Manjit Singh’s life changed for the better over two laps on the track at Jakarta’s Gelora Bung Karno Stadium. Winning the men’s 800m gold medal at Asian Games 2018 , edging out training partner Jinson Johnson to second place in the process, also lifted India’s reputation in track and field. Forty-two nations took part in athletics programme and competition was not only from traditional Asian powers, former Soviet republics competing as independent nations and also from naturalised Africans competing for Gulf nations Bahrain, Qatar.
Gold and silver in middle-distance is a matter of pride for India. Manjit and Jinson stood on the podium for the medal ceremony as the tricolor rose and the national anthem was heard around the track, among the listeners standing nearby was Abubaker Abdulla, the 800m bronze-medallist. The Indian champion remembers a chat with the Qatar athlete. “He said that after being certain to win the race, based on form and preparation for the Asian Games, coming third made him realise the need for more effort. He vowed to be better prepared the next time we raced each other.”
The Qatari (1:46.38) had no answer to Manjit’s kick after the last turn for the tape, the Indian winning in 1:46.15 followed by Jinson (1:46.35). Abubaker is from Sudan and has been running for Qatar from 2014 in an attempt to win titles for the new nation. He is only one of the naturalised African track athletes from Kenya, Ethiopia, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan to name a few, competing for Qatar, Bahrain etc. under changed nationality. The inflow began with middle and long distance events in men and women, extending to the sprints and relays.
Asked if he felt distressed or charged up running against the naturalised athletes, Manjit said: “We were aware about Bahrain and Qatar athletes hired from other nations running here. If we wish to win a medal, we needed to be stronger than these runners and not use that as an excuse for our performance.” The world athletics body, IAAF, is regulating such mass movement from Africa by stipulating a cooling period of three years before a naturalized athlete can take part, restricting nationality change to one time and keeping U-20 out of this.
The Asian Games champion said: “I do not have the latest information about IAAF decisions, so will not comment. After the Asian Games, I am trying to get ready to face the world at the Olympic Games, where more nations will be involved. We need to train like the Kenyans.” Next on his agenda is the Asian Athletics Championships 2019 in Doha, Qatar. “The AAC is like an Olympic qualifier and a decent time is priority. Training in a foreign country may come true then.”
He pointed to the altitude training in Bhutan, arranged by the Athletics Federation of India, helping him and Jonson (1500m winner at the Asian Games) perform at Jakarta. Returning to Haryana with the champion tag made a difference. “Life has changed a bit after the Asian Games gold. Earlier, the routine was training and rest, now I am busy talking to people and getting invited to functions.”
Talking on the sidelines of an event named ‘FitIndia’, organised by Glambia Nutrionals, Manjit quipped how his view about Indians following sport had changed. “The affection of people in my village in Haryana was special. Young or old, everyone I met knew about Indian athletes winning medals at Jakarta,” he said, adding: “As a nation, I thought people only follow the cricketers at the international level. I am happy athletes also remain in people’s mind, not that I have anything against cricket or other sports. Appreciation is a boost for a performer.”
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