C Kunalan: Sprint legend of Singapore

Singapore Sports Museum is home to a mesmerising, silver-coloured cast of a sturdy hand holding a baton accompanied with a foot. Canagasabai Kunalan is the inspiration for the remarkable piece of art.

Local artist Baet Yeok Kuan designed the sculpture of Kunalan's right hand holding a relay baton, called ‘Passing The Baton’ and one of his right foot, called ‘Best Foot Forward’.

Humble and painfully down-to-earth Kunalan, one of the most iconic sportspersons of Singapore, had reservations when he was approached for the project, “I felt that I had not done much to deserve this kind of adulation and attention.” However, he was eventually convinced to take part because he felt the art piece would help in preserving Singapore’s sports heritage and educating future generations on what the pioneering athletes of the country had done.

The silver-coloured hand and foot cast of famous  sprinter C Kunalan kept at Singapore Sports Museum. Photo courtesy: Singapore Sports Hub
The silver-coloured hand and foot cast of famous sprinter C Kunalan kept at Singapore Sports Museum. Photo courtesy: Singapore Sports Hub

It is the first time in Singapore’s history that a sportsperson has been honoured with such an artefact.

Appreciating the beauty of the art, Kunalan said, “I thought the art piece was very nicely done. My hand cast is holding a baton, which symbolises that we should pass on our experience and knowledge. And the foot cast, to me, symbolises where it all started for a sprinter like me.”

V K Santosh Kumar with the legend C Kunalan
V K Santosh Kumar with the legend C Kunalan

One of the most respected sports journalists of Singapore, V K Santosh Kumar, currently the Consulting Editor, Tabla while summing up legendary C Kunalan’s career, said, “One should remember that Singapore was only three years old when he competed at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Sports was still in its infancy here and did not have the training facilities that United States and Soviet Union sprinters had. So, it is creditable that he could finish among the top 32 fastest men in the world. His national record of 10.38 sec stood for 33 years.”

 

He overcame the odds to be a top athlete and he trained very hard. Besides that, he nurtured and helped many athletes to do their best. Overall, he is a simple and humble human being. Someone who is non-confrontational and non-vindictive

Kunalan is regarded as one of Singapore’s greatest athletes and mentors in sports. His contribution to athletics extends beyond medals and national records. Till this day, he continues to give back to the sport as an administrator and is an inspiration to all athletes.

He has won 15 South-East Asian Peninsular (SEAP) medals and five from the Asian Games.

His high point came during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, when he clocked 10.38 seconds in the 100-metre sprint, setting a national record that remained unbroken for more than three decades before UK Shayam lowered it by 0.01 second in 2001. Kunalan also participated in 1964 Olympics at Tokyo when he represented Malaysia.

C Kunalan was awarded the Best Sportsman Award for two consecutive years in 1968 and 1969. Photo courtesy: singaporeolympics.com
C Kunalan was awarded the Best Sportsman Award for two consecutive years in 1968 and 1969. Photo courtesy: singaporeolympics.com

He also excelled in the 1969 SEAP Games where he won three gold medals for the 100m, 200m and the 4x400m relay while competing against the best sprinters in the region. He was awarded the Best Sportsman Award for two consecutive years (1968 and 1969).

Kunalan earlier had an inclination for football but his foray into the world of athletics can be credited to his coach, Tan Eng Yong, who incidentally had trained many of Singapore’s top athletes in the 1960s. Kunalan’s talent was spotted by his coach in late 1962 when he was playing football.

Kunalan was a student-teacher at the Teachers’ Training College, where Tan was a lecturer. Kunalan was initially not keen on sprinting, but was eventually convinced by Tan to pick it up. According to Tan, Kunalan was a model athlete who “worked very hard once he was convinced of what he could achieve”. After only five months of training, he was clocking 10.9 second in the 100-metre sprint.

