Malaysia’s legendary sprinters Jegathesan and Rajamani turn 80, reveal secret of success

The event was to honour and celebrate two of Malaysia’s sporting icons, but there were valuable lessons for those present.

The 80th birthday celebrations for Tan Sri Dr M. Jegathesan, who turned 80 on Nov 2, and Datuk M. Rajamani, whose birthday is on Deepavali eve (Nov 11), served as a reminder to those present that to create champions, three elements were needed – talent identification, having the right people to develop talents, and a supportive environment.

Dr Jegathesan, also known as ‘The Flying Doctor’, looked dapper in a blue suit, while Rajamani was radiant in her red saree at the Royal Lake Club, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur on Monday.

The two had big smiles on their faces when Lt Commander (Rtd) Datuk Karu Selvaratnam – the only man to captain the country in athletics and cricket – listed their glorious achievements, which included winning the nation’s first gold medals at the Asian Games.

Dr Jegathesan stood at the top of the podium at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he won the 200m race. Four years later, in Bangkok, Thailand, Rajamani claimed the women’s 400m gold, while Dr Jegathesan triumphed in the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m in the 1966 regional Games.

Dr Jegathesan won the country’s first Sportsman of the Year Award in 1967, following his outstanding performance in 1966.

As Dr Jegathesan made his way to the rostrum, he stopped, took a deep breath, and revealed the secrets to his success, but not before he had the audience in stitches.

“It is a great honour for us to be here for this event because it is not often this happens. Thank you to the organiser,” said Dr Jegathesan.

“Quite honestly, at this stage, we usually hear such nice things only in our obituaries!” he said in jest.

“I have achieved a lot in my life, but I did not do it alone. It was a combination of many things that had to fall into place. I can think of 30 people who contributed to my success.

“The most important step was identifying my talent. The second was having the right people to help me develop, and finally, having a support system that helped me set my records.”

He said that for today’s athletes to succeed, they need someone to help identify their talent right from school.

It was Dr Jegathesan’s Standard One teacher who lit the fire for him to be one of Malaysia’s greatest sportsmen.

“After one physical education class, my teacher, who was 18 then, was surprised when I was the quickest to run around the tree and back. She put her arm around me and said ‘You are fantastic. You can run fast.’ I fell in love instantly!” said Jegathesan, to another round of laughter.

Dr Jegathesan added that was the encouragement he needed. He hailed from a sporting family, with his dad being a 440-yard dash winner. His elder brothers were also sportsmen.

“Never once did they tell me to give up running to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. With their support, I could concentrate on my athletics career.

“So, it is important that teachers play a crucial role in identifying talent in schools and for families to give young athletes the encouragement they need.”

He also shared how the country’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, once saw him crossing the road and immediately stopped his motorcade to offer him a lift.

“And a few months later, while I was competing in England, Tunku was also in the country. On the second day, I pulled a muscle, and he heard about it,” said Jegathesan, who competed in three Olympics – Rome (1960), Tokyo (1964), and Mexico (1968).

“He sent a massage machine to my room! It made me feel appreciated that the country’s leader took an interest. I was more determined than ever to do well in my career.”

Ipoh-based Young Talent Track and Field Club hosted the celebration on Monday. Present were Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh and former Olympic Council of Malaysia president Tunku Imran Tuanku Ja’afar.

Also in attendance were Dr Jegathesan’s teammate, Olympian Major General (Rtd) Datuk Shahrudin Mohamed Ali, former internationals Datuk M. Karathu (football), Stephen Van Huizen (hockey), Datuk James Selvaraj (badminton) and 400m hurdlers Noraseela Khalid and Anto Kenny Martin, along with journalists who covered the two icons during their heyday.

Rajamani also shared how Tunku Abdul Rahman, upon hearing that she had been hospitalised after being struck by lightning during training, arranged for her to be moved from the third-, to the first-class ward, and visited her in hospital.

Like Dr Jegathesan, Rajamani also enjoyed the support of her family and a coach – R. Suppiah – who always believed in her talent and turned her into an Olympian after only six months of training.

“I hated my coach as he pushed me hard and kept the boys away,” joked Rajamani, the country’s first Sportswoman of the Year winner in 1967.

“But looking back, I know I could not have won my medals if it was not for him. He was strict but supportive. I was lucky to have him as a mentor.

“I try to give back to the sport. That is why I am still a board member of Yakeb (National Athletes’ Welfare Foundation).”

She added that as ex-athletes, she and Dr Jegathesan were eager to help the younger set of sportsmen and women.