Dr Jega: The Fastest Man in Asia Learns that Life Works in Mysterious Ways

Manikavasagam Jegathesan of Malaysia (#415) at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Life is long, and full of complexity. As one can’t see the forest for the trees, one also can’t know how actions today will shape one’s situation months or years later. Manikavasagam Jegathesan of Malaysia was only 16 years old when he took center stage in the 1960 Rome Olympics, the first of three Olympiad appearances. Little did he know that his entire life would be shaped by the Games, particularly those in Tokyo in October of 1964.

“When the Rome Olympics started, every winner became my hero. I was so impressionable,” Jegathesan told me. “Livio Berrutti was the 200-meter champion, and he ran in sunglasses. I was targeting him. I was going to be him. From that point on, I never ran a race without dark glasses. In my first heat, I ran against Milkha Singh, the Flying Sikh. He was another hero.” Jegathesan did not make it beyond the first heat in Rome, and his Olympics competition was done.

1960-400 hts first round with milka
Jegathesan running a heat with Milka Singh at the 1960 Olympics

But when the Tokyo Olympics rolled around in 1964, Jegathesan was the fastest man in Asia, Asian Games champion in both the 100 and 200-meters. And when he crossed the tape at 20.5 seconds in Singapore a few months before the Olympics in a 200-meter race, there were hopes he could challenge for the finals in Tokyo.

Jegathesan took to the blocks first with the 100 meters, where he hoped to be the first Malaysian to make it beyond the first round. He made the cut with a time of 10.6 seconds, but was eliminated in the second round – which was OK. He got the nerves out of the way, and was ready to do damage in the 200-meter competition.

In round one of the 200-meter competition, Jegathesan ran toe to toe with Canadian superstar, Harry Jerome, who had already taken the bronze medal in the 100-meter finals. Then in the quarterfinals, Jegathesan ran against Paul Drayton, who eventually won silver in the 200 meters, and his hero, Livio Berruti, the 1960 200-meter champion from Italy. He finished just behind those two to qualify, becoming the first Malaysian to make it to the semi-finals. That would take place the next day, so Jegathesan was ready for a good night’s sleep.

But a good sleep never came. He awoke in the middle of the night, his throat sore, his body feverish. He could not sleep, his condition now feeding a growing anxiety about his prospects in the 200. When morning arrived, he took off for the stadium, angry that his chance at glory was at risk. Jegathesan ran as hard as he could, but finished last in his semi-final heat. He trooped on as a team member of the Malaysian 4×100-meter relay team, but ran poorly, and pulled out of the 4X400 meter relay.

His Tokyo Games finished, Jegathesan went to the Olympic Village infirmary and met the physician on call, Dr Yoshio Kuroda. The doctor diagnosed chicken pox, which is a contagious, uncomfortable disease. So the doctor ordered Jegathesan to bed in the hospital, and thus could not participate in the closing ceremonies. Jegathesan did go on to compete in the 1968 Games in Mexico City, where he made it again to the semi-finals of the 200-meter competition, and set the Malaysian record of 20.92 seconds, which still stands.

Time passed. Jegathesan completed his medical studies and went on to practice as a medical officer for the Malaysian government. In 2003, Dr. Jega, as he is now often called, was at an international athletics meet in Hyderabad, India. He was serving at the medical station for this event when in walked a man from Japan who took one look at him and said, “You’re the guy with chicken pox!” Dr Jega was reunited with his doctor at the Tokyo Olympics, Dr Kuroda.

A few years later, Dr Kuroda, who was the head of the Medical Committee of the Olympic Council of Asia, needed to fill a slot on his 10-person committee, so he recommended that Olympian with chicken pox, Dr. Jega. Dr Kuroda retired in 2007 after serving 25 years as the head of the Medical Committee. Who did he recommend for his successor? Dr. Jega.

“The Flying Doctor” still serves as head of the Medical Committee of the Olympic Council of Asia, working hard to, among other things, drive an anti-doping agenda in Asia.

The Tokyo Olympics had a greater impact on Dr. Jega than he could ever have suspected at the time. Who knew that falling sick to chicken pox was one of the best things to happen to the fastest man in Asia?

1964-torch KL
Jegathesan participates in the torch relay in Kuala Lumpur in 1964