those days the school sports, including the heats were spread over two days because of the number of Classes. The school population was at that time divided into 5 Classes - Class 5 for those below 13, Class 4 for those from 13 - 15, Class 3 for those between 15 and 17, Class 2 for those from 17 to 19 and finally Class 1 for those above 19. The School Relay team was only one team consisting of big, hulking runners from the upper Forms - Form 5 and Form 6.
In most of the inter-school relays races the V.I. was not even mentioned as we were always beaten by the M.B.S.K.L., our deadliest rivals. They had good runners like George Ananda and then for a couple of years they had Kok Lit Yoong. Next best was St. Johns Institution. We were never in the limelight! The best we could come out was second.
I remember Mani Jegathesan was my classmate in the Batu Road School and when we joined the V.I. together in 1955, we were put in the same Form One class. He was there only for a year and left for the Anglo-Chinese School, Singapore. Jega won the 1955 V.I. Sports Class 5 100 yards race in a record time of 12.8 seconds, but was beaten into second place in the 50 yard race by Poon Yew Chin! Jegathesan was then quite a short fellow, not quite yet the great athlete that he was destined to be, but I recall his attire was classy - spikes and running shorts. He was the younger brother of M. Harichandra who was a quarter miler in the V.I. in the late forties and who had held the state record in the 440 yards. Harichandra later represented Malaya in the 1956 Olympics. Jegathesan, of course, garnered greater honours than his brother. He became Asia's fastest man in 1966 at the Asian Games and represented Malaya/Malaysia in the Olympics in 1960, 1964 and 1968.
1956 was the year when I began to show a lot of interest in athletics. This was because Dr G. E. D. Lewis was the new Headmaster and he made a lot of changes to the sporting scene - he reintroduced the cross country run, reorganised the 5 Classes into three - Class 3 for boys below 15, Class 2 for those between 15 and 17 and Class 1 for those above 17. This had an immediate good effect on the sporting scene - athletics as well as other games and swimming - as there were now more people in each class and so there was more competition. As far as the School Sports was concerned a lot of effort was saved as there was now less time involved in the running of heats and the final events.
Dr Lewis also reintroduced compulsory Qualifying Rounds in which each pupil scored a point for his House when he ran under certain set times, or jumped and threw over certain set distances. These points counted towards the total for his House and helped determine the Champion House in athletics. He also introduced the Olympic-style march past to start off the School Sports, an innovation that many other schools later copied. But the Qualifying Rounds concept was instrumental in encouraging an intense level of competition among the eight Houses and in building up the standard of V.I. athletics.
The V.I. Sports Meet was spectacular in those days. The opening march past and the opening ceremony to music by the VICC Band attracted many members of the public who packed the hill slopes overlooking the field. The non-competing V.I. boys sat in their own tents erected and decorated by themselves the day before. (A prize was awarded later for the best decorated tent.) During a recess in the Meet the band boys came out to perform some marches or drills. The prize-giving at the end of the Meet was efficiently done and the closing ceremony was moving and solemn as the School Flag was lowered to the notes the Last Post played by a VICC bugler.
Each house had three relay teams, one for each Class, and as there are eight houses, there were 24 relay teams in all. As a result more and more boys stayed back after school to practice. From them the best people were picked for the school relay teams. The training was centralised and the athletes were polished until they excelled.
The VI was then the centre of a lot of athletic activity for KL because of its strategic location and large field. Before Dr Lewis came to the V.I. the national and state runners used to train in Coronation Park but when the Stadium Merdeka was built on that site, they migrated to the V.I. where they were welcomed by Dr Lewis. The fact that 1956 was also an Olympics Year helped boost interest in athletics. Those national and state runners did their training every evening at the V.I. under a dedicated Old Boy Lim Thye Hee who was the School Victor Ludorum of 1925. He would first train these runners and having finished with them he would spend some time with us, the present boys. Other Old Boys like Linden Pavee, Lim Heng Suan (Lim Thye Hee's son) and Yeoh Cheang Swi also went back to the V.I. to train as members of their respective clubs but found time to train our boys when they had time. Such was their love for their old school.
I specialised as a starter. It is ideal if you can start off just as the starter's gun goes off; that split second gained makes a lot of difference. I was coached by Lim Thye Hee who was an indefatigable trainer. He put us through our paces - he timed us, corrected our body movements and postures, and pushed us through endurance rounds. Those were the days when foreign coaches hired at astronomical sums were unheard of - our locals offered their services for free. Lim Thye Hee was coach for the 1954 Malayan contingent to the Asian Games at Manila and I understand that he passed the hat around and paid for part of our Malayan athletes' expenses from his own pocket. He was also coach to the 1956 Malayan Olympics team. Where are such selfless coaches these days?
