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The legends who shaped a champion athlete

by Adrian David

PETALING JAYA, 13 APR –  Lieutenant-Commander (Rtd) Datuk Selvaratnam Karunakarer shone as a double-international, thanks for several legends who shaped his illustrious sports career.

Former national athletics and cricket captain Karu, as he is called (following a surname misnomer), also had a strong will and self-propelled passion to succeed in track and field, his naval career and post-retirement years as a coach and administrator.

Karu spoke of the likes of his alma-mater Anglo-Chinese School Ipoh’s principal Teerath Ram and teachers R. Rasathurai, Lee Hoo Keat and M. Kesavan; United States athletics greats Tom Rosandich and J.C. ‘Jessie’ Owens; and one known only as Hameed – who made a champion out of him to excel in a variety of sports at school, state, country and international levels.

Lieutenant-Commander (Rtd) Datuk Selvaratnam Karunakarer at his Taman Tun Dr Ismail home in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Adrian David

“In 1956, I was a 15-year-old water-boy and junior quartermaster dye-colouring Tagore House’s ‘blue’ singlets for our runners.

“One day, our star 4x400m star runner M. Shanmuganathan suffered a hamstring injury and I was ordered by my House master and state footballer Rasathurai to replace him.

“It was my first and I ran the race of my life to secure victory for the relay team.

“That was my lucky break to bloom as a formidable athlete.

“ACS sports secretary Lee, knowing of my poverty, assisted me in improvising affordable, spiked running shoes from a local cobbler.

“While repeating my Form 5 in 1959, I went on to win the first national schools’ athletics championship 400m hurdles at the City Stadium, Penang – breaking K. Laxman’s national record,” said Karu, in conjunction with ‘ACS Ipoh’s 129th anniversary – Kuala Lumpur and Klang Valley Chapter’ reunion at the Kingdom Palace Restaurant, Tropicana City Mall in Damansara Intan.

Preset were chapter president Peter Lee Siew Choong and former teachers Tan Sri Chin Saw Sooi and swimming master Oh Boon Lian, 94.

Batu Gajah-born Karu, who turned 83 on Jan 28, was ACS Ipoh’s 1959 ‘victor ludorum’ (overall champion athlete).

After finishing school, he worked as a temporary teacher before attending the Royal Malayan (later Malaysian) Navy (RMN) as an apprentice artificer at the British Royal Navy’s Sembawang Dockyard Training College (adjacent to the Woodlands naval base) in Singapore in 1961-65.

The following year, Karu was selected as a short-service commission cadet for a year’s training at the Britannia Royal Navy College in Dartmouth, England.

Karu paid tribute to Perak cricketer Kesavan who sharpened his batting and bowling skills.

“I found that my athletics training was of tremendous help to my cricket, as it developed my aerobic and anabolic endurance,” said Karu, who in 1960 represented Malaya as an opening batsman in the Inter-Port cricket match against Singapore.

Karu’s interest in cricket blossomed as a ten-year-old while visiting his ailing maternal grand-father – travelling aboard the steam-ship SS Rajula with his family to India – and then proceeding to Kandy, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) during the six-week school holidays in November 1951.

“My father Karunakarer Ponniah (himself a school cricketer for St. Joseph’s College in Colombo, Ceylon) had to return to Malaya to continue as a supervisor with Perak River Hydro Station.

“I stayed back with my siblings and Sinhalese mother Wimalawathy Wijelath.

“My two older brothers and I continued our studies at St Anthony’s College (staying at its boarding hostel), Kandy from 1952 before returning to attend ACS Ipoh in mid-1955.

He recalled how Teerath Ram was determined to keep ACS Ipoh’s legacy as a premier sporting school – having produced numerous Olympic and world-class internationals in a variety of events.

“During separate sports clinics at school, American athletics coach Rosandich spotted my budding long-jump and 400m talent and urged me to run the 400m hurdles.

“Legendary Owens (who won four gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics) inculcated the spirit of determination, dedication and desire to succeed,” said Karu.

