Shreedutta Chidananda, in Bangalore, narrates the story of four men you’ve never heard of, who hope to bring home an Olympic medal in a sport you’ve never heard of.
The first, eternal rule of race walking states that one foot shall remain in contact with the ground at all times. This is the sport’s fundamental premise, and an ironclad barrier against its greatest foe: running. For, in the pursuit of pedestrian speed, the most natural instinct is to run, and were nothing to separate one form from the other, race ‘walking’ would simply dissolve into meaninglessness.
The second rule states that the front leg, on making contact with the ground, shall straighten (at the knee) and stay that way till the body has passed over it. Visible (to the naked eye only) contravention of either rule, in competition, results in a red card. A red card from three judges, and, cruelly oblivious to how much of the painfully long race (20 and 50 km, the two Olympic variants) may have been completed, the competitor is disqualified.
Take, for example, Australia’s Jane Saville in the women’s 20 km race at the Sydney Olympic Games of 2000. Only a few hundred metres from the finish, eying an Olympic gold medal in her hometown, Saville was shown a third red. Asked in the aftermath of the race if she needed anything, an inconsolable Saville is reported to have sobbed, “A gun to shoot myself.”
Poor cousin of running
Unsuited to TV — watching people endlessly trot around a loop (the 20 km lasts close to 90 minutes; and at over four hours, the men’s 50 km walk is the longest athletics event at the Olympics) is no programming executive’s idea of a spectator sport — and lacking the cachet or romance of long-distance running, race walking is an unfashionable cousin of the marathon. It wasn’t always like that. Pedestrianism was a rage in the late 19th century, and the sport still commands respect in some parts of the world — primarily Russia, and also Italy, Mexico and Ecuador. But in the rest, it largely remains an afterthought, an ersatz running-race.
Glued to the running track in the far, northwest corner of the Sports Authority of India’s Bangalore campus, Gurmeet Singh has little time for such frivolous considerations. In fact, ask his colleagues and they’ll say he has little time for anything or anyone outside his pursuit. He goes to breakfast long after the mess has closed (food is specially set aside for him), has few friends, watches little TV, and rarely steps out.
When he finished sixth in the 18th Dublin International Grand Prix last June, completing the men’s 20 km walk in an hour, 22 minutes and seven seconds, Gurmeet became the first Indian in 28 years to make it to the Olympic Games in the discipline. In the year that has followed, two other walkers have joined him, all meeting the ‘A’ qualifying standard (the superior mark that allows nations to send up to three athletes). A fourth, meanwhile, is on his way after achieving the ‘B’ standard (the lower figure that lets nations nominate one athlete) in the 50km event.
And it’s not that they are there only to make up the numbers. Gurmeet managed 1:21:31 this March, at the Asian Championships in Nomi, Japan, where he says he eased off towards the finish and thus wound up in second place. At the Olympics, any time under 1:19 is realistically a podium place. Even not reading too much into his national record of 1:20:35, achieved at the Indian Grand Prix in Patiala last May, or the 1:20:23 at the inter-Railway meet in Bhubaneshwar, Gurmeet remains at least an outside bet as a medal contender.
Early this Friday morning, the 27-year-old is out doing lap after interminable lap on the track, only pausing once every two kilometres for water. With the best race walkers, they say, it is impossible to tell where one stride ends and the next begins, the transition’s so smooth that all motion appears simply continuous. So it is with Gurmeet over his unrelenting two-hour session.
“I get this sense that I’m actually on the verge of achieving something,” he says, enjoying a rubdown afterwards. “I don’t want to stop now. I don’t want to leave anything to chance.” Gurmeet has thought ahead to August 4, and those potentially life-defining 10 laps down The Mall and back up Constitution Hill in London (all under the reassuring, regal gaze of Buckingham Palace). “I wasn’t overwhelmed on qualifying because it was almost certain. Today, I know I’m capable of doing better. There will be a medal. Zaroor.”
Two years ago, though, Gurmeet was just another middling walker at the NIS (National Institute of Sport) in Patiala, out of the national camp for the Commonwealth Games and out of favour with coaches. He had never gone under an hour and 25 and was, admittedly, in danger of falling out of love with the sport he was introduced to by his cousin, the discus thrower Surjit Singh.
Late in 2010, still under the SAI’s Centre of Excellence Scheme (which means that Gurmeet was recognised as an elite athlete, despite being out of the reckoning for the Indian team), he met Ramakrishnan Gandhi and moved to Bangalore to train under him. Gandhi, who taught diploma courses in coaching at the SAI’s athletics department, was not a hugely active coach himself, training but a few long-distance runners. A walker at the 1985 Senior Nationals for Tamil Nadu, Gandhi was intrigued by Gurmeet’s case. “He had been labelled as insincere, useless and lacking in focus. I was initially reluctant, but when I studied Gurmeet, I felt I could do something with him.”
Gandhi reworked Gurmeet’s training programme, tuning it to achieve greater endurance, while effecting subtle adjustments in his technique. Improvement was immediate. At the National Games in February, only three months into their alliance, Gurmeet walked 1:23:26, almost two minutes better than he ever had. That May, he clipped close to three minutes off the national record. The following month, he made the Olympics.
