Ranatunge Karunananda: Most courageous and spirited loser at 1964 Tokyo Olympics- By Rear Admiral Dr Shemal Fernando PhD
At a time, the cynosure of all eyes is on the Olympic City of Tokyo, it is befitting to pay a tribute to one of Sri Lanka’s legendary athletes who made an indelible mark in the hearts of the people of Japan as the most courageous and spirited loser of the Tokyo 1964 Summer Olympic Games. Tokyo will be hosting the Olympic Games, after 57 years, commencing from July 23, 2021 and Japan should be congratulated for their enormous contributions to Olympism.
Born on May 21, 1936, Ranatunge Karunananda, affectionately known as ‘Karu’ showed great promise as an athlete while growing up. Even though he joined the Sri Lanka Army, he pursued his dream of becoming an elite athlete. Back then, he was the best long-distance runner Sri Lanka has produced, which led him to represent our country at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games.
In 1964, Tokyo was a war-torn city only rearing its head from the ruins of the World War II. Thus, the Olympic Games of Tokyo 1964 was of vital importance to Japan. The Organizing Committee of the XVIII Olympiad was willing to do whatever it took to host a successful Olympic Games, to attract the attention of the world and to encourage the Japanese people to build up their morale.
The Sri Lankan contingent to Tokyo 1964 comprised of 6 athletes, all men who took part in four sports: Ranatunge Karunananda (athletics – 5000m and 10,000m); Malcolm Bulner (boxing – welterweight) and Winston Van Cuylenburg (boxing – flyweight); Ravi Jayewardene and Habarakadage Perera (shooting – 50m rifle prone); Ernest Fernando (wrestling – freestyle flyweight). Ravi Jayewardene was the flag bearer.
Birth and Family
Karu was born on May 21, 1936 as the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. RJKEJ Perera of Ampitiya. They named him Ranatunge Jayasekara Koralage Karunananda. He had his early primary education at Jinaraja Boys’ College, Gampola.
Then, he entered the hallowed portals of Berrewaerts College, Ampitiya, now Ampitiya College, Kandy where Rev. Fr. Augustine Berrewaerts, SJ the founder Rector was a beacon of light to the students. His coach, legendary Tommy Arthur deserves recognition for grooming him and his athletics career. Karu’s entry to the Army was on December 26, 1961.
It is momentous that successive Olympians Linus Dias (Rome1960), Ranatunge Karunananda (Tokyo 1964) and SLB Rosa (Munich 1972) are products of Berrewaerts College, Ampitiya. Also, Linus Dias, Ranatunge Karunanada, and Wimalasena Perera (Mexico 1968) were serving the First Engineers Regiment of the Army when they were chosen for Olympics.
Karu married Hettikankamalage Hemapali Kusum Perera, the eldest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. H. M. Perera in Kandy on October 3, 1963. They were blessed with a daughter, Nelum Priyadharshani Karunananda on July 20, 1964. Then, the couple had a son, Channa Dharshanapriya Karunananda on September 11, 1965.
Legendary Karu’s career in athletics
Karunananda was the most prolific long-distance runner in Sri Lanka preceding the Tokyo 1964 Olympics. He became the first Sri Lankan to run 5000m under 15 mts in 1963 and 10,000m under 32 mts in 1964.
He came third in 5,000m at the National Championships in 1957. He was again placed third in 5000m at the National Championships in 1962. After a determined effort, he emerged National Champion of 5,000m, clocking 15:18.2 at the National Championships in 1963.
He established his first Sri Lanka Record in 5,000m clocking 14:56.8 on December 14, 1963. Then, he established his second and third Sri Lanka records in 10,000m clocking 31:50.6 and 31.26.6 on April 14, 1964 and July 19, 1964 respectively.
Karu emerged the National Champion of both 5000m (15:05.0) and 10,000m (32.36.6) at the National Championships in 1964. He also won the Sri Lanka Army Road Race in 1964 completing 10,000m course in 28:0.2. His achievements bestowed upon him the honour of representing the country at the Tokyo 1964 Olympics as the only track and field athlete from Sri Lanka.
In the city of Tokyo, he had become a ‘Goodwill Ambassador’ and was invited to grace many events as the Chief Guest and shared his experience. The Chef-de-Mission, V. A. Sugathadasa was compelled to leave him behind in Japan for an additional month or so when the team returned to Sri Lanka.
After the Olympics, Karu continued, representing the Sri Lanka Army and CT & FC Club. In 1965, he won the Sri Lanka Army 10,000m Road Race in 28:18.2 but lost to compatriot S. L. B. Rosa in 5,000m at the National Championships. Karu regained his title as the National Champion winning 5,000m at the National Championships in 1968 though he was second to S. L. B. Rosa in 10,000m.
