Till a year ago, Anjana Thamke owned only two sets of clothes. One she wore at home, the other—a uniform provided by her school—she wore everywhere else. She had never owned shoes. Growing up in a tribal village a little more than 30km from Nashik, Thamke walked and ran 7km to her school, and then back again. It took her half an hour each way if she really put her mind to it. Off-school hours were spent helping her parents, farm labourers, with house work: carrying water from a well a few hundred metres from their house, collecting and carrying firewood, tending to their vegetable patch.

In the first week of October in 2010, Thamke, then 12, was asked by one of her teachers if she wanted to run in a school sports meet. The teacher told her to run as fast she could across the school playground. Thamke, in her skirt-and-shirt uniform, went full tilt, raising a cloud of dust in her wake. “That will do," the teacher told her. “Tell your parents that you will go to a competition next week to run."

Kavita Raut (leading) at the 2010 CWG. Photo: Sanjeev Verma/HT

Vijender Singh, Raut’s childhood coach, was not there to see it, though he was deluged by messages giving him live updates of the race. Instead, Singh attended a village-school meet the day after Raut’s CWG race. “That’s where I first saw her (Thamke), in her frayed skirt, her faded old shirt, barefoot, and she was fast, really fast, and already at that age she was strong and big," Singh says. After the race, Singh made her an offer: Move to Nashik, and join his training group. “I will arrange for your school admission, your hostel, kit, and food," Singh told her.

Vijender Singh during a training session.

Soon, Thamke was setting national records—in 400m, 800m, and 1,500m, in the Under-17 category—and winning national meets with ease. Three years after she joined formal training, she won a 800m gold at the 2013 Asian Youth Games in Nanjing, China.

“That was a weird experience," Thamke says. “I had only started wearing shoes a few months before, and I had never been on a plane. I had no idea about sports, did not even know that you had to train for it, that people got excited by it if you won. I was so scared of everything that I fell ill the moment I reached China. But on the track, I felt fine."

Durga Deore.
Sanjeevani Jadhav.
Sanjeevani Jadhav.

“There is incredible talent here," Singh says. “Most of my students come from poor tribal villages with bad nutrition, they come with no idea about sports, they run barefeet, and they win. This is because of the living conditions. They have such hard lives, they get tough in no time. Look at Kavita—the nearest source of water in her village is 1.5km away. She used to go with her mother and carry water back. An average of 10 trips a day, and with 50-60 litres of water on her head on the way back—that’s already 30km a day. Now Kavita’s mother used to do this, her grandmother used to do this…then, you know, is it too much to say that there is some kind of hereditary strength at work here?"

Singh, a Sports Authority of India (SAI) coach, has been stationed in Nashik since 1991. SAI does not run a training centre in the city, but has an understanding with a local school—the Bhonsala Military School—which allows Singh and his trainees to use their grounds, gym and canteen. The school also gives admission and hostel rooms to select trainees. Within a few years of coaching young athletes in a variety of track and field disciplines and scouting for talent at village meets, Singh was convinced that there was something about the people in the region that made them better at middle-distance running than any other discipline. Despite stiff opposition, Singh shifted his focus to middle-distance events—800m, 1,500m, 3,000m, 5,000m and 10,000m. He produced some national champions, and word spread in the city and the surrounding villages. Raut was one of his earliest trainees, and in 2010, when she won her Commonwealth medal (a month later, she also won a silver and a bronze at the Asian Games), Singh’s popularity soared.

Kavita Raut, one of the best track athletes in India, training in Nashik.

She went back to her village; her parents wanted her to focus on her class X exams. In 2002, after Raut had finished her exams, Singh approached them again. This time, Raut’s parents agreed, but there was a problem—they could not afford her schooling and living expenses if she moved away from home. Singh arranged for her to be admitted to the Bhonsala school on a scholarship, and gave her a room in his own house.

“I lived with his family like I was a part of it," Raut says. “I never looked back."

The year she won the CWG and Asian Games medals, Raut decided to help Singh.

“After my win, when I came back to Nashik, I felt very strongly that there are so many people in this area with the same kind of talent, the same kind of life as me," Raut says. “But they have nowhere to go. I found shelter with Singh sir, but how many can he keep?"

Vijender Singh’s trainees at the Bhonsala Military School grounds.

News of the programme reached Maneesh Bahuguna, CEO of the New Delhi-based Anglian Medal Hunt Company (AMHC), which invests in athletes in Olympic sports in return for the rights to manage their endorsements and branding. In 2013, at a time when the AMHC only had proven elite athletes like the former World No.1 double trap shooter Ronjan Sodhi, or the Olympian boxer Shiva Thapa on its roster, Bahuguna was so impressed by the programme that he signed up four girls (including Thamke, Deore and Jadhav) and one boy on the spot.

“It is a big leap for us because they are all starting out, so obviously we cannot expect any commercial returns for at least five years," Bahuguna says. “But something told me that these kids are special. I said, let’s trust our instinct, let’s take a chance here."

You need access to infrastructure, you need a culture of that sport, you need a large number of people to be interested in that sport

Since 1960, Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world and with little sporting infrastructure to speak of, has won 44 Olympic medals in races 3,000m or longer. Most of these medals came in the last 15 years. India has never won a track medal at the Olympics, and its athletes hardly ever qualify for the race finals.

