From 'Nowhere' To The Podium, The Story of Manjit Singh's Sacrifices to Asiad Gold
History was made by a man who two months ago was a pacesetter in someone else’s race, footnote in someone else’s record.
History was made by a man who two months ago was a pacesetter in someone else’s race, footnote in someone else’s record. At the interstate championship in Guwahati, that man watched, as Jinson Johnson broke a 42-year old national record in the 800m. With 1:46.65s, Jinson also qualified for the Asian Games, and the media present there hounded him. They seemed to have forgotten, as history is wont to, the man who came second, also within the qualification mark. A certain Manjit Singh.
On Tuesday (August 28), Manjit once again seemed destined for ignominy. He had barely qualified for the final of what was the biggest race of his life. Once the race began, he trailed the leaders for three fourths of it, boxed in as the runners tried to hug the inside lane. All eyes were once again on Jinson, who was in a tussle with Abdalla Abubaker of Qatar at the head of the pack. Forth came Manjit, burning up ATP molecules he had reserved for years for this very moment. Out of nowhere, into the lead, and past the finish line in gold position.
Nowhere is a place Manjit knows. “Game karneka dil nahi kar raha hai (I don’t feel like playing anymore),” he told coach Amrish Kumar in 2016. He had been plagued by a hamstring injury for nearly a year and a half. His best year, where he won the 800m gold in the 2013 nationals, was just a fading memory. His contract with ONGC, which paid him a paltry sum, had not been renewed.
He was 26. Too slow, too old, too much of an outside bet.
The outside is exactly where he won gold from.
That gold was hard forged and hard fought. When Manjit confessed his despair to Amrish, the veteran army coach saw an opportunity. “People said he’s too old, 26, 27. I said yahi to time hai karneka, jab log kehte hai ki tum nahi kar sakte ho (the best time to do it is when people say you can’t).” He asked Manjit, “Ghar ko bhulega (will you forget about your home)?” Manjit’s reply gave him all he needed to hear: “Sir, main bhooloonga. Kya aap bhoologe (I will forget sir, but will you)?”
Home for Manjit was Jind in Haryana, where his father runs a dairy and a farm. Having just lost his income, Manjit leaned on his family and doubled his expenses. In between, his son, Abir, was born. But till date, Manjit has only seen him on the screen of his phone till now. Abir is five months old now. Not a part of the national camp, he stayed in hotel in Ooty so he could train at the Army’s Madras Regimental Centre with Amrish. The high altitude track is home to a number of athletes, including Jinson and other army runners like him. Amrish’s first priority was making Manjit’s hamstring reliable again. Once that was taken care of, speed and tactics came in.
At the nationals in Guwahati, he ran at a lower intensity, focusing on qualifying, not peaking. “He had kept training to 80 per cent till then,” said Amrish. Full intensity came after that, when Manjit earned his spot on the national camp that would train in Bhutan. That was when he knew he could beat the more fancied Jinson.
It’s not like the two are bitter rivals; they embraced warmly before and after the race. 800m athletes often run as a team, one setting the pace by going hard at the start, and the other hanging back and then sprinting the last 200. This was the role Manjit played for Jinson in Guwahati. In Jakarta, India was the only country with two athletes in the final, providing them a unique opportunity to pair up again. But at the Gelora Bung Kalro stadium, it was every runner for himself. “We get along well and he’s a good athlete. But on the track, apna apna race bhagte hai (we run our own race).
Once in Jakarta, the blinkers were on. For two days, all coach and ward (and room partners) talked about was the gold medal. You mustn’t forget your target, Amrish kept repeating. “Sir, main aapko gold doonga,” would be the reply. Communication with the outside world was routed through a borrowed phone; Manjit’s was in the coach’s bag. Such discipline was nothing new for them, one an Army man, the other one in all but name. Six months ago, Amrish had banned Manjit from driving, after being given a fright by his love for high speeds.
Manjit showed the same discipline in the race. In the bottom half of the pack for the most part, buried in the runners’ box, the commentators didn’t even feel the mention him until he made his burst. After his surge, he finished with a personal best of 1:46.15. “He can go down to 42 seconds if God keeps him fit,” Amrish said. That mark stands a while away though; the Olympic gold in Rio was won with a time of 1:42.15.
From nowhere to the podium. From anonymous second to shock first. Manjit was the latest surprise in a Games that has thrown up some unexpected golds, taking India’s tally to nine. This gives India a real shot of breaking their 2010 mark of 14. Fitting that –like Manjit’s— some of these golds have come from the children of farmers, moulded by the military. Jai jawaan, jai kisaan.
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