Dr Lewis was very hospitable to these old Boys and welcomed them back to the school as he realised their value to the school. As he also lived on the school premises he would stroll onto the field every evening to chat with everyone. As a result there slowly developed this very supportive and cooperative atmosphere. The older boys were not too interested as they were more academically inclined. We were still losing to the M.B.S.K.L. in my early years, but we younger ones were training hard under the guidance of our seniors. The seeds of the V.I.'s success had been planted.
In October 1955 Jesse Owens visited the V.I. to give training to our local athletes, including V.I. boys. He was the 1936 Olympic sensation who had garnered 4 gold medals in the 100 metres, 200 metres, long jump and the 4x100 metres relay in Berlin.
In January 1957 Parry O'Brien, the specialist in discus and shot putt came to the V.I. to give a demonstration and again his visit attracted large crowds. O'Brien was fresh from his shot putt and discus triumphs at the Melbourne Olympics the previous year. In fact O'Brien actually broke the Malayan shot put record in one of his demonstration throws, to the applause of all of us. And an American coach, whose name I forget, also came to the VI to train our boys in a coaching clinic. We V.I. boys always stood to benefit from these visits.
In 1956 I was the Class Three athletics champ and in 1957 and 1958 I was the Class 2 champion. However, in 1959, when I entered Class One, I encountered fierce competition from the likes of R. Krishna the School Athletics Champion and Victor Ludorum, and was beaten by him. In 1960 I was again beaten for the Championship title, this time by Felix Gabriel who had transferred to the V.I. from St Gabriel's School.
Training beside the cream of the country helped the V.I. tremendously. From 1956 to 1958 the pool of young athletes grew quickly as interest in athletics grew. I remember rounding up all the young boys from all houses for training. It was all voluntary. We would just say that there was training that day in the evening and they would all turn up. Such was the attitude shown by the boys then. We jogged, practised our starts, baton passing and learned various techniques. In 1957 our fortunes started to change when Kok Lit Yoong joined the VI from the M.B.S.K.L. to be in our Sixth Form Arts and naturally he was put into our relay team as the anchor. We began to win most of the relays, except the times we posted were still not that good. We began to have junior relay teams as well.
By 1958 the senior team of Kok Lit Yoong, P. Nathan, Lee Yuen Hon and Wong Yin Fook were winning the senior relays. They set a Malayan School Boys record of 44.6 seconds in the 4x110 relay at the Malayan Telecommunications sports at the Merdeka Stadium. Meanwhile our youngsters were getting so good that the there was hardly any difference in the standard between the Class One and Class Two sprinters. We could insert one of the Class Two sprinters into the Class One team and still win! We were becoming strong in all departments - 4x110, 4x220 and 4x440 yards (in those days the metric system was not in use).
By 1960 we had reached our peak. Runners like Kenny Siebel, Felix Gabriel and Eddy Lee and many others were winning their races all over the place. The Class 1 relay team was unbeaten in Selangor, having taken part in fifteen relays in all. Our 4x440 quartet (comprising Zambri Yahya, Kenny Siebel, Felix Gabriel and myself) was selected to represent Selangor Schools and won their event in the Federation of Malaya Athletics meet. To cap it all not only was I the School Athletics Captain, I was also made Captain of the Selangor Combined Schools Meet that year. Our boys participated in this meet and many managed to garner medals in their events.
Dedicated teachers like Terry Rajaratnam and Valentine Manuel were at the V.I. field to train us in the afternoons; they even accompanied us in the Cross Country training. The route took us from the School along Jalan Kerayong towards the old (and sole) airport and wound its way amongst the Chinese graveyards, emerging amongst the Divison One government quarters area of Petaling Hill. It then went downhill along Hose Road, past Edinburgh Circle and back to the School again.
I remember the first Cross Country Run in 1956 when I was among the lead runners, well ahead of the rest. Being dressed in vivid colours and running at speed past the squatter huts was a sure invitation for their fierce guard dogs to chase after us. We had to scramble over graves to escape those snapping jaws. Some unfortunate Shaw House boys, garbed in the red colour of their House, attracted the attention of some cows and had to forget to run the Cross Country and run for their lives instead. Of course when the main body of runners arrived at the scene in a seething mass of thumping feet and dazzling colours, the four-legged aggressors turned tail and scampered away.
Dr Lewis introduced a Challenge Trophy for the Perak Combined Schools Cross Country competition in 1960. Our Cross Country team was so good by then that we went to Ipoh and beat Anderson School and other Perak Schools to win this Challenge Trophy. I still recall this run vividly as we ran across real Cross Country terrain, over tin mining land and quarries and even through a limestone tunnel. We waded waist-deep across the Kinta River and, as the weather turned bad, had to run through drenching rain, thunder and lightning! What a change from the forbidding Chinese graveyards and the verdant Petaling Hill! And for good measure, back in K.L., we also won the Cross-Country trophy for the Selangor Combined Schools.
