KUALA LUMPUR, July 17 ― Mohamed Ariffin Ahmat carved a name for himself as a sprinter in an era full of star athletes.
On top of that heap was a medical student called Mani Jegathesan in whose shadow came the likes of Guna Rajalingam, Thamboo Krishnan, Ooi Hock Lim and of course Ariffin.
“We all ran inside 11 seconds, determined to outdo each other. Those days the competition was razor-sharp,” recalled a grey-haired Ariffin who turned 69 on May 11.
“We outpaced each other often, but the only mortal I couldn’t beat was Jegathesan. He was simply too fast.”
Ariffin said every time he improved on his time, someone else will do better.
“We had to improve our timings to stay relevant,” said Ariffin who had a personal best of 10.6s for the century sprint.
Ariffin soon dropped the 200m to concentrate on the 100m which gave him a better chance of making the relay team.
“With Jega dominating the sprints, most of us were left to find a place in relays,” said Ariffin who was first to qualify for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics sprint relay team.
But at the Games, he was a reserve as five runners qualified and made the trip.
“I was first runner, but since Ooi was better he made the foursome with Krishnan, Rajalingam and Jega.
“But I don’t regret not being able to run. To have qualified for the Olympics was an achievement I’m proud of,” said Ariffin who married his neighbourhood sweetheart in Gombak, Hasmah Hamzah.
They have four children — two girls and two boys — Azwan Hadzree, Aida Yufani, Amila Yasmin and Azril Hamzah.
The quartet qualified for the semifinals clocking 40.89s after returning 40.68s in the qualifier.
Looking back Ariffin recalled each athlete was given US$60 (RM228) for the trip to Mexico and when he landed at Subang Airport, he had 50 Hong Kong cents (25 sen) in his pocket.
“Our last transit was in Hong Kong where we had a meal leaving me with the 50 cents. If my wife didn’t come to the airport, I probably would have had to walk home to Gombak,” laughed Ariffin a former police officer who retired in 1999 as Sungai Petani district chief with th rank of ACP.
Klang-born Ariffin’s early education was in Sekolah Kebangsaan before moving to High School Klang and then La Salle where he took up athletics in Form Three.
“I initially played rugby but after I broke my arm, I turned to athletics. I did well and took it seriously. I trained on my own using the old airport at Pandamaran as my training ground. I also ran on the runway, pacing middle distance runner Vairavan for stamina.
“What was supposed to have been a climax of my schools athletics turned out to be anticlimax. On arriving at the Klang bus station in Kuala Lumpur, we walked to Victoria Institution where the meet was held only to realise the race had already been run.
“After school I worked for Port Klang authority under the Malayan Railways. I then joined Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. It was here my athletics career took off as I joined the Jets Athletics Club.
“Indonesia coach Stanley Gowe (Indonesia national coach and later fitness coach and team manager of Indonesia) who was with Jets helped me a great deal and he was a coach who understood athletes and prepared their personalised programmes.
“I trained on dirt roads under streetlights placing starter block and markers and my neighbours grew mad.
“It was only when my name began appearing in newspapers did people realise the “mad boy” was a national athlete.
“Our training included time trials every weekend. At the end of the month I competed in inter-club championships in various state including Singapore.”
Ariffin whose athletics career spanned from 1960 to 1969 competed in the Selangor meet at Merdeka Stadium where a gentleman by the name of Lim (the father of late hurdler Lim Heng Suan) called out to him and gave him the best piece of advice which made him improve by leaps and bounds.
“When I approached him he said: ‘There is nothing wrong with you. You can go far. But only one thing. You laugh and everyone laughs. But when everyone talks, you do not talk. Open up and let out. You need to relax and your body will be more supple and you will do well’.
“It was from that day I discarded my introvert personality and mixed freely and I realised I was much more relaxed and my performance improved,” said Ariffin who joined the Police Force in 1968.
“I was to have joined the Force earlier, but my father objected. I persuaded him saying it was good for my career and athletics.”
In 1963 he represented Malaya at the Malaya Games where Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak also competed.
Ariffin went on to run at two SEA Games (Kuala Lumpur 1965 and Bangkok 1967) winning the 4x100m gold medal and 1966 Bangkok Asian Games winning the relay gold in a Games record time of 40.6s.
Ariffin said the Asian Games gold medal was his most memorable moment as they lived up to expectations.
“As first runner I was preparing my starting blocks when I heard a voice from the stand saying bikin semangat (roughly translated show spirit). I was curious whose voice it was when I turned I saw our American coach Bill Miller. That really inspired me and I ran the my race of life,” said Ariffin.
“Having the best time in heats, we were on lane three and by the time I passed the baton to Krishnan, two runners were still trailing. I had pulled level with runners ahead of me. I was relieved. When Krishnan took off, I knew we had won the race as he was already in the lead,” said Ariffin a strong curve runner.
Ariffin’s natural tendency is to run close to the lines of the next track for maximum advantage.
“It was a Games record made even more memorable with our names together with all Games gold medalists etched on the walls of the Stadium before we left Bangkok.”
Malaysia reaped a total of seven gold, five silver and six bronze at the Games.
Athletics won five gold — Jegathesan (100m and 200m), M. Rajamani (400m), Nashatar Singh (javelin) and 4 X 100m relay, three silvers — R. Subramaniam (800m and 1,500m), 4x400m (Andyappan Nathan, Rengan Pakkri, T. Krishnan and Victor Asirvatham) and three bronze — T. Krishnan (200m), Ishtiaq Mubarak (110m hurdles), Andyappan Nathan (400m hurdles) and 4x100m (Cheryl Dorall, Jacqueline Kleinman, Mary Rajamani and Rajemah Sheikh Ahmad).
Ariffin and his relay mates were inducted to the Olympic Council of Malaysia Hall of Fame in 2004.
Ariffin, a grandfather of six, also coached in Taiping and Seremban. He was also vice-president of the Negri Sembilan AAA. His Hari Raya wish is athletics will prosper again.
“I wish the athletics fraternity and sports fraternity at large Selamat Hari Raya dan Maaf Zahir Batin.”