When the eight contenders took to the starting blocks of the 100m sprint final during the 1st Khelo India School Games, all eyes were on the boy wearing vest No.152 in lane 3, sporting an amulet and a fluorescent-green KT tape over his calf muscles. It was the morning of 2 February, the sun shone bright on the red tracks of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, and the tension was palpable.

A couple of false starts and two disqualifications (including that of Karan Hegiste of Maharashtra in lane 5, a top contender) had reduced the number of contestants to six. When the starter’s gun went off for the third time, No.152 fumbled but recovered in time to gain a sizeable lead in the last 30m. He won the race in 10.76 seconds, an Under-16 national record, and an impressive 0.14 seconds ahead of second place. His furrowed brow and clenched jaw gave way to a smile. Nisar Ahmad, No.152, crossed the finishing line and pointed to a face in the crowd. Coach Sunita Rai could finally relax and applaud.

“I was a bit worried after the false start," she said after the race. “He did not hear the recall whistle after the false start and he went all out in 10.77 seconds. To manage such intense runs and still keep focus is commendable."

Especially if you consider that Ahmad was training off-season till 10 days before the competition. Unsure of his participation in the Khelo India School Games, he was ready to fly to the Caribbean on 25 January. He is part of a 12-member contingent of young athletes from across India selected for a month-long training camp at the famed Racers Track Club in Kingston, Jamaica, home to Usain Bolt, eight-time Olympic gold medallist and perhaps the greatest sprinter of all time.

“Our camp in Jamaica was scheduled for 27 January," says Maneesh Bahuguna, the chief executive officer of the Anglian Medal Hunt Company (AMHC) and a former Indian Revenue Service officer. “We postponed it by a week at the request of the ministry and Sports Authority of India, so that our athletes could participate in the games. We’re happy we did it. Six of our athletes participated in the games and four won gold."

In 2015-16, Ahmad had won the speed talent hunt, a competition organized by the AMHC and National Yuva Cooperative Society Ltd (a multi-state, multi-purpose cooperative working to make youth economically independent) for GAIL India Ltd. He now stands a chance to win a scholarship as part of the Khelo India initiative, which could change his life in more ways than one.

In India, sport can be categorized largely as “cricket" and “non-cricket". Getting support for athletics and other niche sports isn’t easy. Even the six-time Olympian and Asian record-setting luger Shiva Keshavan has struggled to find sponsors. The Khelo India initiative, therefore, comes as a breath of fresh air. The programme has been introduced to revive the sports culture at the grass-roots level, finding and nurturing great athletes from a young age. The Khelo India School Games, held from 31 January-8 February at a number of venues across Delhi, marked the beginning of the Khelo India programme.

“This is the age (under-17) when they don’t have any sponsorship so the government of India is coming up with the first support of Rs5 lakh per year for eight years for 1,000 athletes," union sports minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore said in an interview last week.

“I have been watching the coverage on Star Sports and DD Sports and I am thrilled," says Rathore. “And at times, when someone would go over a 4.8m high bar, you would think, ‘Wow, is it an Indian who is doing that?’ I think these children have tremendous potential."

Ahmad receiving his gold medal from sports minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore during the Khelo India School Games. Photo: Sanjay Gupta
Ahmad receiving his gold medal from sports minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore during the Khelo India School Games. Photo: Sanjay Gupta

It was probably the first time that a grass-roots-level event in Indian sport was broadcast live. This brings in support for the athletes, encourages young people to join the sport, and boosts the morale of the participants.

“It is an honour for us to produce Khelo India School Games and reach out to millions of viewers. Star India and the ministry of youth affairs intend to realize a vision of making 30 crore (300 million) children actively participate in sporting activities for an hour, every day," says Sanjay Gupta, managing director, Star India. “What Nisar has accomplished at such a young age is a testament to the kind of sporting talent India has. All we need is a platform." Khelo India, he says, is that platform.

Rai now plans to take Ahmad to the 22nd Federation Cup National Senior Athletics Championships in March, in the hope that he can qualify for the Commonwealth Games in April.

“He has the fire to do well, which is rare for athletes his age," says Rai. “Our national record in 100m men’s is 10.26 seconds. And if Nisar keeps at it, he could beat it."

In 2016, a bout of chikungunya and injuries had confined Ahmad to bed for nearly four months. People doubted he would ever run again. Yet in the last 12 months, he has produced four finishes of under 11 seconds, and become India’s best young athlete. It is some resurgence.

Nisar Ahmad during the final of the boys’ 100m run at the Khelo India School Games in Delhi on 2 February. Photo: Sanjay Gupta
Nisar Ahmad during the final of the boys’ 100m run at the Khelo India School Games in Delhi on 2 February. Photo: Sanjay Gupta

*****

The walls of the 10x10ft room are lime-washed. There is a mattress on the floor. In one corner stands a gas stove, and, above it, two shelves with utensils. In another corner is a neat pile of clothes. The adjacent walls have lofts, with curtains concealing the worldly possessions of the family. An air cooler is mounted on a low window.

