50 Years On… Life Is Not Exactly A Bed Of Roses For Singapore's First Olympic Medallist

30 Dec

SINGAPORE – His silver medal victory at the Rome Olympics is etched on many Singaporeans' minds.

On September 8, 1960, weightlifter Tan Howe Liang hoisted a total of 380kg in the lightweight category (under 67.5kg) to earn the Republic's first Olympic medal.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Tan's achievements at the Palazetto Dello Sport Hall but life hasn't been smooth-sailing for the 77-year-old.

While he declined to be interviewed for this story, Channel NewsAsia has learnt that the sports veteran is financially strapped after his 61-year-old wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.

According to sources, the former weightlifter and his three children have spent an estimated $100,000 on Mrs Tan's surgery and follow-up treatments.

A former store clerk and taxi driver, Tan now works as a gym supervisor at the Singapore Sports Council's (SSC) Bedok facility, earning about $1,000 a month.

In addition, he also receives a monthly allowance of $390 from the People's Association for his Olympic feat.

Tan, who lives in a three-room Housing Board flat with his wife and daughter, a teacher, also received $10,000 from NTUC Fairprice in 2008 after the women's table tennis team's silver triumph at the Beijing Games.

While Tan has not sought financial assistance, Channel NewsAsia understands that the sports fraternity here is ready to extend a helping hand.

Speaking to Channel NewsAsia on Wednesday, Dr Tan Eng Liang, president of Olympians Singapore, said: “I don't know much of the circumstances as he has kept it very quiet. (But) if he needs help, we will find out how to help and something will be done.”

Asked if there was a likelihood of Tan following in the footsteps of other Olympians and World Cup footballers who have sold their medals and memorabilia for cash, Dr Tan stressed that would not be the case.

The weightlifter's silver medal, leotard and belt from the 1960 Olympics are currently housed in the SSC's Sports Museum.

They will be moved to the $1.33 billion Sports Hub when it is completed in April 2014.

Said Dr Tan, who represented the Republic in water polo at the 1956 Olympiad in Melbourne: “The medal is a piece of Singapore history. If he needs help, the Olympians will rally around Howe Liang.”

Tan was drawn to weightlifting after witnessing a competition at the Gay World Amusement Park in 1952, becoming the national junior and senior lightweight champion a year later and kick-starting a career that saw him clinching four gold medals – Commonwealth Games (1958, 1962), Asian Games (1958) and the inaugural SEAP Games (1959).

His Olympic silver came a year later when he pipped 33 others in Rome.

Though he retired in 1967, Tan's achievements were not forgotten by the international sports community.

In 1984, he became the first weightlifter to be given the International Weightlifting Federation's Gold award.

He also received the International Olympic Committee's Silver Pin in 1989.

Tan went on to guide several future champions, among them Commonwealth Games bronze medallists Teo Yong Joo and Chua Koon Siong.

He was also instrumental in getting Youth Olympic Games weightlifter Jamie Wee, 17, started last year.

Singapore Weightlifting Federation (SWF) president Tom Liaw said the association would lend a helping hand if required.

The SWF had approached Tan this year to sign him on as a part-time coach but he was unable to commit his time due to his wife's illness.

Said Liaw: “We intend to find out more from him – we don't know the extent of his financial situation as he is a very private person. If there's a need, we will discuss it among the committee members and see what we can do to help raise funds. He is a sporting icon.”

– TODAY /ls

Channel News Asia

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