The stadium where the inaugural Asian Games in 1951 was staged attracted not just youngsters but was the base for many distinguished athletes, including middle and long distance greats like Sriram Singh and Hari Chand, who achieved the 5,000-10,000 double at the 1978 Bangkok Asiad.
The weekend races, recalls Sriram Singh, were held in a festive atmosphere. Aspiring youngsters to established runners, they were part of everyone’s training menu. Sriram Singh, who finished seventh in the 800m final at the 1976 Montreal Olympics setting an Asian record - his 1:45.77secs is still the national record - recalls: “The sheer spirit of running kept us on our toes”.
It was that competitive spirit that enabled Indian runners to dominate the middle and long distance events at the Asian Games in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The past sounds perfect, but that energy has diminished. These days, despite modern facilities, the current bunch of track and field stars is unable to scale new heights.
Sample this. The current level of the country’s top male 400m runner is over 46 seconds while ‘Flying Sikh’ Milkha Singh’s best in the event achieved in 1960 at the Rome Olympics was 45.6 secs (45.73 automatic timings). Five decades later, only two of his compatriots, Paramjeet Singh in 1998 and KM Binu in 2004, have dipped under 46. Barring a few events, it is a similar sad tale.
One major problem is the decline in the number of youngsters taking up athletics, says 1978 Asian Games 200m champion, R Gnanasekaran. “College students have become more career conscious. Since a career in sport does not pay much, many opt for other avenues.”
Sports quota jobs in other government departments have dried up. With the incentive of jobs no longer there, southern India, which once produced sprinters in large numbers, no longer nurtures talent. The region has produced few athletes of repute since the days of PT Usha and Shiny Wilson in the 1980s and 1990s.
Gnanasekaran feels: “There should be some kind of financial security by means of endorsement for individuals or teams if we are to attract talent.”
Athletics as a spectator sport declined in the mid 1990s once the federation focused strictly on supporting elite athletes, with the sole aim pushing them to qualify for international meets. With pressure to perform came doping.
Even at the grassroots level, the dip in motivation is unmistakable. Selfless coaches who goaded athletes from mostly humble background are a vanishing breed.
The 1960s Delhi in fact was fortunate that the great German middle distance runner, Otto Peltzer, who broke world records in the 1920s and ran against the likes of Finnish great Paavo Nurmi, made the national capital his home. The only man other than Sebastian Coe to hold the 800m and 1500m world records simultaneously, lived a simple life at the National stadium while coaching Delhi youngsters for free. Otto Peltzer races used to be an important fixture in the capital’s sports calendar until the late 1990s.
Today, the Sports Authority of India’s director general, Jiji Thomson, himself is concerned that even SAI coaches are not motivated to go the extra distance to mould talent.
When Anju Bobby George claimed the women’s long jump bronze at the 2003 world athletics meet in Paris, Indian athletics got a huge boost.
It was a perfect opportunity for the Athletics Federation of India to cash in, attract sponsors and generate interest. That did not happen. Shiny Wilson bemoans the absence of role models. “The kids need someone to emulate, sadly there is none.”
The outstanding performances of India’s women athletes in the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games and the Guangzhou Asiad received huge publicity, but it proved a false dawn.
Eight leading women’s 400m runners, including Mandeep Kaur and Ashwini Akkunji, the Asian Games 400m hurdles champion, were caught in dope net. “Parents won’t like their children to take up sport that has a culture of popping pills,” said Dr Ashok Ahuja, a former head of the sports medicine centre at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala.
Punjab and Haryana, have produced a number of quality distance runners and throwers. Praveen Kumar, among the illustrious throwers who came from the region, won the Asian Games discus title twice (1966, ‘70). Sadly, the states are no longer the cradle of talent they were.
If India is to turnaround, the first effort should be to attract young boys and girls to track. But the capital’s Nehru Stadium itself doesn’t seem to encourage that.
As the world championships in Moscow approaches, track and field will again gain attention in the country.
But in India, as things stand, it is unlikely to set the pulse racing.
With inputs from N Ananthanaraynan