Sri Lanka’s unsung Karunananda, a hero in Tokyo!

That epic 10,000 metres at the Tokyo Olympics


by Reemus Fernando

Sri Lanka has won just two medals at the Olympics.

But between the medal winning efforts of Duncan White (in 1948-SL debut), and Susanthika Jayasingha (in 2000), to the Beijing Olympics, there had been quite a number of heroic feats by Sri Lankans, which are measured on an even keel, with those medal winning feats.

Of them, Ranatunga Karunanada’s epic run at the 1964 Olympics has left a lasting legacy. More than four decades after the Tokyo Games, what Karunanada epitomized is spoken highly of by those who value the true meaning of the Olympics. He was the last to finish the Tokyo Olympics men’s 10,000 metres, but as his teammates recall, he became more famous in Japan than the USA’s Billy Mills, who won the gold.

Ironically, Karunananda produced the slowest time in a race which would later top the critics’ list of the greatest 10,000 metres races at the Olympics.

Karunananda was a champion long distance runner in the mid 60s. But he probably had a premonition as to what could be expected at an Olympics. As his Olympics roommate Earnest Fernando recalls, Karunanada had stated time after time, that he had not come to win, whenever he was reminded of the task at hand. "In Tokyo, we, athletes get up in the morning and go for training. Karunananda was to get up last. And he used to say you all came here to win, so you go train and win."

That epic run

"We were all together, watching Karunananda compete in the men’s 10,000. After some five rounds, more than half the number of runners had overtaken Karunananda. He ran at the same pace he started with. He didn’t accelerate, nor did he slow down. When it was getting close to the finish, most of the runners were leading by more than one lap. The leading bunch was three laps ahead of Karunananda and when the winner crossed the finish line, Karunananda had three more laps to go. We also saw some others, probably who had taken part in other long distance events earlier, stopping and collapsing, unable to finish. But Karunananda continued. We thought he would finish after one more round. No, he did not!

And people started booing when he started the first of his last two laps. And we were starting to feel embarrassed as we were also wearing our team kits, with Ceylon prominently appearing on our jerseys. Among us, we were discussing as to what he was up to. By the time he started his last lap, the crowds who were booing him, started applauding. He finished to thunderous applause! People who were booing us, now started congratulating us," recalls Earnest Fernando, the Sri Lankan wrestler who was Karunanandaroommate and later his companion to every function and felicitation ceremony organized by the Japanese to honour the Sri Lankan.

According to the 1964 Olympics records, Karunananda clocked 32 minutes and 21.2 seconds to complete the race.

As Fernando describes, Karunananda received more accolades than the gold medal winner, Billy Mills. In fact, Mills, who until that time remained a total outsider, created a piece of history, becoming the first ever US athlete to win a gold medal in the 10,000 metres, beating favourites Ron Clark of Australia and Mohammed Gammoudi, of Tunisia. Another prominent Olympic athlete who competed in that race was Ethiopian legend, Mamo Wolde. He was placed fourth. The winner Mills remains to date the only athlete from the entire Western Hemisphere to win the track’s most grueling event.

"By the time we reached the Olympics village, the reporters were already there waiting for us. Karunananda told them: "The Olympic spirit is not to win, but to take part. So I came here. I took part in the 10,000 metres and completed my rounds."

"The next day, the Japanese papers ran this story. He was an instant hero. Karunanada was invited as the chief guest for a school sports meet. I accompanied him, as I was his roommate. People recognized him, whereever he went. He was more popular in Japan than the US gold medal winner.

"In my life, I had not seen such a reception being given to a sportsman who could not win an event at an Olympics. I was blessed to witness that."

Hats off to Karunanada

Was Karunananda’s statement spontaneous?

One might argue whether his statement that "the Olympic spirit is not to win, but to take part," was made spontaneously. Sri Lanka’s Tokyo Olympics team included officials such as Eddy Gray, the 1948 Olympian. Could it be that he was taught to repeat it to the media? "There was absolutely no time for such planning. Even after he received a glowing round of applause at the stadium, it did not occur to us what the man had just done. We were still wondering on our way to the Olympic village, what repercussions we would have to face in Sri Lanka. We had done very badly. The standards at the Olympics were very high, and all of us had done pretty badly. We were stunned when Karunananda came up with that piece. And even Eddy Grey was quick to point out: "Now we can go home with respect. It was spontaneous. Hats off to Karunananda," says Earnest Fernando.

With athletes now being more educated about the value of participation and the Olympic motto, compared to then, there is hardly and attention given to those making an extra effort to finish long distance events at the Olympics, nowadays. As Earnest Fernando recalls, it was a totally different era. "You needed a lot of guts to do that. TV had arrived. People were watching it on TV. People watching it at the stadium and on TV wanted to see the next event start, once an event was completed. There was an event waiting for a start after the medals were decided in the men’s 10,000 metres. There would have been many, who like the people in the stadium who booed Karunanada earlier, who couldn’t see the meaning in what Karunananda did. He was a skinny athlete. But he was known for his guts. He had that guts to stand when a whole stadium was booing him. He was special that way too. I could not have done that," says Fernando.

However, Karu, as he was lovingly called, did not get the same recognition for his feat here, despite winning many accolades in Japan. His performance in Tokyo is still talked of there and when the Olympic Games draw near, there had been occasions when media-persons traveled from Japan to visit Karunanada’s teammates here, to talk about the hero. Karunananda’s demise came as a shock. He drowned. According to his contemporaries, Karunananda could not swim nor could he ride a bicycle. What he knew best to do was to run.

Although a majority of Sri Lankans, largely the present generation, are in the dark about the heroics of Karunanada, the Sri Lankan runner has not been forgotten by some Japanese, to-date.

As former Olympian Wimalasena Perera recounts, a Japanese who had witnessed Karunananda run at the Tokyo Olympics had handed him a gift to be given to Karunanada when Perera visited Japan, years later.

Karunanada took part in the men’s 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres at the Tokyo Olympics. He was eliminated in the first round in the 5,000 metres heats, after clocking 16 minutes and 22.2 seconds.

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