A100m sprint is over in 10 seconds, a boxing bout in 6 minutes, and a badminton game lasts an average of half an hour. In that short span, athletes have the chance to leap from obscurity to international fame, or to add to their growing legend. But just how difficult is it to get to that stage? How much time and work and sacrifice does it demand? Some of India’s best athletes share the stories of their journey to sporting excellence—Olympic and world championship medallist Vijender Singh and Asian boxing champion Suranjoy Singh talk about the importance of a sporting culture and how it helped them; world No. 3 badminton player Saina Nehwal shares how the winning instinct was drilled into her; five-time world boxing champion M.C. Mary Kom reveals the absence of a normal childhood; world wrestling champion Sushil Kumar talks about the difficulty of following a sustained high-nutrition diet; and Commonwealth Games badminton gold medallist Jwala Gutta speaks about her parents’ unconditional support.

Forget about junk food

During the 2008 Olympics, US swimmer Michael Phelps’ incredible 12,000 calories-a-day diet threatened to topple even his eight gold medal winning spree from the headlines. His typical daily intake consisted of three friedegg sandwiches loaded with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise; two cups of coffee, a five-egg omelette, a large bowl of grits, three slices of French toast, and three chocolate-chip pancakes for breakfast. Lunch was 500g of pasta, two large ham and cheese sandwiches and energy drinks packing 1,000 calories. This monstrous menu points to one simple fact—an athlete’s diet must support the hours of physical exertion that he or she puts in every single day in practice. The food not only has to replenish the calories burnt, but also has to help in building muscle, and reverse the effects of fatigue. The lack of a proper diet during an athlete’s formative years can finish off careers even before they can begin. For Kumar’s father, this meant making a detour everyday to Chattrasal Stadium in Delhi on his way to work, where his son was a trainee from the age of 13, and supplying Kumar with 2 litres of milk, 250g of fresh paneer (cottage cheese), apples, almonds and 100g of freshly churned butter. The practice continues to this day. “I was lucky that we own farmlands and buffaloes, so we could just divert part of our own produce for my diet," says Kumar.

(Left) Mary Kom left home at 13 to pursue a career in sports. Prabhas Roy/Hindustan Times. (Right) Jwala Gutta credits her parents for her success. Saeed Khan / AFP

“It’s a childhood without junk food, samosas, ice cream, candies, sweets, fried stuff," says Gutta. “You need to be different as a child to be able to give these things up, because it just feels like punishment when you are growing up."

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Prepare to grow up tough

The deprivation goes deeper than junk food and sweets. In every single way, an athlete’s childhood is different from his or her peers. It demands motivation, competitiveness and an ability to work tirelessly—almost unfair to ask of a child who is not even a teenager.

“From 4 in the morning till 10 at night, I was travelling, studying, and practising every single day since I was eight years old," says Nehwal. “I would fall asleep in a bus, or a train travelling to the stadium. Sometimes, I’d beg my mother not to send me to training, but she never relented. On Sundays, I’d just sleep the whole day. Even now it’s what I love most—sleeping all Sunday!"

For Mary Kom, there was no rest even on Sundays. A day off from school was spent working the fields with her parents, who were hired farmhands. “Even when I came back from school in the afternoon, I joined my parents in the fields," she says. “After dark, I would help my mother with housework and take care of two younger brothers and sisters. You don’t really know what a childhood is when you are that poor." At 13, Mary Kom decided to try to become an athlete, thinking it would help her earn money for the family. “I was self-motivated, self-aware and willing to work all day and night and stay anywhere at that age if it meant I could become an athlete," she says. Mary Kom persuaded her reluctant parents to allow her to move to a school in Imphal, 45km from her village, where she seriously pursued sports. By 16, she was part of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) training centre in Imphal, picking up the nuances of boxing from Ibomcha Singh, living and learning at the SAI training centre.

Like Mary Kom, Kumar left home when he was 13, living in training centres and sports hostels ever since. “It was hard for my mother, but she never let it show," he says. “Instead, she would make sure that my brothers would get to meet me every week and spend time with me so we stayed together as a family." Kumar feels the separation probably drew the family closer. “My mother used to call me every night when I was young, and we would have long conversations," he says. “She was always positive and funny, and always gave me good advice."