Equally important a factor in this transformation has been Gurmeet’s relocation to new surroundings. In Patiala, he struggled to train in a group, angry and frustrated. Coaches found him intractable and disobedient. “I wanted to be on my own, and it wouldn’t happen. I couldn’t find my rhythm. I just needed shanthi.”
It’s a word he uses more than once, sweeping his arms out in front of him as if to indicate that he has located it here. “The environment has been refreshing in Bangalore. There are no friends or distractions — just the coach and I. I don’t skip a single session. I train alone and I enjoy it.” He lives alone too. Gurmeet’s only companion is his Manipuri wife Deepmala Devi, also a 20 km walker, whom he met at Patiala some years ago. They have opted to stay in separate hostels on the SAI campus.
In the wake of Gurmeet’s successes, 25-year-old Baljinder Singh too left Patiala to train under Gandhi’s tutelage. With his spiked hair, the loud Royal Enfield he rides on campus, and a general blithe, relaxed existence, Baljinder is far removed from his monkish colleague. The day he qualified for the Olympics in the 20 km — managing the ‘A’ standard with 1:22:12 in Nomi — a bunch of reporters and a camera crew set out for his house in Dera Bassi, just south of Chandigarh on NH 22. “They took the address from me and left in the evening,” recalls Baljinder. “They wandered all over and only found my place at 10:30.” His parents knew little more than that he was some sort of athlete somewhere in the country. “When my father saw the media at the door at that hour, he presumed I’d done something terrible. In fact, he was certain of it. It took them 15 minutes to make him understand.”
The disbelief was shared at the SAI in Bangalore, where Baljinder has earned a reputation for perhaps caring a little too much about his appearance. “People wonder how I qualified. They say, ‘We never saw you do anything except admire your six-pack in the gym.’ Sometimes, I cannot believe it myself,” he grins.
Baljinder is aware that his medal prospects are not as realistic as Gurmeet’s. His personal best is a little over 1:22 and knocking three minutes off is not entirely feasible. “Obviously it is disappointing to go and simply return empty-handed. In India we see qualification as some big achievement, but it’s not enough. If not this time, I’ll win a medal at the next edition.”
Irfan Kolothum Thodi, India’s final athlete in the 20 km category, and Basanta Bahadur Rana, the best of the ‘B’ qualifiers in the 50 km (and thus the nominated entrant), have a lot in common. They’re roommates, train under the former national record holder Gurdev Singh, serve in the Army, and qualified for the Olympics at the World Race Walking Cup in Russia in May.
The similarities, however, end there. In his native Malappuram, Irfan is a celebrity, his face splashed on billboards all over the district. On his return from Russia, he was ferried in an open truck to his home in Kuniyil village, firecrackers and sweets making their obligatory appearance along the route. “Any sportsman will tell you that the Olympic Games are the pinnacle,” he says. “I have won bags of medals at state and junior national meets, but nobody knew who I was. This time, almost the entire village was at the airport.”
The World Cup was the 22-year-old’s first international competition; his time of 1:22:09 bodes well for the future. “I don’t want to worry about a medal right now,” he says. “My target is the 2016 Games.”
Basanta, on the other hand, has not gone home in two years. Home is a hamlet 12 hours north of Kathmandu, where nobody knows what sport he’s involved in or to what level. He joined the Army in 2002 through the Gorkha regiments; while his cousins and neighbours recruited at the same time have all built houses and married, his commitments here have allowed him to do neither. “In Nepal, it doesn’t matter if you’re going to the Olympics,” he shrugs. “They neither know what it means nor care.”
When he takes his mark in the men’s 50km walk on August 11, this Nepali will — somewhat ironically — become the first Indian athlete to participate in the event. (He now holds an Indian passport.) This has only made him all the more determined. “India has given me everything, and I want to give it something in return. My times (4:02:13) may be far off the pace (medal places ordinarily under 3:40:00) but it’s fifty kilometres. Anything can happen; people get disqualified all the time.”
Irrespective of any medal success, London 2012 represents Indian race walking’s finest hour. The full quota of three ‘A’ standard athletes was filled — a feat matched by no other discipline in the national contingent — while two other walkers, Babubhai Panocha and Surinder Singh, hit ‘B’ marks. (They won’t be going to the Olympics, though.) At the World Cup in Russia, the Indian 20 km team was placed a historic fifth — its best ever performance in a global athletics event. Over in the men’s 50 km, the country will have an Olympic representative for the first time; had Basanta and Sandeep Kumar (who will miss out because his ‘B’ time is worse than the former’s and only one is sent) featured in more overseas competitions, both might have easily gone under the ‘A’ time.
With all this, Basanta hopes, race walking will see a helpful ascent in profile. “It hurts when people laugh at our sport,” he says. “Walking 50km without faulting requires immense concentration and endurance. They don’t realise how hard it is. You could go to a movie at the start of our event; we’d still be walking when you came back home.”