A promising performance at the London Olympics has won walker K.T. Irfan a legion of admirers and opportunities

Kuniyil, a green, quiescent town about 35 km from Kozhikode city, is realising its new celebrity. Passers-by tilt their heads to look into the open verandah and nod in acknowledgment. Others stop their cars, step out and request K.T. Irfan to pose for a picture. At this modest, ungated house bang on the roadside, an athlete and his achievements are the talking point.

His parents Mustafa and Zuleikha fuss over him. Guest appearances on television shows, inaugurations and felicitations dot Irfan’s days. His mother trails him to make sure he has carried his cell phone. Coconut shells piled in the side yard are a reminder of Mustafa’s business, but inside it is a different story. An immaculate shelf is stacked with medals, citations and sketches. Garlands hang from the roof beam and bouquets are tucked into the crevice where the wall and the roof meet. Remnants of celebration are scattered across the house.

Irfan, the 22-year-old who walked into sporting consciousness with an unexpected 10 place in the 20 km walk at the London Olympics, says it was not always like this.

“There are about 16 medals in that shelf,” says Mustafa. But adulation and attention came after the Olympics qualification, says Irfan. He and his sport remained relatively unknown even in his hometown. “Now people come and ask me about walking, the technique behind it,” says Irfan, a shy smile dancing on his lips.

Soccer might be the reigning god at Malappuram. But the young man hopes his strides will prompt youngsters to take up his sport. Irfan himself took to walking watching Ribaz and Salman, State-level winners and his seniors at the Government Vocational Higher Secondary School, Keezhuparamba. “I was a plus one student and the year 2006-07,” remembers Irfan. Guidance came from his school coach Jose, and they practised on the school ground.

Winning ways

He continued to compete and win medals through his graduation years at St Josephs College, Devagiri, and trained steadily at the Sports Authority of India centre in Kozhikode. But he got serious when he joined the Army in 2010. “It was a sports enrollment and my posting at Ooty was perfect,” he says.

“The officers and the coaches supported me a lot and I had access to all facilities.” It is at Ooty that he finally graduated to the 20 km walk. “The climate at Ooty suits walking, in terms of breathing patterns and body recovery.”

By 2011, Irfan ventured into the national meets for seniors, and with his first international level competition in Moscow, where he finished 19 with the timing 1:22:09, he qualified for the Olympics and limelight.

Irfan says he hardly had any expectations from his maiden Olympics. It was only his second international outing and he didn’t have the Asian and Commonwealth Games experiences most athletes have. “I viewed it as an experience and was looking at a national record. I was always looking at the 2016 Olympics.”

Yet a national record and a top ten finish had the nation’s notice. “All the Indian players came and congratulated me.” Also, he knew the errors that crept up on the big stage. “I had committed two fouls and that happened due to my lack of experience. I also learnt new things, about completing a race well, on quickening the pace at the right time,” he says.

At London, the wealth of experiences he gathered went beyond the track. “It is a different feeling altogether to know that on the other side of the room are great athletes. It couldn’t get bigger than shaking hands with Usain Bolt. I met all the athletes of the 100 m race,” says Irfan.

Starting right

For an observer, Irfan may have achieved commendable feats in the short time he has committed himself to the sport. But he dismisses the idea that if he had started earlier he would have achieved more by now. “I think I started at the right time. Maybe if I had started as a child, I wouldn’t be continuing now. Walking has its dangers, you are prone to injuries of the knee and the hip.”

The sport has its rigours, says Irfan. “The event happens early in the morning, usually from 6.30 a.m. to 8.” His diet includes lots of chicken and lamb. “So when I get back home it is usually my mother’s pathiri and beef which I miss the most,” he says.

His performance at the Olympics has brought promises and opportunities. Irfan, however, keeps his eyes firmly on sporting goals as he sets out to Patiala for practice. “Patiala roads are extremely suitable for walking practice,” he says.

His focus will be on international events — the World Championships, the Asian and Commonwealth Games. Till then, Irfan is refining the other frills of celebrity — posing the perfect picture, making an inspiring speech.