13 Jun 2017
10 min read
1780 words
From the Archive (Sept, 2016): When the going gets tough, the tough get going—this quote perfectly sums up the story of Nepal’s marathon legend, Baikuntha Manandhar

Why do you run?
Running is my passion. Before, I used to run for competitions; now, it’s more for my health. I also run because as a senior athlete, I believe that it’s my responsibility to encourage the younger generation. I’m at the tracks every day by six am.

Can you share with us some of your childhood memories?
I grew up in a big family with eight siblings, and it was always a struggle for us to put food on the table. There have been times when we survived on leftover fruits and vegetables that the villagers couldn’t sell. We had a small tea shop in Kalimati, where our mother sold sel-roti and alu ko tarkari. My mother valued education highly and did not want her children to grow up illiterate like her. So, despite our dismal financial situation, she was adamant about sending me to school. Although I passed with third division marks, I was the first one in my family to pass the SLC, and that made my parents very proud.

What kind of support did you receive in your earlier days as a sportsperson?No one took sports seriously back then. My mother did not even understand the point of playing sports. I was very involved in extracurricular activities in my school, Shanti Nikunja. But I remember people shaking their heads in despair and calling us hooligans when my friends and I went for runs around Tudikhel. There was a stigma associated with being a khiladi in our society. Also, the mismanagement and lack of proper facilities—which is still a problem to this day—didn’t make things easier for a sportsperson.

But you persevered and kept on running.
In the beginning, running was just for fun—the desire to be a professional athlete came much later. I won the 1,500 m interschool competition in 2025 BS, and then got the opportunity to train under the guidance of the Ministry of Education’s sports department. That’s where my journey started. Following my selection, I managed to participate in the National Meet held in Birgunj, and I think that was one of my turning points. That event tested my resilience; I was 18 and nothing seemed impossible—I literally begged the organisers to let me participate in the tournament, went to Birgunj in the back of a truck and slept on the hotel lobby floor. I was willing to go to great lengths to run and get better at it.

How did the organisers react when you won the gold medal?
I think they were shocked that a school-level athlete, wearing a homemade outfit, had won. The organisers didn’t want to reveal my name as I had been too young to compete. Along with the gold medal, I also got prize money of Rs 10. I invested the money in my first pair of proper shorts and shirt so that I could dress smartly for future tournaments. After that my life as a runner officially started. I got the opportunity to participate in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. At 24, I travelled to New York to train for the Olympics, and then eventually made it to Canada.

You went to New York alone? Weren’t you nervous?
I went alone, but it seemed like the people around me were more nervous for me than I was for myself. After facing so much hardship growing up, I was not easily fazed. I lacked ‘pedigree’ and proper equipment and attire, but there was not a single iota of inhibition in me. The airport officials at New York were shocked that I had even made it that far when I showed them the USD 300 that I had managed to procure from my friends in Freak Street and Thamel. You needed at least USD 1,000 to enter the United States. Thankfully, the embassy sorted everything out.

Where did you train in New York?
I went to Cornell University to train. A large group had gathered to see an Olympian from an unheard-of country run. It was during this time that I was told that you are expected to take a shower after every run because that was the proper thing to do. For a person who had trained barefoot in Tudikhel, this was a luxury—huge fluffy towels, fresh bars of soap and smelling good every day. This was 40 years ago, and we still don’t have a good shower facility for our athletes in Nepal today—there’s just a simple tap that sometimes trickles.

Marathon runners talk about a phenomenon called ‘hitting the wall’. What goes on in your mind when that happens?
There is a sudden wave of fatigue that sets in about halfway into a marathon. This can be physically and emotionally debilitating, and if you succumb to it, the race is over for you. The trick is to occupy your mind with better thoughts. I used to think of all the Nepali people who were rooting for me, and that really helped.

You went to Montreal to attend the 1976 summer Olympics; how did that feel?Montreal still feels like a dream. There I was, representing my country, feeling like million dollars in my Rupee one socks and modest clothes. A friend had written the words ‘Nepal’ on my shirt with a sign pen, and I would wear that with my head held high and chest puffed out. There were many times when other athletes asked me why I lacked proper clothes and shoes for running. I always dodged such questions with a smile and made-up stories.

How did everyone at home react to the news of your going to the US?
When I went to the US to train, almost  everybody thought that I would run away and stay there illegally. But I have my pride—I was there as a Nepali representative. My only goal was to give an outstanding performance and make everyone in Nepal proud. I finished 50th in the overall standing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

How did it feel when you met athletes who were well compensated and better equipped to take part in various sports?
Coming from a country of scarcity and poverty, I was just grateful that I had the opportunity to share an arena with so many athletes from different parts of the globe. I was representing Nepal and that was good enough.

How did you train for the South Asian Games?
It was a combination of hard work, confidence in my ability despite zero sports facilities and the preparedness to make the best of a tough situation. I would channel my frustrations into my game and keep pushing myself. As I said earlier, I have seen plenty of impoverished people in Nepal who couldn’t even afford a proper meal, so despite my troubles, I used to feel very lucky to be doing what I loved. I was fortunate to be able to take part in three more Olympics—Moskva, Los Angeles and Seoul. But it was the first-ever SAF Games, hosted in Kathmandu in 1984, that got me my first international gold medal in athletics.

After that victory, you won two consecutive gold medals at the 1985 and 1987 SAF Games, with a record that stands unbroken till today. How does that feel?
The numbers are still etched in my mind—I clocked in at 2 hours, 15 minutes and 3 seconds for the 42 km 195 m run. After everything I had been through in my personal and professional life, I had promised myself that I would retire only after setting a new record for Nepal. My win in Calcutta (1987 SAF Games) belongs to every Nepali.

Are people’s perceptions towards athletes and sports changing?
Definitely, The media has contributed greatly in changing people’s perceptions. I appreciate the way Gaurkia Singh’s Olympic debut at Rio was presented. Hopefully, this will encourage new stars to emerge in Nepali sports. I come from a time when people shunned khiladis from bhoj and public gatherings because we were just a bunch of hooligans who ate a lot, according to them. We have been able to change that mentality, and we see more positive public involvement these days.

Do you think it is possible to produce another record-setting Baikuntha Manandhar?
I don’t think that there is a special secret formula—to be great simply requires a combination of 100 per cent hard work and 200 per cent self confidence. I think Nepal has enough potential to produce seasoned players who can go all the way. But for that, we need a dedicated team, and government support. I have seen Sherpa kids in the Himalayas who can run at great speeds despite the high altitudes; just imagine how far training and proper guidance could take them.

Tell us about your medical condition and how you managed to overcome it. Is there any advice you can give us?
The right side of my body was constantly aching, and I had a lingering bad taste in my mouth, so I went to a couple of clinics. The doctors recommended that I see a cardiologist. I had been referred to Gangalal Hospital, so my friend, Ratna, and I ran from Tripureshwor to Bansbari for a check up. I was out of breath when I reached the hospital, and they immediately placed me in the ICU. I had to undergo open-heart surgery and ended up bedridden for a couple of months. The feeling of debility can be very depressing, but I decided to think mostly positive thoughts, and that aided in my recovery. In 2011, I took part in the Everest Trail Race, where I was the oldest participant. It is important to not give up and to stay physically and mentally active whatever your challenge may be.