The slippery stands of the Dadoji Konddev stadium in Thane will double as a jogging-and-training track for Shraddha Ghule for the next few months.
If the 19-year-old doesn’t like the narrow, rain-spattered concrete aisles, she can travel two hours at the crack of dawn to Mumbai — which has all of two synthetic, all-weather tracks.
One is 18 years old and worn out, having been due for replacement at least eight years ago. The other is just over a year old, but apparently not worth the Rs 3 crore price tag because it is already coming apart.
This would be sad enough if Ghule was just another lanky kid yearning to be an award-winning sportsperson. But Ghule, despite the odds, has already won an international medal.
Last week, she and Andheri boy Siddharth Thingalaya became the first athletes from the Mumbai-Thane belt to win a medal at the Asia level in eight years — and he is the first from Mumbai in over a decade.
While Ghule won the bronze for long jump at the Asian Junior Athletics Championship in Hanoi, Vietnam, Thingalaya came home with a silver in the 110-metre hurdles. Around the world, and even across Asia, athletics of their caliber are given coaches, perks — and access to a range of special synthetic tracks.
But Ghule and Thingalaya are forced to travel miles, across districts and even as far as Pune for the right practice conditions.
“I need to start practice at 6 am if I am to beat the heat,” says Ghule. “But it is practically impossible for me to get from Thane to the Priyadarshini Park track at Malabar Hill by that time. I used to leave the house at 5 am, but I would still get there only at 7, and soon it would be too hot to run.”
Ghule would keep running anyway, but soon, she became too dehydrated. She was also missing both breakfast and lunch because of the commute.
Her trainers advised her to find another way, and her parents wondered if she should perhaps give it up.
But Ghule was determined. After all, she had left her parents and her home in Ahmednagar and moved to Thane after her Class 10 exams to train under Ramesh Dalvi and Nilesh Patkar.
“I decided to practice in the stands every alternate day and go to Pune a few weeks ahead of every major competition. They have a good track there,” says the third-year Commerce student.
In Pune, she and her coach pay for their own accommodation, but Ghule smilingly says “finances are not a problem”.
While Shraddha has opted for Pune, Thingalaya prefers to make the backbreaking journey from Andheri to Malabar Hill every alternate day rather than try and train on the tattered Sports Authority of India track just a few kilometres away in Kandivli.
“The track does need repairs,” admits Virendra Bhandarkar, assistant director of Sports Authority of India (Maharashtra Division). “There are depressions and waterlogging in three to four places because of levelling issues. We have asked the German company which laid the track to look into it. We will not release the rest of their money till we get a certificate from their inspection team.”
Adil Sumariwalla, president of the Bombay City District Amateur Athletics Association and working president of Athletics Federation of India, says there is definitely a lack of commitment and support from the state government.
“The track at PDP needs to be replaced, and no new tracks have been laid, though we have the space for them at grounds in Parel and Marine Lines,” he says. “We need basic facilities for our kids near their homes. The long commutes are putting kids off athletics.”
It’s no wonder then that Mumbai, once known for its sprinters and jumpers, has failed to produce any international-level athletes in a decade.
Meanwhile, Thingalaya is now battling another hurdle — his coach, veteran Bala Govind, has moved to Nashik. “Now, I train largely on my own,” he says.
The lack of infrastructure has already cost Ghule a spot at next month’s World Junior Championship — though she sportingly puts it down to fate.
And Thingalaya will compete at the championship, but will have to push himself harder than the kids he will be competing against. As he says: “The biggest struggle in Mumbai is motivating yourself.”