Invest without expecting a return

Helping a child become an athlete calls for heavy investment—whether it’s food, travelling, equipment, training fees or clothes—every little expense demands a sacrifice from the families, who are usually from weak economic backgrounds. “Not many people understand this, but even badminton is an expensive sport," says Gutta, “When I was growing up, a barrel of good shuttlecocks cost R1,000. Now shuttlecocks fray easily and can’t be used after that, so sometimes I would end up using a barrel a day at practice." Gutta’s father struggled to put up with the costs of training, so her mother Yelan also began looking for a job.

First blood: Vijender Singh lost the first couple of matches he played. But he knew he was going to start winning, it was only a question of when. Ajay Aggarwal / Hindustan Times. Relentless: Suranjoy Singh finds it hard to sleep if he loses. Pradeep Gaur/ Mint

It’s a tricky double act for parents to follow—shielding the child from the financial stress, and staying positive despite the inevitable anxiety that the years of hard work and sacrifices might backfire if their child does not make it at the top level. Kumar points out that investing in making your child an athlete is also extremely risky. “One bad injury, which can happen to anyone at any time, can end an athlete’s career," he says. “You can never be sure that all the years of training will actually result in a good international career. You have to take these things on faith."

Know your roots, use the system

Why is India so successful in cricket and not in other sports? A simple answer would be that cricket has spread through the country as a culture. Everyone knows about it, everyone can talk about it, and when the Indian team plays a match, millions across the country are glued to their TV sets. This makes it easy for both an aspiring cricketer and his parents to think of cricket as a sport that’s worth putting time, effort and money in. Then, of course, there are hundreds of good coaching centres to choose from, including many run by former cricket stars. No other sport in India can boast of such a well-grounded system, and that’s when regional differences come into play.

“If you grow up in or near Bhiwani (Haryana), it is almost natural that you would have undergone some boxing training," says Vijender. “I grew up hearing stories about Hawa Singh (a legendary Indian boxer who was the national champion a record 11 times, and won gold in both the 1966 and 1970 Asian Games), and seeing my brother and his friends training in the gym. My friends were all into boxing too, so really, there was no option but to start boxing myself." Bhiwani’s boxing culture also means that there is no dearth of training centres — from SAI’s academy to the famed Bhiwani Boxing Club, there are more than 3,000 trainees in the town practising the art of fighting now. If boxing is Bhiwani’s sport of choice, the rest of Haryana favours another martial tradition — wrestling.

Kumar can trace the history of wrestling in his family starting from his father all the way to his great-grandfather, with many of his uncles thrown in as well. “In Haryana, wrestling is a revered sport, with a long tradition of great wrestlers. Wrestlers earn immense respect and so there’s no discrimination against choosing it as a career."

Like Haryana, Manipur also thrives on a sports culture, producing a long list of national footballers, boxers, archers, cyclists and hockey players. “I knew from a young age that I was going to be a sportsperson," says Suranjoy. “I started with football, and then switched to boxing. Many of my friends are professional footballers. We consider sports to be a great career choice, and most young men and women in the state want to have a shot at being an athlete."

Grow a thick skin

It’s a dream Mary Kom shared with Suranjoy, but she had more at stake than just her career. “Many in Manipur see sports as a way out of trouble and poverty. For me, it meant more. I did not want to be stuck in my village, get married and then just spend my life looking after the house." When she chose boxing, Mary Kom’s father was against the idea. He told her to quit and get married early. “There was constant opposition from my family and neighbours," she says. “When I was really young, I struggled with it." But Mary Kom’s desire to get out of the stifling social constraints of her village won through. “Every time my father told me to quit, I got more strength to carry on."

From a small village in Manipur to the cyber city of Hyderabad, the social problems with a girl child choosing to be an athlete remain the same. Gutta grew up hearing that she would be an “unsuitable bride".

“My father’s family is conservative Telugu," says Gutta. “They felt it was not right for a girl to be a sportsperson." Relatives told Gutta’s father that sports training would be disastrous for her schooling, and would destroy her prospects of a good marriage. “My father ignored these ideas," Gutta says. “He taught me not to be bothered by such talk and to focus on what I was doing."