Tokyo Olympic Games 10,000m
The day was October 14, 1964. The 10,000m was run as a straight final. The world record holder Ron Clarke of Australia set the tone of the race and his tactic of surging every other lap appeared to be working. Halfway through the race, only five athletes were with Ron Clarke – Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, Barry Magee of New Zealand, Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan and Billy Mills of the United States.
As the 24th lap started, only two athletes were with Clarke and on paper, it seemed to be Clarke’s race. He had run a world record time of 28:15.6 while neither Gammoudi nor Mills had ever run under 29 minutes. Mills and Clarke were running together with Gammoudi right behind as they entered the 25th lap. Down the track, Clarke was boxed in, he pushed Mills once, then again. Then Gammoudi pushed his way between them and surged into the lead.
Clarke recovered and began chasing Gammoudi while Mills appeared to be too far back to be in contention. Clarke failed to catch Gammoudi, but Mills pulled out to lane 4 and sprinted past them both to become the first American to win 10,000m. The victory podium: gold – Billy Mills at 28:24.4 with a new Olympic Record; silver – Mohammed Gammoudi at 28:24.8; bronze – Ron Clarke at 28:25.8.
Karu’s Legacy at Tokyo Olympics
Amongst the athletes in 10,000m was Karu from Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. He was suffering from a bad cold. Still, he wanted to take part and honour his little daughter. He knew that his family was waiting for his return as a proud athlete who competed at the Olympic Games, which gave him the strength he needed.
As the starting signal was fired, Karu started running beside Billy Mills, the eventual winner. The event consists 25 laps. When most of the athletes completed the 10th lap, he was trailing behind. By the end of his 20th lap, he was the last, and yet he continued.
With 150m to go, the lead pack was jockeying for position in the home stretch at the Olympic stadium in Tokyo, each passing the runner with Bib 67. In fact, everybody was passing Bib 67, who had gotten lapped several times.
When the eventual winner flared wide and put on a burst of speed to win dramatically in the final meters, Bib 67 had a perfect view, only a couple of meters behind. Karu had four more laps to go. He could have easily stopped. If he did, he would have joined the nine athletes who did not finish, and no one would have noticed.
Instead, slimly built, 167cm and 52 kg, 28-year Ranatunge Karunananda from Sri Lanka, plodded on to the bewilderment of the massive crowd which had gathered to the Olympics stadium. It was a decision which finally won him many admirers and would have possibly changed his whole life.
His decision surprised the spectators and even the officials who expected Karu to stop. But he continued. The spectators at first were puzzled. Wasn’t the race over? Why was this guy still running…and running…and running?
Karu kept going despite being booed by Murray Halberg of New Zealand, which had been superbly captured by a Japanese photographer (see pic). When Karu ran the 22nd lap, around 60,000 spectators in the stadium mocked and humiliated him as he was running all alone in the track.
But when Karu came around for the 23rd lap, there had been silence and one little child had started clapping. It is told that the spectators followed the little child and within minutes all the spectators were cheering Karu. The noise changed from ambivalence to encouragement. As Karu started the 24th lap, the entire crowd began cheering him.
The winner of the race, Billy Mills wanted so much to take a victory lap but was thwarted by a Japanese official who told him to stay out. After all, the race was still on. Instead of the gold medalist, here was the last finisher basking in the growing cheers of 60,000, who only minutes before learnt that Bib 67 was Karu of Sri Lanka.
Finally, as he continued to run the 25th lap, aiming to complete the full distance, the jeering had turned into cheering and then to a wild applause and the entire stadium was reverberating with the chant “Come on Ceylon! Come on Ceylon!”
Karu ran the last 100m very fast and there had been a standing ovation and a thunderous cheer as if to salute the rare determination of the athlete who wanted not to win but to finish the race to show the value of participation – the true spirit of Olympics. Karu finished 29th clocking 32:21.2, amongst 38 athletes.
It is reported that the applause Karu had received, when he finished the race, had been many more times thunderous and rousing than what was received by Mills, the gold medalist of the event. It appears that he had not been duly recognized even after bringing much recognition and laurels to the country at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games.
The most spirited loser
After the race, officials rushed to Karunananda to ask why he had continued to run. His answer had been simple, “Participating is more important than winning.” It was reported that Billy Mills had responded to Karu’s remarks saying: “The Gold medal should have gone to Karunananda of Ceylon.”
Though Karu didn’t achieve any medal, he won the hearts of many admirers. Karu’s persistence motivated the citizens of Japan, and the whole world. He had no hope of winning the event, but still he represented his country, participated in the event and played it fairly as an honourable athlete, because that’s what the Olympic Games is all about.
