A fledgling sport takes wings

TRIATHLON AS a sport had no base in the country till the 1990s and the Chennai based business magnate N. Ramachandran, with a missionary zeal, set up the Triathlon Federation of India (TFI) and put the sport on the Indian sports map.

The demanding sport, combines competitions in swimming, running, and cycling, and one has to be really versatile to take its demanding schedule. When Ramachandran formed the TFI, he was quick to spot that fisher folks had a natural ability for this kind of grind, and he set out grooming several promising triathletes such as Amudha, who later went on to take make waves at the Asian level.

The TFI did not wait for things to happen, but it made them happen by conducting the Asian championship in Chennai, which caught the fancy of the public, and provided the sport with its first major exposure. Several youngsters, who had interest, were trained and the TFI made available the kits, including imported cycles, since cycling is a crucial segment of triathlon. It is in this segment, that foreign contenders enjoyed an advantage over their Indian counterparts owing to superior machines. Once TFI had sorted it out by getting such machines, the Indian competitors were able to hold their own against foreign competition.

The major thrust for the TFI came a couple of years ago when it formed an academy in Chennai, and invited an Australian coach to supervise its programme. It certainly was a highly beneficial one for the Indian triathletes. In fact, TFI has sent three of them, including Kayva, from Karnataka, for training in Sydney. When they are through with that specialised training, this may certainly give the Indian competitors an extra edge in international meets.

Sadly, though, the formative period of the sport was a turbulent one with factional feud in the federation — a rival faction was headed by K.V. Sharma. The factional fire fight affected the conduct of the triathlon in both the Pune National Games and the subsequent one that was held in Bangalore in 1997.

Mercifully, it all ended with an out of court settlement, but not before a few promising ones in the sport bid a premature adieu to the sport.

The TFI is now under the tutelage of Rahul Ramachandran, son of Ramachandran, who is carrying on the pioneering effort of his father. But TFI has a long way to go before making the sport a very popular one in all corners of the country. Basically, the sport is confined to Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Manipur. The active competitors list at a national level does not even cross 50, and there is an urgent need to at least double or treble the numbers if TFI wishes to sustain the momentum for the sport.

Karnataka's success in the sport springs from the fact that it has a strong swimming base and Bangalore itself boasts of five major pools and clubs such as the Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre and K. C. Reddy Swim Centre, which also encourage those interested in triathlon. When one looks at their swimming programme, it is easy to note that the trainees do 15 to 16 hours of swimming every day. Daily running is also part of the schedule. So, it is easy for a swimmer from Karnataka to switch to triathlon, if he or she desires to do so.

The Karnataka Triathlon Association has been a active unit and regularly conducts State meets for juniors and seniors. But then, the sport and the association can certainly do better with good sponsorship.

There is an arguable perception that only "failed" swimmers become triathletes. The competition in swimming has a big and quality field, and not everyone can stay afloat in swimming. Many drop out because they are nowhere near the podium in their careers and they opt for an easy way out and become triathletes. But the fact remains that to become a tri-athlete is no joke One has to put in hours of rigorous practice and attain mastery in swimming as well as in running and cycling. And the amount of workout a dedicated performer puts in should match that of a swimmer. It is a sport in which only the toughest survive and the pity is that there are not too many around.