Karate king who put N-E on world map dies

Shillong, Oct. 25 : The master who had put Meghalaya on the karate map of the world by grooming several youngsters who went on to win in international competitions, died last evening after a prolonged illness.

Coach, friend and mentor Stephan Leong, who turned 52 on October 18, had a glittering career spanning almost three decades.

Leong, the man who formed the All Meghalaya Karate-Do Association in 1981, took up martial arts as a career in 1973. After nine years of training, he went to Singapore and Malaysia for further training and obtained 1st Dan Black Belt in karate.

From 1976, he started training students while sharpening his skills with the ambition of achieving higher goals.

He was also a holder of the rank 4th Dan Black Belt in Shotokan Karate awarded by the Japan Karate Association, and 5th Dan Black Belt in karate awarded by the All India Karate-Do Federation (AIKF) which is recognised by the World Karate Federation.

For several years, as a keen karate practitioner and dedicated instructor, Leong had trained many karatekas of the Northeast in general and Meghalaya in particular, thus raising them up to the level of national champions and even world champions.

“He was more than a teacher to us. He made a lot of contribution to the state and the country. Without him karate would not have been popular in Meghalaya. We owe a lot to him,” Linza Fenny Syiem, karate coach in the state directorate of sports and youth affairs, told The Telegraph. Syiem, an international achiever in karate, was one of those who were groomed by Leong. She won her first international gold medal at the 7th Junior Shoto World Cup Karate Championship held in Paris in 1998.

On Leong’s contribution to her success, Syiem said: “Besides the grace of God, he was the main person to whom I attribute my achievements.”

Saying Leong would be deeply missed in the karate circuit, she said: “The most befitting tribute we can pay to him is by putting more effort to popularise the art in the state.” Like Syiem, Damang Syngkon, a four-time national champion and gold medallist in the men’s 50kg category at the 8th SAF Games and who represented India in the 14th Asian Games at Busan in 2002, is also another achiever who grew under Leong.

“He has always been like a father figure to us. Meghalaya got its first international medal in sports and games through the efforts of Leong. He was able to bring out many champions and this itself speaks volumes about the man. His departure has left a big void,” Syngkon, now a junior karate coach in West Garo Hills district, said.

Banshanlang Kharumnuid is also another player who won international accolades under Leong’s guidance.

“I have been associated with Leong since I was nine years old. He was not only my master in karate but he was also like a father to me. Most of my years were spent with him. He guided me in almost every aspect of my life. He was the one who shaped me up to the way I am today,” Kharumnuid said.

Leong had also participated in the International Karate Open Championship held at Kuala Lumpur in 1984. He was also appointed coach for the Indian contingent for the 8th Shoto World Cup held in Tokyo in September 2000. He dedicated most of his life to the promotion of karate in Meghalaya in particular and the region in general and was previously the technical director in Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. Till his death, Leong was the karate coach at the Sports Authority of India, Shillong.

Leong was bestowed with U Kiang Nangbah Award for sports by the Meghalaya government in 2003. His body will be laid to rest here tomorrow.

Burying their differences as organisers in two rival organisations, sports organisers and karatekas Manoj Hazarika and Nogen Bonjang agreed that Leong’s death has left a void in the field of karate in the Northeast. “It is an irreparable loss for the region in particular and the nation in general. It is a void which could not be filled up in the near future. I have not only lost a personal friend of mind, the region has also lost a popular coach. He died at a time when there was much to be derived from him by the nation,” Hazarika, the secretary of All Style Karate-do Association, Assam (ASKAA), told The Telegraph in Guwahati.

Hazarika and Leong were trained together in Shotokan Karate of Japan Karate Association under Gitaraj Chouhan in Shillong in 1979. “I found Leong a great opponent to fight and improve my skills. He was a gifted player,” Hazarika said.

“As an organiser and coach, I would salute him because a friendly jibe from my side prompted him to take it up a challenge and revolutionise karate in Meghalaya. His initiatives helped Meghalaya surpass Assam in the sport and make the state a force to reckon with the national circuit,” Hazarika said.

Hazarika took a dig at the All India Karate-do Federation’s policy saying that it never recognised his capability to coach and produce players for the nation. “The federation never considered taking his service for any national duty,” he said.

Bonjang, on the other hand, felt none could replace Leong in the karate revolution of the region. “He was not only a pioneer of karate in Meghalaya but also pioneered the revolution in the entire region. He helped every state of the region in developing karate as a sport,” Bonjang, the secretary of the United Karate-do Association, Assam, told The Telegraph.

UKAA coach Ram Bahadur Gurung, who learnt karate from Leong, felt it was Leong who pioneered karate in Assam too.

“Most of the players from the region who represented the nation were trained by Leong and he was the most revered coach in this part of the country,” Gurung said.

Th. Kiran Singh, one of the pioneers of karate in Manipur, said Leong was an outstanding figure in the sport in the region as well as the nation and his demise an irreparable loss for the country. “In my association with Leong in the North Eastern Karate Federation, I have found him not very comfortable with the attitude of the national federation towards the Northeast and thus he took it up as a challenge to produce the best karatekas for the nation from the region,” Singh said in Imphal.

Karate organising bodies in all the states of the region, including ASKAA, UKAA and Manipur Karate Association, organised condolence meetings this evening and sent their messages to the bereaved family.