| Singapore | 10 July 2017 | Asia Samachar |
“It is a funny little story, really! I was bored of class and it just so happened that the athletics heats were going on that day. I skipped class and decided to take part in the heats.” And this marked the beginning of an illustrious sporting career that seemed to be made up of a number of these funny little stories.
Mr Sarvindar Singh Chopra grew up in a village in Kim Keat Avenue in Singapore during what he describes as some of the “best parts of [his] life”. The second of three boys, he was the son of a businessman and a volunteer social worker mother. Although Sarvindar’s father was an avid sportsman, none of his children inherited his interest in cricket or hockey. Amongst the three boys, only Sarvindar expressed an interest and seemed to possess a prowess in sports. The funny little story he describes above resulted in Sarvindar, who had never thrown a javelin or hurled a discus in his life finishing third in the javelin heats and qualifying for the discus finals to be held on Sports Day. With some guidance from his father, Sarvindar went on to win discus medals at the district level first and then nationally. He was not only a national schools champion for three consecutive years but also clinched a gold medal at an invitational event in Ipoh.
The real highlights of Sarvindar’s career were however yet to come. To get to that, there is another funny little story that must be told. Although he equalled the national record for discus in 1971, Sarvindar’s achievements in this event began to plateau after that. Around then, a friend he knew from the printing press gave him a lead. This friend turned out to be Mr Michael Koay, Secretary of the Singapore Amateur Weightlifting Federation and this lead was an introduction to none other than Mr Tan Howe Liang, Singapore’s weightlifting silver medalist at the Rome Olympics in 1960. He then began to train with weights under Howe Liang at the Evergreen Body-Building Centre.
At this point, weightlifting training, as Sarvindar put to The Straits Times in 1981, was purely “for a selfish motive” (2) – he wanted to build up strength and flexibility for discus and shot put, which at that time were the events in athletics that he was actively pursuing. Sarvindar explains: “The classic weightlifting events of snatch and jerk, for instance, build up co-ordination and involve very similar motions and lifts that you would do when training for discus.”3
Additionally, the elements of speed and power were the other commonalities shared by both sports. Through his hard work at training, Sarvindar was soon doing respectably enough at weightlifting for Michael to decide to enter him for competitions in that event. Before long, he was good enough to be selected to represent Singapore.
“Sarvindar was a great sportsman who received many accolade during his sporting career which spa from 1973 to 1983.
“As a close family friend, I remember Sarvindar as a young lad determine to make Singapore proud of hi contributions. Once he set eye on something, he would go all out to achieve that goal, regardless o obstacles in his way. Determination was his mantra and that carried hi to greater heights in his life.
Mr S A Nathanj, Former Managing Editor/Columnist Indian Movie News Magazine
At the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1977, Sarvindar was granted leave to compete in two distinct events – his pet event of discus and the new one, weightlifting. By a twist of fate, another funny little thing happened. In his first outing as a weightlifter, Sarvindar clinched two silver medals and a bronze medal while finishing fifth and without a medal in the discus event. When asked which of the two sports is his favourite, Sarvindar grins teasingly and answers: “It is obviously the one in which I excelled.”4 This line of thought led Sarvindar to discard his discus and focus his efforts on competitive weightlifting.
Juggling a full-time day job with his family business and training as a professional sportsman at the same time were certainly not easy but there was no turning back now. Sarvindar was enthralled. He recalls: “In those days, sportsmen were never paid for their sport. We did it out of love and passion for our sport – and to win.”5 Although love and passion alone do not equate to winning, it surely helped Sarvindar be committed to and be disciplined about the grueling training sessions he had to endure in order to be competition ready. These sessions were held almost daily, and generally in the evenings as a result of having a day job.
Still, Sarvindar recalls that he would try to fit some light callisthenic exercises into his day schedule. Actual lifting practice was reserved for the evenings. Although each of these sessions was demanding, Sarvindar estimates that, on average, he lifted over 10,000 or 12,000 kilogrammes daily or 250,000 kilogrammes of weights per month,6 it came to a point where “the day I did not train, it felt like something was missing in my life.”7 On account of the success he had seen in the local and regional weightlifting competitions, Sarvindar was invited by the then-President of the Indonesian Federation to train in Tawangmangu in Central Java. He fondly recalls this three-week training camp in the cool weather up in the hills, which was conducted by a former weightlifting world champion from Poland. Again Sarvindar explains that athletes like him in those days were likely to spend more of their own money on training than from sponsorships or award monies of any kind. Although some supplementary money was granted to the weightlifters for the trip to Indonesia, they had to raise their own money for overseas trips.