 Kunalan retired from competition first in 1970 after the Sixth Asian Games. He made a come back in 1973 and thereafter anchored the 4 x 400m team to a gold in the 1975 SEAP Games.

After retiring from major competitions in 1978, he continued his association with athletics coaching his school athletes. In 1981, at the age of 39, he ran the 400m in 48.8 seconds at the Swifts Club Annual Championship at the National Stadium, proving that he has not lost his mettle.

His concentration for the next 10 years was his career as lecturer at the Institute of Education. His stint as the National Sprint Coach from 1993 till 1996 enabled the National sprint team to break the national 4x100m record in 1994, a record which Kunalan helped set in 1974. He still keeps his association with athletics, lecturing at various IOC Athletic and National Coaches Courses.

After retiring from competitive running in 1978, he continued to serve the sport as the National Sprints Coach from 1993 to 1996. Under his guidance, the national team broke the 4 x 100m relay record in 1994. A record that Kunalan had helped set back in 1974.

Beyond sport, Kunalan served as a teacher in Tiong Bahru Primary School and Dunearn Secondary Technical  School for 20 years before joining the National Institute of Education in 1980 as a lecturer There, he contributed significantly to the training of physical education teachers.

Oon Jin Teik, Chief Executive Officer, Singapore Sports Hub, said: “Kunalan is an inspiration not just for athletics, but also for the whole of Singapore’s sports community. It is important that we remember his story here at the Singapore Sports Museum so that others can learn from it and be motivated by it.  Achievements aside, his dedication to volunteering at the museum and imparting his wisdom to others is extraordinary. This makes him an excellent role model for all.”

The art piece done by Singapore artist Baet Yeok Kuan commemorating C. Kunalan's distinguished sports career. Photo courtesy: Singapore Sports Hub
The art piece done by Singapore artist Baet Yeok Kuan commemorating C. Kunalan's distinguished sports career. Photo courtesy: Singapore Sports Hub

Lim Teck Yin, Chief Executive Officer, Sport Singapore, said, “Giving back to sport is something that runs in Mr Kunalan’s veins. His dedication to sport is exemplary and till this day he continues to contribute through the ActiveSG Athletics Club.”

“His achievements make him one of Singapore’s greatest athletes and his humility is something all of us can learn from. We hope that through this honour, his contribution to sport and his story will continue to inspire our athletes and generations to come,” he added.

Kunalan’s notable achievements include:

  1. 1966 Asian Games, 100m sprint, Silver, 4 x 400m relay Bronze
  2. 1967 SEAP Games, 100m, 200m, 4 x100m, 4 x 400m Silver
  3. 1969 SEAP Games, 100m 1969 SEAP Games, 200m sprint, Gold
  4. 1969 SEAP Games, 4 X 400m relay, Gold
  5. 1969 SEAP Games,  4 x 100m relay, Bronze
  6. 1970 Asian Games, 100m sprint, Bronze
  7. 1970 Asian Games, 200m sprint, Bronze
  8. 1973 SEAP Games, 4 x 400m relay,  Silver
  9. 1974 Asian Games, 4 x 100m relay Bronze
  10. 1975 SEAP Games,  4 x 400m Gold, 4 x 100m Silver, 4 x 200m Silver
  11. 1977 SEA Games, 100m Bronze, 4 x 100m relay, Silver (at age 35 years)
  12. Best Sportsman of the Year for 1968 and 1969
  13. Inducted into the Sports Museum Hall of Fame in 2002.

In 1999, The Straits Times placed sprinter Canagasabai Kunalan as eighth on its list of Singapore’s 50 greatest athletes.

Author
Ashraf Jamal
Ashraf Jamal – Senior Writer

Ashraf Jamal brings a rare depth to writing equipped with a degree in journalism, a postgraduate degree in political science, and a degree in law from the Allahabad University. His experience includes editing and publishing the Northern India Patrika and writing for Times of India for almost a decade covering just about any topic under the sun including NRIs and Indian diaspora.

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