Dr Lewis also donated a challenge trophy for an annual meet between the V.I. and the Federation Military College. The FMC boys were known for their toughness and athletic prowess. We won the first meet in 1957 but lost it in 1958 because the FMC were good in every department and our standard then was still not high enough yet. (There were 36 events in all, 12 for each of the three classes, and the rules also stipulated that no athlete could take part in more than four events.) It would be another three years before we finally snatched the trophy back.
I will never ever forget the 1960 meet against the FMC. I was the starter in the 4x110 yards relay and the starter was standing very close to me with his starter's gun. His gun was so loud when it went off that it gave me a shock, my baton brushed against my shorts as I started off and slipped from my fingers! I picked up the baton and lost a fraction of a second as a result. I shall never forgive myself for that incident and every Victorian present shared my agony. Whatever it was, even if we had won that relay, the V.I. would have still lost overall to the FMC. They had Shahruddin the best sprinter in the country at that time with sub-ten second times in the 100 yards. He even beat Mani Jegathesan at that time.
In the VI sports of 1958, however, when eight schools competed in the relay finals, we managed to beat the FMC Senior team by a clever tactic. There were the 4x110 relay for the Class 2 runners and 4x220 for the Class 1 boys. At that time our fastest runners were spread over both the teams; Wong Yin Fook and I were both in Class 2 at that time because of our age but we were as fast as the Class 1 runners. But we knew we did not have the chance to win both the Class 1 and the Class 2 relays because of this diluted strength. So, as Athletics Vice-Captain, I made the decision to move myself and Yin Fook over to the Class One team. Our gamble worked - our Class 2 team did not get first place as expected (they were second to the FMC which came first) but we won the more prestigious Class 1 event!
We had such an excellent reputation in athletics that many schools and organisations like the Telecoms, Malayan Railway, the Public Works Department and the Royal Malayan Police were inviting us to take part in their sports. No meet was complete without the V.I. relay team present! There was one day, at the height of the athletics season, we sent SEVEN relay teams to compete. Some of us, like myself, ran in more than one event at one meet, as well. The V.I. Sports Secretary, Mr S. G. Dorai Raj, was anxiously asking me, "Are you sure, Yew Khee, that we can do it? I don't want to be an alarmist, but have you got enough runners?" I assured him that we could. And we did - we had five first places, one second place and one unplaced, and this because one of the runners, Thiruchandran, suffered a torn muscle!
If the venues were close by, we would rush from one race by bicycle in our running attire. I remember after having won the race at the Police Depot our team cycled as fast as we could to the nearby Technical College, arriving just as they were calling all the participating teams, including the V.I., to report to the starter. Not even bothering to lock our bicycles, we chucked them and ran to report ourselves. Even then we won our event! And to collect our prizes, we did the same thing, cycling furiously to the various venues, arriving just in time to collect the trophies.
It may be surprisingly to learn that no masters followed us in these meets, although they did accompany us on outstation trips. We did not need them; we were reliable and responsible enough to turn up on time at all our meets. Our runners were all good runners by then, their standards more or less equal to each other. This was the result of the talent spotting and training that we had initiated from 1957 onwards.
It took a few years before we could reap the harvest, but the results were already apparent in 1958. Just considering first places only, that year, we won 10 of the 22 relay races, in 1959 18 out of 30 races, and, in my final year in 1960, 17 out of 31 (there were a few more races run after The Victorian went to press which were not printed). Checking further in the old school magazines, I see that we won 17 relays out of 29 in 1961, 10 out of 22 in Dr Lewis' final year, 1962. The next three years were: 4 out of 21, 8 out of 12 and 4 out of 12.
Unfortunately, after Dr Lewis, all the non-V.I. athletes and even V.I. Old Boys, including myself, were chased away from the V.I. field by the new V.I. Headmaster in 1964 who valued the grass more than the Old Boys. As a result, later generations of V.I. athletes forever lost the chance to mix with their peers, to learn from each other and to be inspired by state and national runners. The latter, in disgust, went to the Kampong Pandan field instead for their training.
This insensitive action alienated a lot of the Old Boys who never returned to their Alma Mater again. Dr Lewis' successor was lucky that he had reaped a rich harvest of good athletes from the seeds sown in the late fifties and the early sixties. But this bounty could only last that long as the investments, reputation and achievements of that Golden Age of athletics inevitably faded away with a dearth of coaches and role models who could have come freely from the ranks of the V.I. Old Boys.
By the seventies the decline in V.I. athletics had become perceptible. This was a great tragedy for V.I. athletics and breaks my heart as a former School Athletics Captain to see this happen. Today, looking around the empty V.I. field and at the tarnished Athletics Championship trophies gathering dust in the V.I. Museum, I see the result of all that selfishness and short-sightedness and I mourn the loss of a great and glorious chapter in the history of this great school.
I cannot end without recording here my appreciation of the Old Boys who helped train us at the V.I. field and of the many wonderful V.I. sportsmen of my era who raced against me, with me, and for me. They gave unstinting and unselfish service with only the School's glory in mind. It has been one great race, chaps!
Last update on 23 November 2003.
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