On March 31, 2016, Manjit Singh lost his job. His two-year contract with ONGC wasn’t renewed. On August 28, 2018, he became the third Indian to clinch gold at his debut Asian Games 2018, in the male 800m finals with a personal best of 1:46.15s, ahead of seasoned sprinter Jinson Johnson who clinched silver at 1:46.35.
This meant a rare Asiad gold-silver win in the 800m category for India, 67 years after Ranjit Singh and Kulwant Singh won gold-silver in the inaugural edition of the games in New Delhi in 1951.
The journey for Manjit was never easy. When he wasn’t undergoing strenuous training at Ooty and Bhutan, he would return home once a year to help his father herd cattle on their farm in their native village, Ujhana, in the Jind district of Haryana.
Training for the Asian Games also meant that Manjit couldn’t meet his five-month-old son, Abhir. But his spectacular win now ends the long wait for the father-son duo who hasn’t met since Abhir was born.
Speaking to The Indian Express, his wife, Kiran Devi, says,
“Since Abhir was born, my husband has not come home, instead, training in Ooty and Bhutan. Even though he has been training without a job, he makes sure that he keeps sending Abhir gifts. But this gold medal is the biggest gift for him. When he returns, he would put the gold medal around his neck.”
Manjit was born in a family of farmers, where his father, Randhir Singh Chahal, was a former state-level shot putter. When Randhir would participate in the discus throw and shot put events at Ujhana alongside taking care of their 30-acre farm, Manjit would train at the local Navdeep Stadium for running.
As his passion for the sport grew, he shifted to Jalandhar to study in the Sports College.
“Manjit always had a passion for running. He was five years old when he started running, and he would sometimes take buffaloes for grazing while running. When he was selected in the sports nursery at the stadium, the track was in very bad condition. But he would run along with his coach and never complained. At that time, we had five-six buffaloes in our dairy, and he would spend most of his time running. But he always made sure he was at home during the milking time so that he could get fresh milk to drink,” 64-year-old Randhir Singh Chahal told the publication.
Manjit earned a spot in the Indian team during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, won the fourth place in Asian Championships in Pune in 2013 and a silver medal in the Federation Cup in 2014. His first and last gold medal until the recent win came in 2013. “Maximum times, I’d come second only,” he says.
It was around this time that he started working for ONGC. But when his contract wasn’t renewed, he was left disappointed.
It was a downward spiral for the athlete when he wasn’t selected for the CWG and Asian Games in 2014. But he was undeterred. He wouldn’t quit training. His family would send him Rs 30,000 every month.
In 2015, Manjit moved to Bareilly and pushed his limits under unyielding coach Amrish Kumar, a former Army man who trained athletes at Jat Regiment Centre.
He approached the trainer after 2014 Asian Games bronze medallist Naveen Kumar told him about the training. The results reflected in how Singh won a silver medal in Federation Cup in 2015 and the National Games in 2016 and 2017.
Speaking to the Indian Express, Manjit reveals how Kumar told him, “We’ll get you back in top shape. Magar Ghar ko bhoolna padega (You will have to forget family and home),” he recalls. Neither he nor his coach went to their homes for nearly a year.
He had gained weight by the end of his contract with ONGC, as he had missed his training sessions for a while. And so, he was put on a strict diet of juice and fruits for several months.
“At the centre, most of the trainees are soldiers and sometimes, they take holidays but Manjit never took a leave. ‘Medal jeetna hai Desh ke liye, sir’ was what he would tell us. The last two days, this is all we’ve been dreaming about. The gold,” his coach said.
Needless to say, Manjit Singh is a man of his words.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)