PETALING JAYA: “Flying Doctor” Mani Jegathesan, the classic superhero of Malaysian athletics, turns 80 today.
The spry grandfather said reaching his 960 months of life with good health and “a wonderful family life”, was a privilege.
Jegathesan (Jega), said: “You get older every day, but you look forward to certain landmarks.
“The average life expectancy of the Malaysian male is about 73 and for women it’s about 77, so I have got more than my fair share.”
Looking back, Jega’s incredible careers in track and medicine began in tandem, both fields shaped by drive, determination, dedication and discipline.
“The overarching sentiment is that he’s a man ahead of his time,” wrote sportswriter Bob Holmes in his book, “Six of the Best: Malaysian Sporting Icons.”
The wonder of Jega, who represented the hopes of an emerging nation, and electrified a generation, is not one race or one event.
From giving Malaysian athletics a voice and heft on the world stage, to an equally illustrious career in medicine, he embodied the best of sport.
Jega emerged on the scene at a time when such a star coming out of a young Malaysia was deemed almost impossible.
For him running was a human thrill ride, and he expressed it forcefully by setting national records in the 100m, 200m and 400m that stood for a combined 100 years.
He very quickly earned global fame, got named “Flying Doctor” by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and became public property at a young age.
That connection is still there even if you never saw him in the flesh, or backfilled his exciting conquests from newspaper clippings and the runoff affections of others.
Salute Jega, Rajamani
On Nov 6, his octogenarian status and enduring greatness will be celebrated by Malaysian sporting icons and prominent sportswriters at the Royal Lake Club, Kuala Lumpur.
M Rajamani, the queen of speed during Jega’s time, will also take centre stage at the event, ahead of her 80th birthday on Nov 11.
Jega and Rajamani, Malaysia’s first sportsman and sportswoman of the year in 1967 for their feats a year earlier, were born nine days apart in 1943 in Kuala Kangsar and Tapah, Perak, respectively.
On Dec 9, they will be at the Sports Flame gala at Concorde Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, together with a host of sporting legends who also held the nation spellbound with their might in the 60s, 70s and early 80s.
They achieved superiority without the kind of funds, facilities, sponsorship and visibility available to athletes today.
Joy to the young
According to renowned sportswriter Terence Netto, Jega was the “toast of our mornings” when he ruled sprints from 1962 until the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
He said stories about anything Jega in the then Straits Times were a delight to read as it mirrored the potential and hopes of young Malaysians.
“With Jega’s triumphs on the track and his medical studies, there was the feeling he was the herald of our potential as a newly emerging nation,” he said.
“Jega symbolised what we could achieve in any field we chose to excel,” he said. “I am glad I was in the glow of that period of hope and accomplishment.”
Netto said he was grateful to Jega for the memory of the possibilities he signified, and for the exhilaration he gave young people.
“Minus those memories, I would never know we could be great. There is nothing like the memory of meritocracy to banish the misery of mediocrity,” he said.
Jega’s super moments
Jega was made a Tan Sri in 2010 for his services to sport and medicine, but he never really had one highlight, it was all one big highlight.
Olympic appearances: 16-year-old schoolboy (Rome, 1960), medical student (Tokyo, 1964) and qualified doctor (Mexico City, 1968).
As a statesman, he was chef de mission for the Malaysian team at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Teen star: He was one of three teenagers Malaysia sent to the Rome Olympics in 1960, the other two being sprinter Shahrudin Ali, 18, and long jumper Kamaruddin Mydin, 17.
Jega ran in the 400m and didn’t get out of his heat, but still set a national record of 48.4s.
Flying Sikh v Flying Doctor: Jega, 18, beat the great Indian Milkha Singh, 32, who was the 200m defending champion, in the semi-final and went on to take gold in 21.3s at the Jakarta Asiad in 1962.
Jega, then in his second year of medical studies at the University of Malaya in Singapore, was beaten to the gold medal in the 100m by another doctor, Mohammad Sarengat, of Indonesia.
Running with chicken pox: Jega was sick when he recorded a hand-timed 20.9s in his 200m heat at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.
He became the first Malaysian, and second Asian, to qualify for an Olympic track semi-final, but chicken pox kept him out of the race.
Golden triple: Two years later at the Asian Games in Bangkok, Jega became Asia’s fastest man, retaining his 200m (21.5s) crown, winning the 100m (10.5s) in a photo finish, and flying home in 4×100 (40.6s).
In the same year, he was a finalist in the 220 yards at the Kingston Commonwealth Games, in Jamaica.
Retirement – and a smoke: At the 1968 Mexico Olympics Jega, 24, announced his retirement after making the semi-final of the 200m in 20.92s – a national record that stood for 49 years and six months – to focus on his postgraduate studies.
He said although he was at his peak, he observed a saying his sprinter father, N Manikavasagam, imbued in him: “In anything you need to do, make sure it’s half an hour early and not five minutes late.”
After he gave his press conference to Malaysian reporters at the games, Jega asked if anybody had a cigarette. The superstar took his first puff, and only gave it up 20 years later.
The scientist: Upon his return from London as a specialist in pathology, he was made head of the division of bacteriology at the Institute for Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur.
He was director of the institute from 1988 until 1995, before retiring as deputy director-general of the health ministry.
Revered sports doctor: Jega was adviser to the Olympic Council of Asia’s medical and anti-doping commission at the recent Hangzhou Asian Games.
The former chairman of the Commonwealth Games Federation’s medical commission took on an advisory role after hitting 75.
In his early days as sports doctor, he made a mark in the medical committees of the Olympic Council of Malaysia and the Malaysia Athletics Federation before becoming the deputy president of both organisations.
Never be afraid to dream: Jega and his wife Tan Lee Hong have three children and six grandchildren, who live in Australia.
His eldest grandchild, Briana Jones, won gold in the women’s under-23 kayak doubles at the recent Australian championships.
He said he tells everyone, “never be afraid to dream, but you must have a plan and the discipline to carry it out.”