Tejaswin Shankar seeks to tread the path of Randhawa, Chauhan at Hangzhou
India’s high jump record holder who won Commonwealth Games bronze last year, will bid to become third from the country to win the Asian Games decathlon title.
When Tejaswin Shankar begins his quest for an Asian Games decathlon medal, he can draw inspiration from a legacy that is long lost. Between the inaugural 1951 New Delhi Games and the 1974 Tehran Games, India won six medals in decathlon, including two gold. The first gold in the gruelling 10-event discipline was won by athletics legend Gurbachan Singh Randhawa at Jakarta in 1962. He had a hand in the second one too, his trainee Vijay Singh Chauhan emerging victor in Tehran.
There has been a drought since. In fact, the last two Games saw no Indian entry in decathlon though the athletics graph has risen. It is only now that Shankar’s switch from high jump – he holds the national record – to the combined event has revived interest in it. With every competition, Shankar has raised his level. He came within touching distance of breaking the national record (Bharatinder Singh, 7658 pts) in a meet in the US early this year (he logged 7648 points) but it is his Asian Championships bronze in July in a tough field that has raised expectations of a podium finish in Hangzhou.
Shankar is aware he is chasing a rare medal. “We haven’t had a lot of decathletes competing at international level for quite some time. I know Randhawa ji was adjudged the best athlete in Asian Games (1962 Jakarta, where he won the decathlon). It’s a long time. Even if I am able to uphold that legacy it would be a big deal for me. I am someone who is nerdy, likes to read about our greats and the legacy they have created. It’s a matter of pride,” says Shankar.
That’s a deep dive into the past of Indian athletics in the 60s and 70s when facilities were at a bare minimum and athletes had to do with whatever they had in front of them. But behind every medal there was an inspiring tale.
Chauhan recalls his rivalry with Japan’s Shosuke Suzuki over two days in the heat of Tehran.
“My shoes were torn in Tehran and for four days I trained bare feet. Then TC Yohanan, Suresh Babu (he won decathlon bronze in Tehran) and another athlete pitched in with their pocket money to buy me a shoe. Only then could I compete in shot put,” says Chauhan, who retired as a UP government sports administrator and lives in Lucknow.
“In the final 1,500m, Suzuki was very close; I had to finish ahead of him by a certain distance to win gold and set a record. Japanese fans were there all across the stadium and Suzuki had trained in the US. I ran as if it was my last race and pushed myself so hard in the final 400m that I felt dizzy and feared I would collapse on the track, but I beat him tactically. He started fast but I picked up late and finished ahead,” says Chauhan, who also competed in the 1972 Olympics.
When Chauhan landed at the Delhi airport with gold and a new Games record (7375 pts), there was no federation official to even pay for his taxi fare home. “There were two of us left alone. We hired a taxi, came home and paid the fare,” recalls Chauhan.
Randhawa's mentoring had guided him to gold. A gifted and versatile athlete, Randhawa was a stalwart in decathlon, high jump and 110m hurdles, in which he brilliantly finished fifth at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, one of the glorious moments in Indian athletics. He was also a hard taskmaster as a coach.
“Randhawa ji is a great. I remember during the trials for the 1972 Olympics I got hurt during high jump and was bleeding, but he made me run the 400m. He would always come up with something innovative in coaching. In decathlon, you need good coaches. Yes, the facilities are better now, there is so much money, but where are the coaches? It is such a tough event with so much calculation required in every event.”
Shankar has headed to Hangzhou with all calculations done. Jumps are his strength, but he has also improved in throws in the last two meets. But it is in his pet high jump where he would like to get maximum points.
“I have a number in mind for each event which I feel I can get If I am in good rhythm. My goal is the national record. If I can do that a medal might come, but I am not putting myself under too much pressure,” says IIS athlete Shankar, the Asia No.4 in decathlon.
“I have realised that even when I don’t do well in my stronger events (jumps), I am able to pick points in my weaker events (throws) -- javelin, pole vault and discus. In high jump, I would like to clear 2.17m-2.29m (NR) because it makes a big difference in points with each centimetre.”
At the World University Games in Chengdu, Shankar cleared 2.20m in qualification and jumped 2.15m in the final for bronze.
Creating his own set-up
Back in India after completing his studies in the US – Kansas State University – it has not been an easy ride. It was at college that he started the combined events and got all training facilities in one place. At the capital’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Shankar had to create an environment. He gets his training plan and periodisation from Chris Rovelto, his university coach. On the ground, he has his friends and coaches to help. There was even a new pole vault landing pit sanctioned for Shankar by SAI. “It’s good that finally we have a pole vault pit and it’s going to benefit every athlete training at JLN.”
“Here, I have different people for different events who can watch me and give me cues when I do the drill. For example, in pole vault, I am being helped by Anuj who used to be a NR holder. We are of the same age and it's a good bonding. For throws, coach Rajeev Sejwal is guiding me. In sprints, my first coach Sunil Kumar is overseeing my training. It will all depend on how everything falls in place in Hangzhou.”