Before he flew to Jakarta for the Asian Games in August, Manjit Singh Chahal knew that his career depended on the event. A medal in Indonesia would give a new lease to his 18-year-old athletics career and also to his life.
He had dedicated more than half of his life to athletics but an international medal had eluded him. But a month later, Manjit is still getting used to the newfound stardom and always wonders: what if he had not won a gold medal in Indonesia?
“I would have had to go back to farming,” he said. “Life would have been extremely difficult for me. I am almost 30 years old and trained for 18 years. If I had not got a medal at a big event, what would have life been for me? Everyone would have said that he played sports but could not achieve anything.”
Manjit reckons people of his village would have discouraged their children to take up sports, citing his failure as an example. But now, they are talking about his achievement in Indonesia, where he won India’s first gold medal in men’s 800m at the Asian Games since 1982.
That gold medal gave Manjit a few surprises as well, including the first look of his son Abir, who is just six months old. “When I boarded the flight, my family members said that they cannot bring such a small child to the airport, but when I landed I saw my son. It was a surprise. I managed to meet him only for 10 minutes but it was worth it. Then in my village I have never had a swaagat. For the first time, my entire village was present. It was a great feeling,” he says.
This sense of happiness has come after a long struggle. Two years ago, Manjit was struggling with his life and career. He was yet to win any big medals and his employer ONGC decided not to renew his contract. At 27, all seemed lost for him.
“We have a dairy farm and business of transporting buffaloes to different dairy farms in cities like Mumbai and other metros. But I don’t know much about it. Mere liye to sari bhaisien ek jaisi thi (To me all the buffaloes look the same). I needed to win something so that I can have stable life and not be called a failure,” he said.
Now, Manjit is entitled to Rs 3 crore as a cash prize under the Haryana government’s sports policy, along with a Grade ‘A’ job in the state’s administrative services or police services, for which he had applied when he was home last week. In a few months’ time, Manjit could well be an Sub District Magistrate. “As a sportsperson, what will I have after my career is finished? I can coach kids but I need security, which this medal has guaranteed. DSP (Deputy Superintendent of Police) or SDM are the two posts and I would be happy with the latter,” he said.
Now that he has cleared the hurdle of clinching an international medal, just the money or securing a job doesn’t satisfy Manjit anymore. As the Asian Games champion, he now wants to build on this performance at the Asian and World Championships next year.
“Now there is pressure to perform, which is important as well,” he said. “Asian Championships are very important next year and the athletes from Bahrain and Qatar are our biggest competition. I also need to bring down my personal best from 1:46. I will be back at the national camp from October 10 and train,” he added.
Longing for home food, says Arpinder
Another gold medallist at the Asian Games, triple jumper Arpinder Singh will be back in the national camp in Patiala on the same day. But unlike Manjit, Arpinder is yet to go back home in Amritsar after returning from Jakarta. “I am missing the food but next week I’ll be there and will eat a lot,” he said at the FitIndia event, before adding, “I cannot eat a lot of butter as I need to control my weight and join the camp later.”
Like Manjit, Arpinder too had struggled for the past two years, searching for the lost touch. He had a bad training stint in London, and had to shift base to LNCPE in Thiruvananthapuram to regain his form. He qualified for the Asian Games and was only focused on winning the gold.
“I think it was a good decision to shift to LNCPE which gave me the confidence and I could qualify for the Games. I need to continue this and also improve as there are bigger challenges,” he said.
But this is not the the first time that Arpinder has shifted base. Back in 2009, when he moved to Ludhiana to train at the Guru Nanak Stadium from Jalandhar, he was surprised at the lack of facilities. The next three years were some of the worst in his sporting career.
He visited his sister in Sonipat during a break and trained at the SAI Centre, Bhalgarh, and was amazed at the facilities. He decided to leave Punjab and represent Haryana from 2013.
“There was this gym person who did not open it in the morning. If his friends were there, he would open the gym in the evening. I complained to the authorities but no action was taken. Now I will complain again.... Punjab’s facilities are devised in such a way that that only the top athlete will have access,” he said.
Arpinder is now hoping he can improve on his Asian Games performance and, like Manjit, prepare for Asian championships. “Now, once these functions are over, some of which were very boring, I’ll try to get to my best form. But for now I’ll go back home and eat some food,” he said.