Flashback #Star50: Soaring to great heights


WHAT Tan Sri Dr M. Jegathesan achieved as a young athlete back in 1966 will not likely be repeated in the modern era.

It was the golden era of Malaysian athletics. Jegathesan was billed as the “fastest man in Asia” after winning three gold medals (for the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay) in the Bangkok Asian Games that year.

It was only four years earlier that he had made history as the first Asian Games gold medallist in athletics for Malaysia after winning the 200m title in Jakarta.

“The Bangkok Asian Games took place just two months before my final MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine) examination at the National University of Singapore,” said Jegathesan, who was known as the “Flying Doctor” in his heyday.

“There was no time to celebrate as I had to rush back to do my revisions and prepare for my final exams.

“I wanted to win at the Asian Games and I also wanted to do well in my exams.”

He described it as an achievement that he cherishes to this day: to excel both on the track and in his studies.

“I also became the first winner of the National Sportsman Award for my achievements in Bangkok,” he said, recalling that he received personal congratulatory messages from then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj and deputy prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.

Jegathesan also competed in three consecutive Olympic Games: Rome (1960), Tokyo (1964) and Mexico (1968).

He qualified for two 200m semi-finals in the Olympics and his personal best time of 20.92, set in 1968 at the Mexico Olympics, stood unchallenged for 49 years in Malaysia until it was broken in 2017.

In Jegathesan’s first Olympic outing in Rome, he was eliminated in the first-round heat of the 400m while the late Milkha Singh from India, then known as the “Flying Sikh”, narrowly missed out on the bronze by finishing a creditable fourth place in the final.

“Everyone was expecting him to win the 200m and 400m easily when he came to Jakarta for the Asian Games.

“He didn’t know who I was because there was no Google in those days where you can find information on your rivals,” said Jegathesan.

“He did not take me seriously when someone told him that I could provide him with a stiff challenge in the 200m.

“When the race came, he ended fourth – not only beaten by me but two others as well.

“He still remains my idol and someone who could give the Americans a run for their money,” said Jegathesan, who currently spends time with his children in Melbourne, Australia.

The sport is in his blood as he comes from a family of runners.

His father NM Vasagam, who was in the civil service, was a national athletics champion and founder secretary of the Federation of Malaya Amateur Athletic Union in 1953.

Jegathesan later dedicated his post-competitive days to the development of sports medicine and anti-doping in sports in a voluntary capacity.

Other posts he has held include founder secretary of the Malaysian Association of Sports Medicine in 1973 and founder president of the Malaysian Association of Doping Control in Sports.

His work in this area gained international recognition, which led to him being appointed the chairman of the medical committees in both the Olympic Council of Asia and the Commonwealth Games Federation until his retirement in 2018.

Now 77, Jegathesan completed a full circle in 2004 when the Olympic Games returned to Athens, the home of the modern Olympics.

He was chosen as one of five Malaysians to carry the torch in Greece. Jegathesan later led the Malaysian team as the chef de mission.

“The excitement never goes away.

“It changes slightly as you grow older and as your roles change, but the excitement is always there,” he said on the switch of his role from an athlete to chef de mission, which was given extensive coverage in The Star.

Jegathesan is also an accomplished scholar in the medical field.

He was a National Scientist Award winner in 1995.

And a bacterium – bacillus thuringiensis jegathesan – was also named after him.

Curious to see more features like this? Visit Starchive on our anniversary website to discover more stories through the decades.

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