Karu told reporters that he was only doing what was expected of an Olympian. “I’ve come to represent my country in the Olympics. The law of sports is not only a victory, participating in sports is important. It was an Olympic theme, so I completed all the rounds of my event and played it perfectly. While seeing defeat, I ran for my country.”
The true winner of the event for the Japanese people was Karu. In 2018, the NHK World Japan produced a clip titled, “Kids Meet the World,” where Yasumasa Suzuki, now 80, who broadcasted 10,000m at Tokyo 1964 is interviewed. He shares his memories of his visit to the ‘Olympic Village’ to meet Karu just four days after the race with a handmade gift. He says Karu was very kind and handsome and meeting him truly inspired him.
Karu became famous as ‘The Most Spirited Loser’ in the world of athletics for his most memorable effort which is still recognized as one of the finest testimonies to the Olympic Spirit.
Newspapers, TV and radio stations in Japan and many countries around the world talked about humble Karu’s courage and his self-confidence so much so that a chapter about him covering twelve pages was added to the school textbooks in Japan as a life lesson to the children.
Instantly, Japanese media started to acclaim Karu as a hero. Interestingly, the world media covering the Olympic Games completely forgot the winner of the gold medal, Billy Miles and rallied around Karu. Later, on October 16, 1964, Karu courageously competed in 5000m at the Olympics and was placed 47th. After Tokyo 1964, there had been an assurance to build a stadium in Sri Lanka to honour him, but they proved to be empty words.
Karu became a super star in Japan. A young housewife sent a Japanese doll to Karu and wrote: “I saw you on television running all alone’ and I couldn’t hold back tears. I felt I was seeing for the first time the true Olympic spirit.” The people had understood his story’s real importance, it represented every hardworking man and woman. It is told that even His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Japan was pleased and appreciated Karu’s perseverance and courage.
Karu’s tragic death
Karu’s elite career in athletics spanned a dozen years from 1957 to 1968 and he ‘Hung up Spikes’ as a National Champion in 1968. Karu had expressed his humble gratitude to the kind people of Japan in an aerogram sent to his admirer Haruo Suzuki on October 28, 1968 from the Army Cantonment in Panagoda.
In 1974, he was serving the Sri Lanka Army in Ampara. In January 1975, Karunananda was to receive a ‘Special Award’ and his family was invited to Japan. Everything was set for the journey, but two weeks before the event Karunananda’s life mysteriously came to an end at the Namal Oya tank in Ampara on December 15, 1974.
The Navy divers from the Naval Dockyard, Trincomalee recovered his drowned body. The coffin was sealed and the Army accorded him a funeral with military honours in Kandy. The Japanese government grieved his death whilst the Japanese media, newspapers, TV and radio stations repeatedly gave wide publicity to this tragedy.
Karunananda’s distraught wife could not bear the heartbreaking death and the family was forced onto the streets. His daughter and son, aged 10 and 9 were entered into convents in Gampola and Matale respectively and grew up under extreme trying conditions.
After his death, both children had been offered fully paid scholarships by the Japanese government, but it seems the authorities have failed to facilitate the process. Fortunately, a friend of Karunanada’s wife from Nattandiya took care of them. Later, they moved to Lunuvila.
Karu’s wife, born on July 5, 1940, lives on, now in her 80s amidst triumph and failure, medals secured and those that eluded, a life that promised and a life that was taken away. Her daughter Priyadarshani brought up her daughter Oshadi and son Oshan. Karu’s son, Channa himself the recipient of a Civilian Bravery Award continues to admire memorabilia of his great father. He lives with his wife and two sons Ruchitha and Charitha, both students of St. Joseph Vaz College.
A Japanese TV channel visited Sri Lanka and produced a documentary on Karu to coincide with 100 years of the modern Olympic Games in 1996, brought back fresh memories. His Olympic team member, Earnest Fernando who shared his room at the ‘Olympic Village’ reminisced his abilities as a singer and an entertainer. His coach, Linus Dias of the Army, praised him as a true human with a lion heart.
Determination, courage and self-confidence are some of the sterling qualities we could acquire from his legacy. Karu’s wife expects that her late husband deserves a ‘field promotion’ for his significant contributions to the country. Also, she trusts that the Japanese authorities would grant ‘undergraduate scholarships’ to her grandchildren to pursue their studies.
It’s very unfortunate how a sport loving nation had forgotten Ranatunge Karunanada, while nations the world over, especially Japan, the host nation, still admire Karu’s qualities. The slated Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, is a clarion call for Sri Lanka to honour the unsung hero.
(The author is the winner of Presidential Awards for Sports and recipient of multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)