Thamke’s house is a crumbling mud hut propped up by a haphazard array of bamboo poles driven into the ground. It’s roof is part thatch, part asbestos, part plastic sheets—all of it scavenged. The roof is so low that it is not possible to stand up straight inside the hut. Thamke has filled the inside walls with simple charcoal drawings. The hut is surrounded by undulating country—golden grass over hilly areas, orange orchards and vineyards in the distance.

“I used to run from here, and through that path, over that hill, to go to school," says Thamke, pointing out a hilly route.

“We are talking about a history shaped by environment," Bahuguna says. “We are looking at a region which has hundreds of years of endurance and physical hardship. This may predispose people living in the area to a certain kind of sports. And then in rural societies, women traditionally do all the labour, so now even in gender there may be a predisposition. These two things lead me to believe that our first Olympic track medal will be won by a woman in middle-distance running."

That genes and their interaction with the environment may play a critical role in shaping athletes is an idea that is slowly being backed by scientific research. In his book The Sports Gene, author David Epstein offers an evolutionary explanation for Kenyan and Ethiopian dominance in distance running. The champion runners are not even spread across these two countries—they come from a geographic sliver, the Great Rift Valley, that runs through both countries. Their ethnic composition can be narrowed down further—almost all these runners, Epstein writes, come from the Kalenjin tribe or subgroups of the tribe. They all tend to have long, thin limbs that cool down easily in the hot, dry climate. They have slender calves and thin ankles that aid greatly in running efficiency, and they produce more red blood cells, using oxygen more efficiently.

Basing his conclusions on the work of University of Glasgow biologist Yannis Pitsiladis, one of the world’s leading specialists in this area of research, Epstein writes: “…international-level runners from Kenya are most often of the Kalenjin tribe, most often from poor, rural areas, and very likely to have had to run to school growing up."

Though they play a critical part in making an elite athlete, genes alone can’t do it. Over the last seven Olympic men’s 100m races, for example, all 56 finalists have been of West African descent (though they came from different countries—Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, the US, Canada, etc). But no one who actually grew up or trained in a western African country is on that list.

“You need access to infrastructure, you need a culture of that sport, you need a large number of people to be interested in that sport and to want to make a career out of it," Raut says. “Otherwise, it’s just like us, we have a huge population, and very few Olympic athletes."

It is this that Raut and Singh want to change, in a small way, by giving more access and building the popularity of their sport in their area.

Jiji Thomson, SAI director general from March 2013 till 2 January, also believes that distance running is India’s best chance at an Olympic track medal. During his tenure, he set up the Elite Distance Running Programme (EDRP) at SAI’s Bhopal centre to put the focus on these events. Procam Running, a sports management company that organizes the three best-known running events in India—the Mumbai Marathon, the Delhi Half Marathon and the Bangalore World 10K—came on board as a partner. It brought in Global Sports Communication (GSC), an international sports management company that represents some of the most successful distance runners in the world, including the Ethiopians Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie, who have five Olympic golds between them, and the Kenyan Florence Kiplagat, holder of the world record in half marathon. GCS and Procam appointed Hugo van den Broek, an elite runner-turned-coach from the Netherlands, as head of the centre. Broek and his long-time partner, Hilda Kibet, a Dutch Olympian of Kenyan origin, run training programmes in Iten, Kenya, the Rift Valley town where Kenya’s champion runners train. The EDRP began on 8 December, with 15 trainees ranging in age from 15-20 years.

Hugo van den Broek at a training session in Bhopal.

This focus on distance running is also based on the recent history of track performances in the country. Indian athletes are much closer to Olympic qualification times in distance running. Raut’s best timing in 10,000m, 32.41.31, meets the Olympic qualification mark. Along with Raut, the most successful track athletes in the last decade have been Tintu Luka (800m, silver at the 2014 Asian Games), Preeja Sreedharan (10,000m gold, 5,000m silver at the 2010 Asian Games) and O.P. Jaisha (1,500m bronze at the 2014 Asian Games). In comparison, India’s national record time for men’s 100m is 10.30 seconds, outside the top 2,500 timings globally (Kenya has an equally poor 100m best, 10.26 seconds).

To bolster the distance runners, the EDRP will be sending six of its most promising athletes to Kenya and Europe for training and competitions.

“We have a group who has strength, endurance and good mental attitude," Broek says. “But we also need to keep scouting. The more you scout, the better it is. I suggested to SAI and Procam to scout in high-altitude areas, areas where children are running to school, areas where people have long and thin legs."

The AMHC too is looking at Kenya, and plans have been made, Bahuguna says, to send young athletes with them to the High Altitude Training Centre in Iten run by Kenyan-origin Dutch Olympian Lornah Kiplagat. The groundwork to send four athletes to a US university on National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) scholarships, including Jadhav, is under way too.

“What is more romantic than a track medal at the Olympics?" asks Bahuguna. “Just think of Usain Bolt, Mo Farah or Florence Joyner. A track medal is the ultimate dream."

At 5.30am, it is pitch dark in Nashik. A truck takes a turn on a hilly road inside a residential area and its headlights pick out coach Singh, dressed in white tracks and jacket, with a cluster of stopwatches and whistles hanging from his neck. He flags the truck down—“There are 20 little children running up this road, so go very slowly, and stick to one side." The driver nods.

As the truck rolls down a few metres, its headlights shine on Singh’s protégés—running up the asphalt in pairs, long legs striding effortlessly up the slope. 2015 is a critical year for them; starting May, there are the World School Championships, the World Youth Championships, Youth CWG, and the Asian Youth Games. Singh has his hands full.

“Look at them," Singh says, with an eye on a stopwatch, “they are built for this."