Running to glory
It was the year 1976 — the year of the Montreal Olympics and Nepal was being represented in the world’s biggest sports festival in the person of Baikuntha Manandhar. This was Manandhar’s first Olympics, and his journey from Nepal to Montreal was not an easy one.
Prior to the Olympics, he decided to go to America and train there for a month. However, when he went to the embassy and explained his purpose “everyone laughed at me and I was sent back”.
But Baikuntha was not a person to lose heart. He went again after a couple of days and as luck would have it, the American ambassador was there. Grabbing the opportunity, Manandhar put forward his wish and got a visa. But when he landed on US shores, he did not have enough cash or a place to stay. He was asked to return. He went to the embassy but to no avail.
While all this commotion was going on, he saw himself on the television when he returned to the airport. One of the channels had decided to air the story that the only participant from Nepal was stranded at the airport.
Within hours a generous soul came forth and agreed to sponsor him. He later came to know that the person was one of the richest people in the world. Manandhar stayed with this Good Samaritan for a week, who arranged for the marathoner’s training at a university before he went to participate in the Olympics.
Today Manandhar still cherishes those moments. He feels great pride in the fact that he was able to contribute in his own way in making Nepal popular to the world. “As I was the only participant from Nepal, a country most people didn’t even know existed, they were interested and wanted to know more about it.”
The other aspect that he remembers is that people were surprised Nepal, a country which did not have any sports facilities, had sent a participant to the Olympics, and they admired and supported him.
Manandhar eventually went on to participate in four consecutive Olympic Games. In the SAF Games, he won three gold medals (a hattrick) that made him an undisputed king of marathoners here. His greatest achievement is his record of 2.15.03, which remains unbroken till date.
“I feel like I am the player who has received the most respect, and I feel really lucky because of it,” says this champion.
Manandhar’s journey into sports began when as children he and his friends used to make fun of his uncle Badri Narayan Manandhar who used to come running home and tell them he came all the way from Balaju. As children it seemed impossible for anyone to run such a long distance. Then his uncle agreed to take them to Swoyambhu. They ran along with him and that became a kind of habit. He started taking part in competitions in school and winning.
And Manandhar’s sporty life is riddled with funny stories. “In the beginning,
we didn’t know anything about laps or when we had to stop. In the relay, all four participants ended up running together,” he shares with a chuckle.
Manandhar started participating in national level competitions, and became the national champion in 2027 BS. But as this were the initial stages, there weren’t many facilities. Even without a proper place to eat or sleep, leave alone good sanitation, they enjoyed themselves. Trainings were given at Tundikhel by the Ministry of Sports and Education. Dashrath Rangasala was just sticks surrounding the ground. The first mud athletic track came into existence and Manandhar along with six others were the first ones running on those to inaugurate it.
At that time he wasn’t that serious about athletics and came up with excuses not to go for practice sessions.
But his teachers and gurus came up with innovative ways to gain his interest. It is the inspiration from his gurus especially late Laxman Bikram Shah and Madhu Rana, who trained him, and teachers at Shanti Nikunja School who have been his pillars of support.
Though an average student, he was involved in activities like Scouts, Red Cross and was the one making witty remarks in class. At times he and his friends came up with ideas to take revenge on teachers who punished them. He says he was popular in his own ways.
To show his gratitude to his school during its golden jubilee celebrations in 2052 BS, he got avidly involved in the preparations. As they did not have a chief guest, he went and invited Girija Pd Koirala, the then Prime Minister, to the function. The PM agreed and asked him to come and pick him up on the day. So the function day saw Manandhar and his friend on a bike waiting outside Singha Durbar for the PM. And they escorted him to their school where nothing was ready. The students hadn’t arrived, no phool ko mala, nothing. Manandhar had to go in search of a chair for the PM, who graciously waited for the necessary preparations to be made.
Manandhar was declared Sports and Lifetime member of the student association on the occasion.
Even after becoming the national champion, Manandhar continued to work in the tea shop that his parents owned.
“I was washing glasses at the shop and my parents told me not to do it as I had become a national champion and sometimes even the media used it in a negative way. But I think no work is degrading or menial if you do it with sincerity,” shares this humble hero adding that he had been helping his parents since a child.
“We are eight brothers and three sisters, so all of us sons had to help mum with the housework.”
At home there were initial hurdles and discouragement to join athletics, but “after I became the national champion, it became an inspiration for others. Everyone realised that if you do something with full conviction, everything is possible”.
Manandhar today instructs the talented and interested at Rangashala as ‘Barishtha Prasikchyak’ which he has been doing for the last 22 years.
He opines, “The government is doing as much as possible for sports, but it is the sportperson’s responsibility to give his best for the nation too. Today it is possible for a player to live his life relying on sports only.”
He feels that it is necessary for children to take part in games from an early age so that the base is good. “Besides at least 10 years of training, it takes a lot of dedication, discipline and the aim that ‘I will do it’ for someone to be well qualified, to be able to compete not only in Nepal but in the international arena,” says Manandhar.
His dream right now?
“To get medals (won by athletes he is coaching) in the Asian Games.”