Five people are assembled in the tiny room, leaving little elbow room. A railway track runs alarmingly near, only a few feet from the compound, the intermittent, low, long moan of high-speed Shatabdis and freight trains rendering conversation difficult. The neighbourhood rattles to the rhythm of the trains.

Nanku, 49, who goes by only one name, and his family of five have lived much of their lives in Bada Bagh slum, near rail-gate No. 4, in Delhi’s Azadpur. The narrow labyrinthine alleys have more drains than windows. Water-borne diseases are par for the course. Fresh water is a luxury. You have to travel a kilometre for it. There is a queue every morning outside the community toilet. Men cross the railway tracks to urinate. Where do women go? The men are offended by the question, the women too shy to answer.

Nanku moved to this tiny home from his village in Gonda, Uttar Pradesh, more than 30 years ago, with his wife Shafikunisha. “Indira Gandhi was alive when we moved here," says Shafikunisha. This is where their four children were born, and one died; this is the home from which the eldest daughter, Raziya, was married. This is where the youngest, Nisar, a few months shy of his 16th birthday, used to hide when his father got angry. This is where he took refuge to escape the barbs directed at his parents and their “ridiculous dream"—of his becoming India’s best athlete.

Ahmad found solace in running. Once he realized he was quick, and could win races, he kept at it with single-minded focus. He ran barefoot in school competitions when he was starting out. “This track has given me everything," says Ahmad. “I hope I can give it back the same way." GAIL has recently found them a better home near Ashok Vihar that it pays for. Nothing else has changed though, says Nanku. And he insisted I meet them at the jhuggi, to show me where it all began.

“Mera beta namak-roti kha kar daudta tha par usne himmat nahi chhodi (we could only give my child simple meals, chapatis with salt, but he never lost hope)," says Nanku.

His potential was first spotted by Surender Singh, 31, the physical education teacher at the Government Boys Senior Secondary School, Ashok Vihar Phase II, where Ahmad studies in class X. Singh is like a third parent, helping him in a host of ways since 2013. He bought Ahmad his first pair of running shoes. “What attracted me was his speed," says Singh. “He did really well on sports day at school. I had a feeling that this child could make it to the big stage."

When Singh was selecting the school team that would participate in the zonal competition that year, he wanted a sprinter. Ahmad was the obvious candidate. He struck gold in the 100m event. Singh told him to participate in the 200m race as well; Ahmad came second.

“He was exhausted after the two runs," says Singh. “His speed was good but he lacked the stamina. He needed proper practice. He also needed the diet of a runner."

But it was difficult for Nanku and Shafikunisha to afford a diet packed with proteins to help muscle growth. Nanku makes a living by ferrying goods from factories on his cycle rickshaw. Shafikunisha works as a domestic help and is showing the first signs of arthritis. She can’t stand for long. Together, the couple earns about Rs12,000 per month, barely enough to run the family. “How could we afford the kind of food he needed?" asks Shafikunisha. “PT sir made sure Nisar got milk to drink." Since 2013, Singh has been paying for Ahmad’s daily milk. He also buys fruits, nuts and ghee, and has helped Ahmad financially.

But an even more vital contribution was to come later, when Ahmad faced the first crisis of his career. “When I got back from the 61st National School Athletics championship in Kozhikode, in February 2016, I found I had contracted chikungunya," Ahmad says. “I had injuries in my hamstring and groin. I couldn’t lift my legs at all. People would say my career was over. I had to miss many competitions. I ran with the illness and injuries and lost. I lost motivation."

“He was low on confidence and in a bad state," says Shafikunisha. “It was only PT sir and Sunita ma’am who still believed in him." Their patience and hard work is slowly paying off.

In 2017, Ahmad had three 100m runs under 11 seconds. In November, at the 33rd National Junior Athletics Championships in Vijayawada, he broke the Under-16 national record for 100m with a timing of 10.85 seconds. At the School Nationals in Bhopal earlier that month, he clocked 10.76 seconds.

After winning golds in the 100m (11 seconds) and 200m (22.08 seconds) sprint events at the Delhi State Athletics meet in September, where he bettered his national record timing in the Under-16 category, he told friends: “Aaj do-do record tod diye (I broke two records today)".

His parents have never seen him racing. But they keep count of the races and medals. The medals and trophies have piled up, and are now stored in plastic bags. Shafikunisha opens one such bag and the medals scatter on the floor.

“When I see how far Nisar has come, it makes me happy," says Shafikunisha. Just as she starts another sentence, the ground starts shaking, a train roars by. “Sometimes we feel sad too, because we couldn’t care for Nisar as we should have. But we can dream. The ultimate dream," says Shafikunisha, “is to win gold for the country."

