Kelvin Lee walking very quickly by normal standards.
Racewalking, Bronze Medal
Kelvin Lee was the fastest man in Singapore. He ran blistering Olympic Qualifying 400 meter times, and in the run up to the 1976 Olympic Games, was a shoo-in for the finals and a contender for the medal podium. But Destiny was about to stand in his way. Literally. And figuratively. But also literally.
When Don Cornelius and Soul Train brought the Boogie Woogie Run by Destiny D and the Chaz Family Players to American Televsion it was an afterthought in the cultural zeitgeist that was 70’s disco. Never making the top 100 on the American charts, Destiny D and the Chaz Family Players traveled east to find an audience. Starting a disco push in Seoul, and traveling to Taipei, Tokyo, and Nanjing in the newly opened China, they spread their Boogie Woogie Run all across the Far East. Teens and ruffians the continent over started Boogie Woogie Running. Though peaceful, Boogie Woogie Running upset the traditional means of getting around the continents largest cities. Governments were willing to tolerate it, and some, such as Tokyo Governor Ryokichi Minobe embraced the trend as a way of connecting with the youth.
But when news of the song travelled to Singaporean President Benjamin Sheares, he knew he would have to act. Boogie Woogie running had the potential to disrupt his orderly society. Children running in the streets? Boogie Woogie Running? Unthinkable. And intolerable. So Sheares passed the Sheares act in 1975, banning all running in Singapore with a punishment of public caning for any offenders.
Kelvin Lee was training when the Sheares act was passed, and immediately agents of the state descended upon his facility and started beating him. He screamed, “my running neither boogies nor woogies,” but the cane blows kept falling on his legs. As the fastest runner in a state without running, Kelvin Lee was an enemy, and he was being forced to suffer as such. But as his legs healed, and he seemed council with his coach, Axel Gerd-Hummer an East German ex-pat. Axel knew of a non-running sport where Kelvin could fight back against the state by moving fast without breaking any laws: race walking.
Kelvin dedicated himself to learning this new form, straight legs, no bent knees. And given that there was no extant Singaporean race walking team, when he hit the Olympic qualifying mark of a 50km walk in under 4 hours he automatically qualified for the games. Sheares though was not please. He saw the straight legged speed strut that Kelvin had perfected as potentially inciting a new mode of moving around the city, and demanded that the police come down on Kelvin hard again. The Singaporean Police Chief begged Sheares to have mercy, “he just aims to walk, Mr. President, there is no need to make a martyr of this man!” But Sheares had gone mad with power. Everyone was to walk at a normal pace in his city-state. There would be no incongruity of movement with punishment of death.
Word of Sheares’ decree came to Kelvin through back channels, and he knew he must escape Singapore and start moving towards the games in Montreal quickly. Forced to flee to the airport by quickly walking through the country’s pristine sewers, Lee arrived at the airport with his coach, only to find themselves met by a cadre of the president’s personal bodyguards. The lead body guard, Sheares’ Nephew Stevie Sheares approached Kelvin and Axel menacingly, asking, “Well well, Mr. Lee, where are you off to so quickly?” Knowing he had to act to save Kelvin’s dreams, Axel bolted away from the gates as fast as he could. The bodyguards, trained so diligently to apprehend runners on sight, pursued Axel, and in the confusion Kelvin was able to slip into the terminal, and onto a plane to America.
Lee would wind up winning bronze at Montreal, and dedicated his triumph to Axel, whom he never heard from again. Sheares, increasingly mad and reclusive was eventually voted out of office, as he was not actually a dictator as Singapore is a democratic republic. The Sheares’ Act was repealed, and to this day you can run in Singapore without fear of reprisal so long as you are breaking no other laws.