Ishtiaq Mubarak: Triumph over tragedy

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 12 — Ishtiaq Mubarak, who died in Kuala Lumpur on Friday, combined rare athletic brilliance over the high hurdles with beauty and grace and he had a vivacious personality.

As charming off the track as he was single-minded in his pursuit of victory on it, he never let us forget that he loved to be a big part of the swinging 60s and 70s when Malaysian athletics was at its best.

The misfortune of a near-fatal road accident on the Friday of October 13, 1970 saw him spend the rest of the nine months fighting his way back to fitness and as a spectator.

And when he did return, the surgeon who told Ishtiaq he would never hurdle again walked up to him, shook his hands and said simply: “You’ve got guts.”

“It was,” said Ishtiaq, “a very nice thing to say and hear.” The athletically-built tall and handsome athlete rose magnificently, happy with his striding pattern and action, controlled and relaxed as he awaited the 1976 Montreal Olympics — his third and last having been to Mexico City 1968 and Munich 1972.

At 19, Ishtiaq was in Mexico and was run out in the first heats in 14.3s. He gained experience from another early exit at the blood-stained Munich Olympic Games and his final assault on Montreal.

After three Olympic Games he rose to the pinnacle of his career by being the only Malaysian on the Asian team to the prestigious first World Cup championships at Dusseldorf, Germany in 1977 — then being inducted into the world athletics Hall of Fame.

As a 17-year-old Victoria Institution (VI) student, Ishtiaq surfaced as one of the best Malaysian hurdling prospects in years.

Then clocking 14.8s over the 110m three--feet-six-inch barriers, Ishtiaq was after Kuda Ditta’s national record of 14.6s.

He was only the second Malaysian to qualify for an Olympic Games athletics semi-finals after former Asian sprint king Dr Mani Jegathesan.

Ishtiaq’s athletics career lasted 13 lucky years during which time he collected a total of four gold medals and a silver medal at the Sea Games.

Through it all Ishtiaq showed an Olympic-sized drive and desire. At Montreal, Ishtiaq, then 28, clocked 14.27s — against the national record of 14.1s.

Although he was an easy qualifier in his heats, he went into the semi-finals with the slowest qualifying time of the 16 hurdlers.

The fastest was Gianni Ronconi of Italy, who did a 14.10s in Heat One.

Charles Foster (US) returned the fastest time of 13.68s in the heats.

Ishtiaq finished last in 14.21s in his semis heats won by Cuban Alejandra Cassanas in 13.30s with Willie Davenport , the 1968 US champion in third place (13.38s).

Recalling his Olympic experience when I met him last at his four-room split-level home in Taman Zoo View, Ampang, he said: “Your first Olympics is like your first kiss. It’s a dream. But you don’t know the possibilities and responsibilities that go with it.

“When my name was called in five different languages I thought to myself: Boy don’t blow this chance of a life time. Keep steady.

“Munich was an entirely different experience. It was hard. I was feeling intense pressure.

“Then at Montreal, I was thinking that eight long years have came down to just 14 seconds and that’s all that mattered to me. I looked at the finish line and it seemed miles away.”

These were much of the memories that brought him comfort and joy in the years that followed.

He is survived by his wife Shamimi Selvarani Abdullah, a former international 400m hurdler and their two daughters Shaniz and Shakira.