Nisar Ahmad’s parents with his medals at their ‘jhuggi’ in Azadpur. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Nisar Ahmad’s parents with his medals at their ‘jhuggi’ in Azadpur. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

*****

Ahmad is a reluctant interviewee, a boy of few words. He has a slight lisp. He also smiles a lot. He has the body of a sprinter, lean and muscular, with broad shoulders and bulging thighs, just like his idol, American sprinter Justin Gaitlin. With cropped hair and the first signs of facial hair, there is a boyish charm to him. When he talks, he is in a hurry, as if he’s sprinting out of the starting blocks. After the Khelo India performance, he hardly said a word, apart from thanking coach Rai and his long-time teacher, Surinder Singh.

He is well aware of the family’s financial situation. While his friends call others home, he doesn’t. He is also mindful of his achievements, and conscious of the fact that his journey has just begun.

After a practice session at the Thyagaraj Sports Complex in the run-up to the Khelo India games, someone asks Ahmad about a routine as he cools down, and he stops immediately to help. “He used to practise before but has forgotten many routines," says Ahmad about the boy. “I keep telling him that he has to keep at it."

Later, as Ahmad runs past us, the boy he has helped is more forthcoming. “He is our buddy as well as our coach," he says.

(from left) Ahmad (second from left) and other young athletes meet Yohan Blake (centre) at the Racers Track Club in Jamaica. Courtesy: AMHC
(from left) Ahmad (second from left) and other young athletes meet Yohan Blake (centre) at the Racers Track Club in Jamaica. Courtesy: AMHC

Ahmad began training with Rai at the Chhatrasal Stadium soon after his performance at the zonal competition. Now his day starts at 5am. After his morning prayers, he leaves for a gym in Model Town. He returns at about 9, eats, rests and leaves for school. “I attend school between 12.30 and 3pm. At 3, I leave for practice at Chhatrasal Stadium, where I train till 7pm. I am back home by 8pm and sleep early," says Ahmad.

“He will offer namaz, kiss my feet and only then leave home," says Shafikunisha. “After every win, he goes to the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, offers a chadar and feeds the poor."

Despite the financial strain and hardship—or perhaps because of it—Ahmad has a keen sense of empathy.

“A few months ago, he saw an old man who was ill at the community toilet," his mother says. “He ran home and took away Rs1,000 that I’d saved for him, telling me not to ask what he will do with it. He took the old man to the hospital, paid the bills, bought him medicines and fruits and gave him some money to keep."

Jagdish, 78, who goes by only one name, is frail and a little hard of hearing, but his hands fold in a gesture of prayer and thanks when he hears Nisar Ahmad’s name. “I was at the toilet, burning with fever. My children were not at home. Nisar came up to me and asked what was wrong," recalls Jagdish. “He ran home, came back, carried me over his shoulder to the main road, got us on a rickshaw and took me to the hospital. He paid for my medicines and also gave me some money."

Now, whenever he returns to Delhi after a race, Ahmad makes sure he meets Jagdish. When I ask Ahmad about Jagdish, he smiles and says: “Wo to main karta rehta hoon (I keep doing that)."

Probe further, and he says: “Compassion is at the heart of all our religions. Many people have helped me in reaching this far. It is only fair that I do the same."

A file photo of Ahmad with his teacher Surender Singh and coach Sunita Rai. Courtesy: Sunita Rai
A file photo of Ahmad with his teacher Surender Singh and coach Sunita Rai. Courtesy: Sunita Rai

*****

Back at the slum, everyone has stopped talking as a freight train passes by. A slight drizzle has started. Outside the house, the goats are tied in the open. They need to be brought in.

Shafikunisha says there was a time when people used to taunt her, saying she feeds her children other people’s leftovers. “Main jhootha khilati thi mere bachche ko, aisa bolte the log," she says. Ahmad too was taunted. Friends would show their expensive shoes to him and say he could never afford them. He would not argue. Instead, he would go home and talk to his mother, even cry a bit.

“Sometimes I feel like giving up because the sport is costly," says Ahmad. His Adidas spikes cost him Rs16,000. “But Surender sir and Sunita ma’am keep me motivated.

“And I have to keep doing this. I want to run and bring a medal for my country. I want to run for my parents."

Ahmad’s parents have taken loans multiple times so he can pursue his dream. They still owe local moneylenders about Rs17,000. His second sister’s marriage has been postponed to help him achieve his dreams.

In Jamaica, four coaches under head coach Glen Mills are working with the athletes. They have all been given different workouts and the niggles with their techniques are being corrected.

“The idea is to give them a personal experience of what the track and field competition in Jamaica is like than what they are accustomed to," says coach Jermaine Shand at the Racers Track Club. “Also, to give them an idea of where they stand in the preparation and how they compare regarding time." It will be a valuable lesson for Ahmad, says Rai.

If he receives the annual scholarship that was promised under the Khelo India initiative, Ahmad will be able to sort out some of the family’s financial problems.

Is there fear at how fast things are changing? “Always," says Shafikunisha. “We never thought Nisar would come this far. But we have faith in God; he has brought us here, he will see us through."

For now, the boy who will soon be a man is living his dream, training at Bolt’s academy in Jamaica, hoping to represent India one day at the Olympics, maybe even win a medal there.

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