March 31, 2016. Financial year ending. The day Manjit Singh lost his job. August 28, 2018. Asian Games champion in a race that went well beyond the 800m finish line.
Between these two dates lies the story of a man who sought redemption in two laps of the GBK Stadium at Jakarta’s Asian Games.
On Tuesday, Manjit Singh beat the continent’s fastest imported double-lappers, the race favourite — India team-mate Jinson Johnson — and a flood of bad memories of the past two years with a stunning run of 1:46.15. You come around twice in the 800m, pass the same milestones a second time on the track and make the most of that dash to the finish to script yourself a fairy tale.
Manjit’s started with a nightmare.
A hamstring injury cut short what was a modest career at ONGC — Manjit had been picked by an athletics academy in Jind, Haryana and had put in a good 9-10 years of hard work before the 2010 Commonwealth Games, where he finished as one of the regular non-medallists. From 2010 to this year, he would medal at the nationals — including a gold in 2013. That was the first and last time he’d pick the gold in India. “Maximum times, I’d come second only,” he would remember. ‘Second only’ — was what was expected of him as Jinson, who boasted Asia’s season-best of 1.45.65, started as the firm favourite for the gold. The odds of Jinson winning were so good that most people wanted to know if Manjit was surprised his junior team-mate had finished second.
When the hamstring started troubling him in 2015, he would see his Rs 15,000 stipend job at ONGC disappear, as his contract wasn’t renewed on March 31. Months of depression followed.
It’s at this juncture that he would meet army coach Amrish Kumar — a hard-nosed trainer, who believes that the soldier’s job doesn’t end at the border, but extends to civilians in trouble in everyday life.
The two would head to the Madras Regiment Centre ground in Ooty, where the coach extracted a promise out of his “older” ward. “I was 26-27 by then, and ONGC saw me as finished completely and removed my stipend,” he recalls.
He would put in Rs 30,000 monthly to take up a rented room in Ooty and start training with a coach who didn’t view him as a tired horse. “He told me we’ll get you back in top shape. Magar ghar ko bhoolna padega,” he recalls. It meant he would not see his family for a long time — close to a year, while demanding the same of his coach.
Since 2015, Manjit hadn’t been exerting himself owing to the hamstring, but in the last two months he would train harder than ever. His parents are farmers, and the family runs a dairy business — borrowing money from them, with no job in sight, became a monthly routine. “The last two days, this is all we’ve been dreaming about. The gold. He has a capacity of 1:45,” the coach would say.
In the race, he would hang back for the most part, before coming onto the home straight. Jinson, first boxed in by the crowd, was breaking away when in the last 150 metres, Manjit would swerve wide and come in with a stunning acceleration.
“It’s always good when two from the same country are running,” he would say. “I was running well, but I never expected Manjit to come along fast,” Jinson, the national record holder, would say.
Manjit had run the race in which Sriram Singh’s long-standing 42-year-old record had been broken in Guwahati, helping set the pace. Later, the two would train together in Bhutan. “But I was determined to win the race myself at the Asian Games,” he said.
In qualification, while he helped push the fancied Jinson — an armyman — for the record, Manjit had made up his mind to show his mettle at the Asian Games. “I’d been training only at 80 per cent and hadn’t peaked,” he said.
The ‘aadha-fouji’ — a soldier by habit, not rank, but essentially a civilian, would share the room with coach Amrish again at the Games Village, and spend two days chanting gold. He had been declared ‘finished’ by his employers, and had sacrificed being with his family, to prove them all wrong. When he kicked up a last burst, everyone, starting with Jinson, would be stunned.
A hobby volleyball player, the Haryana man would pip the Kerala star, at a race both were determined to win. It helped him regain a gold that India had last won at Asiad ’82. The coach had confiscated his phone, and barred him from driving (“He drives very fast,” so no cars) so he could focus on the 800. When the time came, he struck the fast lane, and nobody could stop him after all.
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