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Nation walking together

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THERE’s something endearingly romantic about the Malay Mail Big Walk, a biggie among the numerous projects the paper had pioneered in its 122-year history.

Fondly named the Biggie, the event orchestrated joy as Malaysians came together, making everyone a champion of national and health consciousness.

It was also the catalyst to mass participation races in the country — walking or running — over the last five decades.

The Biggie is one of Malay Mail’s biggest stories that shine through from however far back.

It reminds us how to keep our flame burning, to rally for a good cause, to get inspired and to rise above things that keep us from succeeding.

The big walk marched on to centrestage on Feb 21, 1960 with a whopping 2,864 walkers, local and foreign.

They were flagged off with much fanfare by then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman at Merdeka Stadium.

The inaugural race had a superb story: 10-year-old Singaporean Vijaya Darshana finished first in women’s category but was disqualified because she was underage.

Maimunah Mohd Nor, 19, from Petaling Jaya took the crown.

However, Vijaya returned with vengeance in 1966 and took first place.

It was the beginning of an event that enhanced the identity of Malay Mail and was preened to perfection until the last walk in 2007.

It stamped its mark in Singapore, where the event was held in the early 1960s when the Singapore Free Press merged with Malay Mail. It was also due to traffic jams in Kuala Lumpur.

On May 11, 1975, the walk became an annual event and was staged in Penang before making Padang Merbok in Kuala Lumpur its home.

Federal Territory Kuala Lumpur Athletics Association president Datuk S. Vegiyathuman, the man known as the livewire of the Biggie, recalled:

“It was the best mass participated event in the country and encouraged local and international organisers to follow in its footsteps.”

Vegiyathuman, who became a prominent member of the Biggie family in the 70s, served as the technical chairman and race director until 2007.

He said the event’s success gave his association the confidence to organise more walks and runs.

“It was the pioneer of mass competitions in Malaysia and stayed our best model,” he said.

The Biggie, he said, used to attract up to 17,000 participants but organisers had to restrict it to 10,000 to avoid logistical issues.

“It was an amazing sight as on race day walkers lined up for the start from Padang Merbok to Bank Negara,” he said.

Walkers also came from Japan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand. Singapore Prisons was a regular team.

All of them paid their own way to be part of this extraordinary event.

The culture of the Biggie also attracted scores of students and between 800 to 1,000 senior citizens annually.

More than 1,000 officials and volunteers involved in each race earned organisational stripes.

They camped at Padang Merbok a day before the event to ensure they were not late for the flagoff at 7am.

Vegiyathuman said the Biggie was not all fun as it became a base to unearth national walkers, who went on to shine at the SEA and Asian Games.

The popularity of the Biggie led to the introduction of 13 categories that included juniors, providing an avenue to identify young talent.

Big names who shone at the Biggie included V. Subramaniam and Khoo Chong Beng, who had podium finishes in the 20km walk at regional games.

Others were 1998 Commonwealth Games (50km) champion G. Saravanan, P. Ravindran, S. Karunanithi, B. Thirukumaran, Jagjit Singh, R. Mogan, Shahrulhaizy Abdul Rahman, Lo Choon Sieng, Teoh Boon Lim and Narinder Singh.

Well-known women walkers included Nancy Lai, Cheng Tong Lean, Anastasia Karen Raj and Yuan Yufang.

Subramaniam won the Biggie until his retirement in 1987 and later used the event to identify talent.

His affection for the event had him conducting coaching clinics before race day and leading the warmup sessions at Padang Merbok.

Veteran journalist and former Malay Mail Editor Emeritus Frankie D’Cruz, who helped drive publicity for years, said the Biggie engaged closely with the community.

He said the Biggie was a unique platform for societal integration and promoted a fit Malaysia.

Malay Mail Big Walk captivated the masses and will go down memory lane as one of the paper’s greatest tool for unity and nation building,” he said.

“It was a big walk with a big heart,” he added, with a tinge of nostalgia.