At 73, one of Singapore’s greatest track and field athletes, Mr Canagasabai Kunalan, is well-respected and -loved on and off the track, thanks to his gracious ways and dedication to the Public Service.

One of Singapore’s greatest athletes, Mr Kunalan took up sprinting when he was 20 – old by the sport’s standards. Scrawny and small in build, he didn’t have a sprinter’s physique, but he was quick.

In 1963, Mr Kunalan was training with the football team of the Singapore Teachers’ Union when his speed caught the eye of Mr Tan Eng Yoon. A lecturer at the Teachers’ Training College (TTC), Mr Tan was also a national coach.

With only five months of training, Mr Kunalan made his debut as a national sprinter at the Malaysian Sports Track and Field Festival in Kuala Lumpur. It was an auspicious start; he brought home gold, silver and bronze medals and helped set two national relay records.

Over the next 15 years or so, Mr Kunalan won one silver and four bronze medals at the Asian Games, as well as 15 medals (four gold, eight silver and three bronze) at the Southeast Asian Peninsular/Southeast Asian (SEA) Games. He was Singapore’s first 100m and 200m SEA Games gold medallist. A true champion, he embodies the Olympic values of friendship, excellence and respect. “I want Singaporeans to know we can have big hearts, even if we may not always be able to hold our own against top stars in terms of performance,” he says.

Mr Kunalan retired from competitive running after the 1978 Asian Games in Bangkok. Through the years, he juggled competing as a national athlete with his teaching career. Not having done well academically, Mr Kunalan, or “Mr K” as his friends and students call him, hadn’t expected to become a teacher.

He spent his carefree youth flying kites, climbing trees and playing marbles. He also ran competitively – barefooted as he didn’t have money for running shoes. But Mr Kunalan responded to an ad for TTC and found his vocation. He was a teacher at Tiong Bahru School from 1961 to 1966.
From 1967 to 1980, he taught at Dunearn Secondary Technical School (DSTS), where he also coached the track and field team.

Meeting students at Pasir Ris Park.

Mr Kunalan shaped the young athletes into winners with rigorous training six days a week. He got them to pound the roads and the long flight of stairs that led up to the school. The workouts paid off when DSTS won several divisional titles at the National Schools Track and Field Championships in the 1970s. Mr Kunalan also made national athletes out of a number of the schoolboys.

Mr Kunalan moved on to the Institute of Education in 1981 to train teachers. During his years at the institute and later at the National Institute of Education, Mr Kunalan won three teaching awards and one award for excellence in service. He retired as an Assistant Professor in 2010. “As a teacher, I had the opportunity to show students that physical education and sports could be useful tools to develop character,” he says.

Now a Senior Manager of Community Outreach with Sport Singapore, Mr Kunalan has the chance to reach an even wider audience – Singaporeans at large. As part of his portfolio, he’s working to reach out to athletes of the Pioneer Generation as well.

When asked to sum up his life of service, both in sports and teaching, Mr Kunalan says, “What I’ve valued most in my 50-plus years as a public officer is the chance to serve; the opportunity to make someone else’s life better.”

And that’s what true champions do.