Later as an RMN personnel, Karu (who was earning a paltry RM90 monthly allowance) said Hameed – who was a canteen operator in the naval base – took a liking for Karu’s sporting prowess and provided complimentary, special-nutritional meals for his much-needed energy and strength.

He added that after his return from BRNC, he had searched for Hameed – who had sponsored a princely sum of a few thousand ringgit worth of the special meals – to repay him but the latter had disappeared as his contract had expired.

“Looking back, these were some of those who provided steadfast grounding to shape, groom and nurture me during my young, budding years.

“I am also grateful to my naval instructors and superiors who transformed me from an artificer to a commissioned officer.

“No amount of money can repay their invaluable advice, encouragement and assistance through my glorious years in life,” said Karu, who was even a navy bantamweight boxing champion, and played hockey, badminton and football in the Armed Forces and several states he was serving in.

Lieutenant-Commander (Rtd) Datuk Selvaratnam Karunakarer at the height of his 400m hurdles heydays. Photo: courtesy of Lieutenant-Commander (Rtd) Datuk Selvaratnam Karunakarer

As a student, Karu even excelled in stage-performance singing and drama – emerging as 1958 Perak schools talentime contest winners with the ‘Caribbean Trio’ singing ‘Marianne’ with Rom Roy and Dicky Chong.

He also took part in the school’s musical drama, entitled ‘Zurika’ the same year.

Karu said Teerath Ram was an excellent headmaster who believed in all-round performance, in that apart from main-stream education, sports and extra-curricular activities were an integral part of school life.

“He put ACS Ipoh on the national map by being among the first few schools to have a swimming pool, industrial and science laboratories, and a full-scale school library.

“He also built our own school indoor badminton hall – Dewan Teerath Ram – along with several other upgrades to the school’s main building and facilities.

“I am proud that my five years at ACS Ipoh saw the school hold its own in sports, academics and drama with facilities to match the best schools in the country.

“As a pedigree of this prestigious ACS Ipoh foundation, I went a long way up in life.

“The teachers then were very special, dedicated and caring by displaying a passion in every single thing they undertook.

“The school itself had a beautiful setting, with the classrooms overlooking the field lined by tall majestic-looking tembusu trees and the chapel.

“ACS Ipoh was my playground and my classroom,” said Karu, who had earlier attended ACS Kampar until Standard 5 as his family was then living in Malim Nawar, before leaving for Ceylon.

Lieutenant-Commander (Rtd) Datuk Selvaratnam Karunakarer (standing, fourth from left) with Oh Boon Lian (on Selvaratnam’s left), Peter Lee Siew Choong (on Oh’s left) and his schoolmates at the ‘ACS Ipoh’s 128th anniversary – Selangor and Kuala Lumpur Chapter’ reunion at the Kingdom Palace Restaurant, Tropicana City Mall in Damansara Intan, Selangor. Photo: Adrian David

Karu had a personal best of 48.4s for the 400m.

He ran 52.7s for the 400m hurdles – a national record that stood for almost 25 years until Anto Kenny Martin broke it by two-tenths of a second at the Malaysian Amateur Athletics Union meet in 1989.

Karu won the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games 400m hurdles bronze and the 4x400m silver (with Rahim Ahmad, Asir Victor and M. Jegathesan); 1961 Rangoon South-East Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games 400m hurdles gold; 1965 Kuala Lumpur Seap Games 400m relay gold (with Asir, Jegathesan and A.S. Nathan); and the 1973 Singapore Seap Games 400m silver.

He also competed in the 1962 British Empire Games in Perth, Australia and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Games.

In 2011, Karu was inducted into the Olympic Council of Malaysia’s ‘Hall of Fame’ for his contributions to athletics and cricket.

Karu and retired teacher Rohini Shanta, who live in Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur, have three sons – Dinesh, Rohan and Shaun – and daughter Shireen Selvaratnam. – airtimes.my

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