Jinson Johnson looks to exorcise ghosts of the past at Asian Games 2023

The national record holder in men’s 800m and 1500m, Jinson won a silver in the shorter distance and a gold in the longer one at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games to mark his stature as one of the best Indian athletes of the generation.

Published : Sep 17, 2023 22:15 IST , Chennai - 11 MINS READ

Jinson Johnson during the 2018 Asian Games.
Jinson Johnson during the 2018 Asian Games. | Photo Credit: Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images

Jinson Johnson during the 2018 Asian Games. | Photo Credit: Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images

To own a national record is a flex, to own two marks you out as someone special, much like Jinson Johnson.

The national record holder in men’s 800m and 1500m, Jinson won a silver in the shorter distance and a gold in the longer one at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games to mark his stature as one of the best Indian athletes of the generation.

Jinson will return to the quadrennial event at Hangzhou to defend his 1500m title, albeit in a different frame of mind after having endured a troubled spell in between.

A calf injury and an Achilles tendon rupture in 2019 took the wind out of his sails and then came the pandemic.

“I started 2020 with the Olympics in mind and then COVID-19 happened and just like that, two years went by. For middle-distance races, you need constant exposure, which was not possible during that period. To make it worse, I caught COVID-19, with really severe symptoms - breathing issues, back pain, headache... the whole lot.”

The tendon injury also meant Jinson had to give up the 800m, an event in which he broke Sriram Singh’s 42-year-old record in 2018, which was the longest-standing in Indian athletics then.

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The other landmark timing of Jinson’s career came in 2019, when he broke his own 1500m record, shaving nearly 2.5 seconds off the previous mark, during the ISTAF Berlin event.

To put it into perspective, Jinson’s national-record-shattering mark of 3:35:24 is almost three seconds quicker than the Asian-leading mark of the 2023 season.

No Indian, including himself, has come anywhere close to touching his 1500m record, with Ajay Kumar Saroj, who will also take part in the event in Hangzhou, coming the closest with a 3:38:24.

“When I started, I never imagined I would ever hold a national record. It just happened on the journey. In the beginning, I just wanted a medal at the district level, and then at the state level,” said Jinson, who represented India in the 2016 Olympics.

“I never thought I would represent the country or go to the Olympics. Once I reached a particular step, like the state or the nationals, I started to upgrade my ambitions. The national record came as a part of that process.”

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Jinson’s idea of step-by-step progression took a hit after 2019, and eventually he went on to miss almost the entirety of the 2022 season. But he has swung back into action in 2023 with multiple races, both at the national and international levels, with his timings improving slowly but steadily.

He would soon set his sights on making an impression at the Asian Athletics Championship in Bangkok in July.

“I went to the Asian Championships with a lot of expectations, but it turned out to be one of my worst races. I had suffered a hamstring injury after reaching Bangkok and I could run only a 3:46 race,” said Jinson, a Naib Subedar with the Indian Army.

He bounced back with a solid run at the recent Indian Grand Prix-5 athletics in Chandigarh, posting a timing of 3:39.32, the ninth-fastest time by an Asian this season.

“I feel the decision to run the recent Grand Prix was a good one. My best time [of the season] before that was 3:40.9. To run below 3:40 gives me a lot of confidence going forward. Even though I didn’t get close to my best mark, I believe that now I have the fitness levels to compete at the Asian level,” said the Kozhikode native.

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Jinson, who has been training at SAI, Bengaluru, is not setting any particular target timing for himself at the Hangzhou Games.

“1500 and 800 are tactical races. Timings and wins, all depend on the tactics you use. My only target at the Asian Games is to win a medal. I am not looking to set any particular timing. In 2018, I was running at around 3:37 but won the Asian Games gold with just 3:44,” said the 32-year-old.


Jinson’s entry into athletics mirrors that of many athletes in his state, Kerala; an unsteady initiation during school days laid the platform for a refined mentorship, leading to sub-national, national, and then international glory.

“I used to participate in athletics right from a young age. But we never had a proper training or anything. When I was in +1, KM Peter sir, who used to be a university-level athlete, started training me and in six or seven months, I improved drastically. I used to run 100m and 200m when I was young. I zeroed in on 800m and 1500m under Prasad sir,” said Jinson.

With medals and accolades flowing in Jinson was soon recruited by the Army in 2009, following which he would elevate his talent to the next level.

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“When I joined the Army, my timing was around 4:03 (1500m). I was posted in Hyderabad, where they had a synthetic track and a good gym. They put a lot of emphasis on sports and physical fitness. I felt the Army training helped me mentally too,” said Jinson.

Jinson’s progression with time is also a reflection of his understanding of middle-distance running and the intricacies involved in it.

“I believe that you learn the tactical aspect of middle-distance running only through experience. Initially, I didn’t know anything about such stuff. But with time, I learned how to deal with it,” says Jinson.

It would be unrealistic to expect Jinson to get close to his best timing in 1500m in Hangzhou. But armed with experience—of the highs of ruling the track as India’s premier middle-distance runner and the lows of career-realigning injuries—he would be looking to win a second Asian Games medal in the 1500m, a feat never achieved before by an Indian man.

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