Jegathesan Manikavasagam was one of the biggest names in Asian track and field at the time, and was welcomed as a national icon by thousands of cheering fans as he carried the torch through Merdeka Stadium.
But just a few years earlier, he had been one of them, among the crowd in the same stadium for a monumental event in Malaysian history. It was this experience that ignited his Olympic ambitions.
New country, new dream
The year was 1957 and Jegathesan was a 13-year-old student in Singapore. His father was calling him home to see his country, then known as Malaya, gain independence from Britain.
“My father summoned me to come back home, saying a country declares independence only once and I must not miss it,” he recalls.
A ceremony to mark the occasion took place at Merdeka Stadium, which was completed and opened just in time for the event.
Jegathesan was in the stands. He saw the national flag and heard the anthem for the first time. The scene reminded him of an Olympic medal ceremony.
“I told myself: one day, I will climb some rostrum and they will play this anthem and raise this flag for me. Tell you the truth, that was one of my motivating factors.”
A rising star
Jegathesan comes from a family of runners. His father was the first non-British national athletics champion during colonial rule and the founding secretary of Malaya’s Olympic Committee.
It didn’t take long for Jegathesan to hit the world stage as a sprinter. He took part in the 1960 Rome Olympics at the age of 16 and the 1962 Asian Games, at which he won the 200-meter event and achieved his childhood dream. He received his medal on top of a podium and listened to the national anthem.
Return to Merdeka Stadium
When the Olympic flame arrived in Kuala Lumpur in September 1964, Jegathesan was already a well-known figure. The country’s prime minister invited him to run a lap around Merdeka Stadium as a torchbearer. It proved to be an inspiring moment.
Jegathesan was a medical student at a Singapore university at the time, and came home on the day of the relay. He remembers entering the noisy stadium amid pouring rain, with 20,000 spectators cheering him on.
“People had gathered there many hours before and they were waiting for just one moment, lasting perhaps a minute or two, for an athlete to run around,” Jegathesan recalls. “They were excited and cheering widely. It was very motivational.”
After passing the flame to the relay anchor, his job was done - and he flew back to Singapore the same evening in time for the following day’s classes.
Sports unite a young nation
There was great anticipation in Malaysia ahead of the Tokyo Games. It had taken its new name just one year earlier, in 1963, when several former British colonies had joined the federation. And this growth was reflected in the size of the national team. 62 athletes were chosen, the largest number to date.
They entered the National Stadium under one flag, wearing matching black jackets and caps. “We accepted that we are one country and we are all countrymen,” says Jegathesan. “It was like a country marching.”
He became the first Malaysian sprinter to make it to the Olympic semifinals and set a national record in the process.
Jegathesan says people in Malaysia were coming together through sport: “When an athlete from home competes, the whole country stops everything and watches. People don’t mind who he is. He's fighting for the country and the country is there for him.”
Malaysia’s Mr. Olympics
Jegathesan enjoyed a stellar career. He won eleven gold medals at international events, held a national record that stood for 49 years and took part in ten Olympics, as a competitor and in other roles.
He closed a circle in 2004 when the Games returned to Athens, the home of the modern Olympics, and he was chosen as one of five Malaysians to carry the torch in Greece.
The power of sports
Jegathesan, now 77, is a firm believer in the power of sports. He says they can unite people not only within a country, but across the globe. “Sports bring the world together, irrespective of political or religious beliefs. They’re a medium for fostering harmony.”
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As for the upcoming Olympics, Jegathesan has some encouraging words. “The Tokyo Games are facing many challenges, such as whether the vaccines are successful, and how to safely fill the stadiums,” he says. “But we should not lose hope because the Olympic Games are a dream for athletes around the globe.”