Off track and desperately seeking speed
Painfully Slow: Amiya Mallick is the fastest Indian till date but his 10.26 seconds is a far cry from the Tokyo Olympic qualification mark of 10.05 secondsUpdated: Sep 27, 2019 11:39 IST
Last month, there was a curious video that made the rounds of social media. It featured a gaunt, mustachioed man, running barefoot and pell mell down a rural road.
The man’s name is Rameshwar Gurjar, a farmer from Narwar village in Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh; and in the shaky, grainy video, he makes the claim that he’s just done a 100m sprint in 11 seconds. To put that in context, the national record for men’s in that event stands at 10.26 seconds. For women, that record, held by Dutee Chand, stands at 11.24.
The video was promptly retweeted by the state’s former chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and then again by the union sports minister Kiren Rijuju, as an example of the great reservoir of hidden talent that exists in this vast country.
Gurjar was promptly brought to Bhopal—300km from Shivpuri—to the Tatya Tope Nagar Sports Complex, the stadium which houses the state’s sports directorate. He was provided with a brand new pair of spikes. This time, Gurjar clocked 12.9 seconds, finishing last among eight competitors.
“I was competing for the first time on a proper track. I said I wanted to run barefoot but the officials there told me it was not possible because it would damage my knees. I pulled a muscle during the run, after which I couldn’t even stand,” says Gurjar. “Make me run barefoot on a road and I’ll clock 11 seconds again. I’ve done it several times before.”
The contradictions in Gurjar’s story are difficult to explain. Or perhaps not. He had said he was 19 years old when the video had first surfaced, but a week later he said he is 24. He says his height is 179.5cm, but that he was rejected thrice from army recruitment for not meeting their minimum height criterion, which is 168cm.
But far worse is the way his scrappy run received wide publicity as the next big thing in Indian sprinting. It shows the desperation with which India is looking for one good sprinter, someone who can at least meet the qualifying standard for the Olympics (for men, 10.05 seconds).
The best an Indian has done in 100m is Amiya Mallick, who timed 10.26 seconds at the Federation Cup in Delhi in 2016, erasing the record of 10.30 seconds jointly held by Anil Kumar Prakash (2005) and Abdul Najeeb Qureshi (2010 Commonwealth Games). The fastest Indian right now is young Gurindervir Singh, 19, whose best this season is 10.35 seconds.
Mallick, who is currently not in the national camp for sprinters at Patiala, says that there is a simple reason for sprinting not taking off—there is no focus on the sport.
“We’re on the threshold of breaking the 10-second barrier but the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) is not focusing on sprints,” Mallick says. “There is a lot of potential in the tribal regions (Orissa, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra) but we don’t have a system to scout talent.”
Mallick, 26, comes from Odisha.
Even when a talented sprinter does break through, he or she has to contend with minimum attention at the national level, where 400m is seen as a priority.
“The top 100m athletes hardly get international exposure like 400m runners, or the relay (4x400m) teams,” Mallick says. “So, basically, you are on your own.”
The men’s 4x100m relay team, says Mallick, won its maiden bronze medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, clocking 38.89 seconds “only because the athletes were in the camp since 2009. Thereafter, the support was cut and four years later the quartet wasn’t even good enough to be selected for Glasgow.”
Mallick, whose preparation for the 2014 Glasgow CWG took him to Kingston, Jamaica, for a short training stint at the Racers Track Club under Usain Bolt’s coach Glen Mills, says “In Jamaica, sprinting is a way of life…to overcome poverty. And that has given rise to a club culture where children as young as 9 and 10 years of age come for guidance. There they get the support of physios, masseurs etc. And then they compete on weekends, week after week, month after month.”
The country’s fastest woman, Dutee Chand, spoke about the lack of support too, soon after she won a silver medal in 100m at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games.
“The occasion got to me, to be honest, I could have won the gold if I matched or surpassed my national record,” she had said. “But being at such a big event once a year affected my performance. I realized I need more of this often to get used to it. If both the state and the central government back me more like they did to some other athletes and help me more to participate in the competitive field throughout the year, I am sure I can do much better.”
This lack of attention to sprints is most acutely felt at the coaching level. National sprint coach, Tarun Saha, who is based in Kolkata, says, “The coaches are following 50-year-old training methods, which will never help elite male sprinters break the 10-second barrier. There should at least be latest training equipment to improve power in the legs. How can you expect them to perform with outdated equipment?”Asks Saha.
Saha says China created a self-sustaining system by first sending its coaches and athletes regularly to the US. “Those same coaches and athletes are now an integral part of China’s training programme. They are the reason why China is producing so many good sprinters,” he says.
China’s Su Bingtian, a product of the new system, was the first Asian to break the 10-second barrier in 100m, when he clocked 9.9 seconds to finish third at the Eugene Diamond League in 2015. In July, Xie Zhenye broke the 20-second barrier in the 200m, clocking 19.88 sec at the Diamond League in London. The Chinese national 4x100m relay team (men and women) also won bronze at the 2017 World Relays in the Bahamas.
Like in most Track & Field disciplines in India, the elite sprinting team also worked under a foreign chief coach, Ukraine’s Dmitry Vinaykin. In his nearly seven years’ stay,
Vinaykin’s only achievement was a bronze in men’s 4x100m relay at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Under his tutelage, the quartet failed to achieve the qualification mark for the 2014 Incheon Asian Games. The national relay team even failed to win gold in a low-key event like the 2016 SAF Games in Guwahati.
Vinaykin was fired after the Rio Olympics; since then, India’s elite sprinters have not had a coach since.
Athletics Federation of India president, Adille Sumariwalla, steers clear of the structural problems and blames genetics for India’s poor sprint performances.
“The sprinters in the country aren’t tall enough, which is another reason for not coming close to the 10-second mark,” he says. “I would say that those who are practicing aren’t naturally gifted and those who are gifted don’t take up sprinting.”
Dutee Chand’s coach, N Ramesh, agrees that Indians maybe at a genetic disadvantage, but wonders what would happen if there was a genuine effort at scouting for talent and a system to develop them.
“A majority of the sprinters have come from coastal regions like Kerala, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. Even Maharashtra and West Bengal have produced good sprinters in the past,” Ramesh says. “Tamil Nadu’s sprinter Ramaswamy Gnanasekaran had won the 100m silver and 200m gold at the 1978 Bangkok Asian Games. Athletes from coastal regions have fast-twitch muscles that make them natural sprinters. These regions should be explored. It might take 8-10 years to build a good system but results will come.”
Sumariwalla, himself a former national champion in 100m, admits that training in the sport far from ideal.
“Sprinting is not just about running fast, it’s technical, which many don’t understand,” he says. “The general belief is that by lifting heavy weights in the gym, muscles can be strengthened. There have to be very specific training drills, very (fine) technical details.”
Even as the AFI chief concedes that the 100 and 200m aren’t in the federation’s scheme of things till the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, he holds out hope for the future. “After Tokyo, we are going to give it serious thought.”
First Published: Sep 27, 2019 10:05 IST