R.J.K. Karunananda: A forgotten hero

The unforgettable story of the first ‘Marathon Karu’



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by Roshen Steelman


Neil Armstrong is well-known because he was the first man to walk on the moon but what about the second man to do so? Is he as famous as Armstrong? Michael Phelps is a famous sportsman today because he won eight gold medals in a single Olympics. But there are other stories in sports which are not about the winners, but about the losers, and the losers with a big heart.


You might be surprised to read that this is about a runner who came last in the 10,000-metre race in an Olympics. His name is


Ranatunga Karunananda, or RJK Karunananda alias Marathon Karu. 


Few people will know about this man but majority including the youth at present in this country will not know who this man is and for what he is famous for in a country like Japan.


In the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, it was reported that Karunananda from Sri Lanka, named Ceylon that time, was placed 47th out of 52 participants in the men’s 5,000-metre race. And he began the 10,000-metre race with a weakened body as a result of a bad cold.


Karunananda had competed in the event due to a request made by his little daughter. He had wanted to make his little daughter happy by taking part in the 10,000-metre event.


Karunananda ran beside Billy Mills of the United States, the eventual winner of the event. When Mills breasted the tape to finish the race, Karunananda had been lapped four rounds, humiliated by the rest of the runners who surpassed him for as many as four rounds!


But he continued to run alone even after the others had finished the race. He could have stopped at any time but never did so to the bewilderment of the massive crowd which had gathered to the Olympics stadium that day. 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 to run. When Karunananda ran the first lap alone, the specters had started to jeer. He was running alone in the track in front of the partisan Tokyo spectators. But when he came around for a second time, there had been silence. Then, as he continued to run the third round, aiming to complete the full distance of 10,000 metres, the jeering had turned into a cheering and then to a wild applause!


Karu ran the last 100 metres very fast and there had been a standing ovation that time as if to salute the rare determination of the ‘small’ athlete who wanted not to win but to finish the race to show the value of participation, the true spirit of Olympics. It is reported that the applause the Ceylonese ‘Karu’ had received, when he finished the race, had been many times thunderous and rousing than what was received by Mills, the gold medallist of the event.          


After the race, some officials had come 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."


The people of Japan had understood the real importance of this story and have taken steps to include this fascinating incident to their school textbooks.


Later it was reported that Karunananda has been offered a job in Japan in appreciation of his deed. But before he had acknowledged that, he had died, under mysterious circumstances. Some say he died in an accident and some say he was murdered. Some argue that he had just disappeared. 


Karunananda’s wife has lost her mind following her husband’s death and Karu’s family has been walking in the streets until one of their relatives has taken the responsibility to take care of them.


Years later a television crew from Japan arrived in Sri Lanka to find the whereabouts this remarkable sportsman. But none they had met had known anything about the man, a well-known hero in a far off nation. The television crew has been mistakenly guided to meet K. A. Karunarathne, who was also known as ‘Marathon Karu’ who later died in a bomb explosion at Weliweriya along with the well-known politician Jeyaraj Fernandopulle in 2008.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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