The Army marathon team comprising of T Gopi, Kheta Ram and Nitendra Singh Rawat had gone to Rio with a clear mission in mind — to set a new national mark at the Olympics. The runners did a commendable job — Gopi finished 25th, Ram 26th while Rawat had to slow down because of a hamstring pull and finished 84th.
They missed setting a new national record but Gopi and Ram established new personal bests and have come back with a lot of positives from the Games.
“Participating in the Olympics was literally a do-or-die situation for us marathoners because we don’t get the sort of encouragement or attention like the other athletes or, for instance, the women’s 4x400m relay team,” says Gopi.
“We had thought we would set the national record and give a much-needed fillip to the distance running in the country,’’ adds Ram.
With the mission in mind, the trio of Gopi, Ram and Rawat, started on a promising note in the race in Rio. But around the halfway mark, Rawat suffered a hamstring injury and wasn’t able to give his best. It made Gopi and Ram that much more determined to push. ‘’We wanted to run in a group and pace each other for the major part of the race. And we felt helpless to seeing Nitendra slipping back,’’ recalls Ram.
At the 21km mark of the race, the national record of 2 hours and 12 minutes clocked by the late Shivnath Singh at Jalandhar in 1978 was within the reach of Gopi, who was slightly ahead of his teammate, Ram.
Gopi says he started on a promising note, clocking less than 32 minutes in the opening 10km, but the last 10km proved a tough test.
“My body got stiff after 32km. I wasn’t able to sustain my rhythm. It robbed my target from me,’’ he recalls.
Despite hitting the wall after 35km, Gopi still managed to clock 2 hours, 15 minutes and 25 seconds. Ram finished a second behind.
In a country which doesn’t have a tradition of distance running, the task is that much difficult for long-distance runners and marathoners. Gopi and Ram did their reputations no harm with the good show in Rio but they have a long journey ahead now.
“Unless we break the national record, the event won’t get the kind of attention needed to expand the base. We would continue to train hard with the same zeal,” says Gopi
The ideal setting to conquering a national record would be at next year’s World Athletics Championships in Great Britain. “There is lot of time to prepare. Hopefully the long-standing record would be broken,’’ the duo says in unison.
Way back at the Munich Olympics in 1972, USA’s Frank Shorter claimed gold in the marathon event. His medal and other feats were responsible for a marathon boom in the country. Shorter was the star attraction at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where he picked up a silver medal. But distance running had already caught the imagination of the general public in the US.
At the Montreal Games India fielded Shivnath Singh in the marathon. He was with the leading group for the first 34km of the race, but then slipped down due to a shin bone pain — an injury he had sustained during training had flared up again. He finished a credible 11th, clocking two hours, 16 minutes and 22 seconds. Till now, no distance runner from the country has been able to come near that performance, forget matching or surpassing.
Recently, there has been surge in the prize money in road races across the country. The overall performance of the marathoners in terms of timing, however, hasn’t gone up. Besides, there isn’t any correlation between the number of road races and running culture of a nation. Great Britain, which is home to a number of world-famous city marathons doesn’t have world-class marathon runners.
So, private races are good. But according to Surendra Singh, coach of the Army team, without the patronage of Athletics Federation of India (AFI), it is too difficult for individuals to take up marathon seriously and push themselves to the next level.
“Occasionally, athletics fans would witness good performance but for consistency there has to be more investment in distance running,’’ he adds.
A world apart
Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, the Rio Olympics marathon champion, came into global prominence at the age of 18 when he won the 5000m gold at the 2003 World Athletics Championships in Paris. He also won bronze in the 5000m race at the 2004 Olympics and silver at Beijing Games.
He shifted to road races in 2012. Since 2013, he had claimed top spot in six out of seven races he has participated and finished second in the 2013 Berlin Marathon.
Except the 2013 Hamburg Marathon, he has finished below 2 hours and 5 minutes in all the races he won. Rio was a tactical race, where he won gold with a timing of two hours, 08 minutes and 44 seconds.
Compare that to the career path of Gopi, 28. The Rio race was Gopi’s second ever marathon. He had made his debut in January at the Mumbai marathon.
That, more or less, sums up the distance-running scenario in the country.