01 September 2014

We don't need another hero

Yes, that’s from Tina Turner’s song from the 1985 film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle. The line came to me, strangely, after I had just told a set of schoolchildren that we don’t need to look beyond our shores to find heroes (if indeed we needed any, I should have added).

The line is nice and echoes another from Brecht’s ‘Galileo’ (again from beyond our shores): ‘Unhappy is the land that needs a hero’ (and not ‘a land that has not hero’). We don’t need another hero and we don’t need to know the way home (the song goes) for we already have our heroes (or are our own heroes) and we are already home.

I was telling those children about Marion Jones. They knew of her (well, most of them did). They knew of Usain Bolt (their general knowledge was above average, they would think). They knew of Tiger Woods. Susanthika Jayasinghe they had heard of. They hadn’t heard of a man called Ranatunga Karunananda.

Those who unwittingly inhabit others’ versions of their realities might find Karunananda in a different way, I realized. If they scanned world cinema, the greatest or the most entertaining flicks, they might come across Ron Ichikawa’s ‘Tokyo Olympiad’ (Tokyo Orimpikku).

They would no doubt be amazed to learn that a man who came last in the 10,000m race was also featured among the winners, including the incredible Ethiopian, Abebe Bikila who was the first Black African to win an Olympic gold medal and the first to win the marathon twice in a row.

Karunananda didn’t compete in the marathon. He was placed 47th out of 52 in the 5000m race and started the 10,000 with a bad cold and a considerably weakened body. This was in 1964, when athletes didn’t chicken out if they were less than 100 percent fit, a time when athletes were not pampered with sponsorships, employment, vehicles, houses and other gifts. Karunananda competed because he wanted his little daughter to be happy that he competed, from start to finish. He came last. He could have stopped at any point, it would not have changed anything. He didn’t. He was with the leaders when Billy Mills of the USA breasted the tape. That’s because he had been lapped four times by that time.

When he continued, it surprised the spectators. When he came around they jeered. When he came around a second time, there was silence. And then there was cheering. Wild applause. He finished the race to a standing ovation that exceeded the salutation that the spectators gave Mills. Mills is reported to have said that the gold should have gone to Karunananda. Days after the race he still received gifts from sympathetic Japanese. One housewife wrote, ‘I saw you on TV, running all alone and I could not keep back my tears’. 

He was the original ‘Marathon Karu’ (the subsequent Marathon Karu, better known, died with Jeyaraj Fernandopulle in a suicide attack). The Japanese remember. His story is related to schoolchildren to teach the virtue of determination and the triumph of the human spirit. Karu was offered a job in Japan. A few days before he was to leave Sri Lanka, he died. Some say he died in an accident. Some say he was murdered. Some say he just disappeared.

Years later a Japanese television crew arrived in Sri Lanka to do a documentary on this incredible man. No one knew him. They had been taken to the then ‘Marathon Karu’ by mistake and he had helped the Japanese find the man’s family.
Karu’s wife had lost her mind when her husband ‘died’.

The family was literally on the street until a kind relative had offered to take care of the children. The Japanese TV crew found Karu’s son, a teacher. He too had a story.
One day some schoolchildren had been playing around a bonfire; the leaves in the school premises had been swept and set fire to. One little child had tripped and got thrown into the fire.

The others watched helplessly as her clothes caught fire. Karu’s son, it was reported, had jumped into the fire and saved the child. How and why had he risked his life? He had a simple answer: ‘I have a little girl about the same age.’

Tina Turner’s song has these lines: ‘So what do we do with our lives? We leave only a mark. Will our story shine like a light or end in the dark?’ People leave marks, some more prominent than others. Some shine like a light, some end in the dark. Those who see, are privileged and those who don’t are poorer for that un-knowing.

It was tough relating this story to a hall full of students, ages ranging from 12 to 19. I had to gulp in a lot of air to hold back my tears. I managed to smile at the end, though.
‘We don’t have to look beyond our shores,’ I told them. ‘We are a nation blessed with our own heroes.’ There’s one in every body in fact. We don’t have to remember anyone, we don’t need any heroes, but if we want to remember men and women who stood taller than the multitude, then let’s spare a thought for Ranatunga Karunananda. 

*First published in the Daily News, May 5, 2010