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A great distance runner is no more

By Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI JUNE 6. Montreal Olympics, 1976. That was the golden era of Indian distance running. Two men forced the world to take note of them, though they both were rank outsiders. Shivnath Singh and Hari Chand did not upset anyone in Montreal, but they became part of Indian athletics folklore, Shivnath by finishing 11th in the marathon and Hari Chand by clocking a National record of 28:48.72 in the 10,000 metres that has stood the test of time.

As news came in from Jamshedpur on Friday, through various channels, of the death of Shivnath Singh, due to suspected hepatitis-B infection, there was understandable sadness among the athletics fraternity. He was a month short of 57.

"He was one of the greatest long distance runners we ever had," said the former National Coach, J, S. Saini, from Patiala. "When he was with the front bunch till 35-km in Montreal, people had started wondering, who this Indian is, sticking to the front this far," recalled Mr Saini.

Shivnath clocked 2:16.22 in Montreal, in only his third marathon. Back home, he had by then dominated the distance events on the track, 5000m and 10,000m, but was being seriously challenged by Hari Chand.

"We used to have a very healthy rivalry those days. Of course there was a lot of expectation when we used to clash in a meet. People used to come to watch us race each other," recalled Hari Chand, a retired CRPF officer who ran barefoot in Montreal. "The country has lost a National hero and I would like to pay my tributes to him," said Hari Chand.

"He was a source of inspiration for a generation of long distance runners," said Olympian Gurbachan Singh Randhawa from Patiala. "He was a great runner."

Shivnath had come into national reckoning as a raw army recruit in 1973. "Like all army men he wanted to beat everyone in every race from the front, though without having any clear strategy" recalls Mr Saini.

The Amateur Athletic Federation of India (AAFI) Secretary, Mr Lalit Bhanot, condoled Shivnath Singh's death. "It is a big loss to Indian athletics," he said in a statement.

Athletes and coaches at the NIS, Patiala, held a condolence meeting at the campus on Friday evening.

In the inaugural Asian championships in Manila, in 1973, Shivnath finished second best to Japanese Ichio Sato in both the 5000m and 10,000m. Again, two years later, in Seoul he could not win a gold, taking the silver behind another Japanese, Kumimitsu Itoh, in the 5000m and coming behind Hari Chand in the 10,000m.

By then he had etched a name for himself in Indian athletics history by winning the Asian Games gold in the 10,000m in Teheran. He also won the silver in the 5000m in the 1974 Games.

Though he could not have been termed a protege of the late Ilyas Babar, Shivnath did come under the reputed coach during his National camp days. It was Mr Saini and Mr Babar who advised him to shift from the track to the marathon and the immediate results were fantastic. A 2:15:58 in the trials for the Olympics on his marathon debut surprised the experts. He lived up to his potential in Montreal.

In 1978 he set the National mark of 2:12:00 for the marathon in Jullundur that still stands. That same year he cracked29 minutes for the first time while winning the Open National, also at Jullundur, in 28:58.1. Incidentally, that meet record also has remained unbeaten.

Yet, there was disappointment for Shivnath in the 1978 Asian Games in Bangkok when he finished out of the medals bracket in marathon. He had a shy at the 10,000m in the New Delhi Asian Games in 1982 but ended up fifth. He was to fade away from the scene after that.

From the Army he had moved to TISCO, Jamshedpur, and from there Shivnath sought early retirement two years ago when he was allotted a petrol filling station in Deogarh, Bihar.

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