The first culmination of Sarvindar’s intensified training efforts with weightlifting was at the SEA Games in Jakarta in 1979. Although he performed well, walking away with silver medals, Sarvindar still recalls these Games as something of an unexpected setback in his plan. He explains that weightlifting is one sport where you know who your competition is and you know what you are up against. At the 1979 Games, Sarvindar knew that his competitor from the Philippines was more powerful than him. As such, Sarvindar sought to raise his personal body weight at the last minute in order to compete in a different category from him – to move from the Heavyweight category (over 105 kilogrammes) to the Super Heavyweight category (over 110 kilogrammes). Alas, despite gorging himself on food, Sarvindar was unable to do so and wound up coming in second to the Filipino. This close brush with glory spurred him on to work even harder as he “knew then that a gold medal was within [his] reach.”8 It is at this point where Sarvindar made one of the biggest sacrifices for the sake of his sport.
Given the fixed number of hours in a day, Sarvindar’s job, and the number of hours he had to put into practice, something had to give. This unfortunately was the amount of time he could spend with his wife and son. An articles in The Straits Times article in 1981, chronicling Sarvindar’s preparation efforts, tells a story of how there were fierce quarrels over the time he was spending with the weightlifting team. A decision was made and he sent his wife and only son to her family in India for two months. This was, of course, by no means, an easy decision to make and once they were gone, Sarvindar found himself wondering if he had made a big mistake. Ultimately, he sought solace in the knowledge that what he was doing was for his country, and, after all “it was only for two months.” As the 1981 article proclaimed in its headline, this is without a doubt a fine exemplification of the notion “Nation Before Self”.
All of Sarvindar’s efforts and sacrifices came to fruition in Manila in 1981 when he became Singapore’s “two-gold hero”9 at the SEA Games. Sarvindar’s gold medals were the first that any Singaporean competitor had won during the SEA Games. It was also during these games where he made it into the Singapore record books (10) for lifting a combined 252.5 kilogrammes in the Super Heavyweight event. He managed to repeat his feat on home soil again in 1983 when the SEA Games were held here. Sarvindar won his third gold medal in two SEA Games competitions. These wins were undoubtedly the zenith of his career. Tears came to his eyes as he described how he felt, standing at the top of the podium, hearing the notes of ‘Majulah Singapura’ resonate around him. Finally, all the “blood, sweat and tears and more blood” had paid off.
All this came to a swift end in 1983 itself when Sarvindar was hit by a bus while riding his motorcycle and broke his arm. He was just 31 and his weightlifting career came to a screeching halt. Raising his arm to show the long white scar that is still visible on the underside of his arm, this sanguine man declares that the accident was a blessing in disguise. It allowed him to leave his beloved sport on a high. However, he continued to be involved with the local sporting scene. He was a referee at the Asian Games in New Delhi in 1982 and at the Second South Asian Federation Games in Dhaka in 1985. He also sits on the boards of a number of athletic associations.
Sarvindar’s parting message to aspiring sportsmen and women is simple – dare to dream and chase your dreams. Sarvindar should know best for he dreamt big and he chased his dream to become a national sporting icon.
1 Interview with Mr Sarvindar Singh Chopra, March 11, 2015.
2 High and Mighty, The Straits Times, December 1981.
3 Interview with Mr Sarvindar Singh Chopra, op cit.
4 Ibid. 5 Ibid.
6 H Rai, Nation before Self, The Straits Times, December 1981.
7 Supra note 2. 8 Ibid.
9 D Singh, P Siow and H Rai, Lifter Sarvindar is our two-gold hero, The Straits Times, December 10, 1981.
10 P Goh, Weight-lifting: Leg-up for S’pore weightlifters, TODAY, August, 10, 2011
[This article is courtesy of SINGAPORE AT 50: 50 SIKHS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS, a book published in 2015 by the Young Sikh Association, Singapore (YSA) in conjunction with Singapore’s 50th birthday]
[ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs in Southeast Asia and surrounding countries. We have a Facebook page, do give it a LIKE. Follow us on Twitter. Visit our website: www.asiasamachar.com]
“I think he is a great Sikh. He still wears his turban with pride” – Tony (Asia Samachar, 8 July 2017)