Be a believer

It’s the one thing that sets the potential sports star apart from his peers— the self-belief that they are good at what they do from an early age, and that they can get better. “In my first few competitive fights when I was young, I lost badly," says Vijender. “But I never thought that I was not good enough. In fact, I only thought of how to win the next fight. I knew I was going to start winning, it was only a question of when."

Sharp focus: Nehwal only thinks of winning when on court. Swapan Mahapatra / PTI

While both boxers say this addiction to winning is a natural extension to their personality, Nehwal credits her parents for instilling the winning instinct in her. “My mother told me that when I’m playing, my only thought should be to try and win, and not think of who I’m playing against." This, Nehwal says, made her fearless. “It’s a lesson that I still follow blindly. When I’m on court, I’m not thinking of who I’m playing, and I never think that I can’t win."


Leander has gone through hell

Vece Paes remembers the struggles the family went through to support his son’s journey from a promising junior to the men’s circuit

There is a burning desire in Lee (as Leander is fondly known) that wants him to compete all the time. His body has taken a beating—he is a small guy playing a big man’s game. But his mind seems to transcend whatever fragilities he has in his body. He believed he belonged on top of that world, can take on anyone, that he is a champion.

It cost us Rs5,000-7,000 a month to get Lee time on the court and a coach when he was a junior. Then he joined BAT (Britannia Amritraj Tennis academy) between the age of 12 and 17 and it cost us nothing. When Lee won (the) junior Wimbledon (in 1990), the enormity of his achievement hit us and we now needed R2 lakh a month to get a coach, trainer and to get him on the (international) circuit. Neither BAT nor we had the money. BAT had announced Lee would play only seniors but he did not have the ranking. There was a lacuna of six months when he played nothing.

We got the Indian rupees thanks to sponsors but faced the FTS (foreign exchange ceiling) of $750 (around Rs33,500 now), all that money we collected meant nothing because we only got $750 a year (in foreign exchange).We used Indian rupees to buy tickets to send him on a circuit for six weeks. The prize money he won in one tournament gave him the expenses to the next and so on—a 16- to- 17-year-old boy struggling alone in foreign countries. Anyway, the gap between an outstanding junior to an outstanding senior is five years. For five years, Lee was in the wilderness, working.

Another problem was identifying the right coach—each coach charged $750-1,000 a day—plus 20% of the prize money if the player reaches the semis/final of any tournament. At one stage, we owed his coach $150,000. It’s scary—you don’t sleep at night.

We had to survive, as a family and separately. I was not going to sacrifice anything if it hurt my other two children, wife or mother. I was a surgeon but we had a situation when we could not afford a foreign coach, so I had to travel with him. So for three-four years, I gave up medical practice till we got a coach. Then I had to switch from surgery to corporate medicine because of the prospective sponsors we approached. I was dealing with 18 companies; I was doing their medical programme in the hope that as soon as Lee made it, I could approach them for sponsorship. When we got sponsors and I started travelling again (after Mamata Banerjee became sports minister at the centre, she got us sanctioned $30,000 a year for two years and the economy opened up in 1996), I realized I could not do justice to my employers. So I switched to sports medicine.

Lee has gone through hell. He was the lone Indian in the circuit after Ramesh (Krishnan) retired and having to win prize money to move further. The good thing was from an early age we brought him up to be independent. That carried him through.

As told to Arun Janardhan


For a better playing field

What top athletes want to change to improve India’s sporting ecosystem

Saina Nehwal: Make sports an academic option. Instead of clearing major exams, athletes should be judged on the medals they win at every stage. These medals should be treated like degrees.

Sushil Kumar: Only successful athletes are given international quality training and equipment. This is the wrong way to do things. Young aspiring athletes with talent should be identified, and they should be given the best training from early on.

Jwala Gutta: Remove politics from sports associations. All our sportspeople suffer because of favouritism and politics at the governing bodies. Instead of helping develop sports, these associations are busy strengthening their own political power. Hold the associations responsible for the state of their sport, and make their workings transparent.

Vijender Singh: The Commonwealth Games was proof that Indians will watch sports other than cricket if they get the chance. Corporate bodies and the government should together organize Asia level competitions for individual sports throughout the year.

Suranjoy Singh: Young men and women in northeastern states want to be sportspeople. The government and sports authorities should invest in the region, open more training centres, and offer athletes more incentives.