Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Ashwini Akkunji | The lonely road to a comeback

When the evening training session is over and the heat of the day has eased, Ashwini Akkunji walks around the sprawling campus of Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports (NIS), Patiala. The former palace grounds of Patiala’s royal family is actually a mango orchard; the trees are heavy with the fruit, and Akkunji is looking for ripe ones that have fallen to the ground. She picks one up. It’s the size of a golf ball. “It will be sweet though," she says. Then she heads back to her hostel room, stopping to buy milk from the grocery store outside. She has eight cats to feed, and a couple of dogs, both new mothers.

“Cats and dogs make me happy," she says. “They are my life here. My warden is always shouting at me. But I love them."

She would rather be with them than with people. Or dancing on her own in her room; a childhood habit. “People, I have learnt to avoid," Akkunji says, and laughs.

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Akkunji after winning gold at the 2010 Asian Games in China. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

“How things changed!" Akkunji says. “We were treated like... I used to always think, why do people kick out or throw stones at animals? I understand now."

Akkunji and the others were handed two-year bans. They were asked to vacate their hostel rooms in Patiala immediately. The night the ban was announced, there was a long power cut. What Akkunji remembers most from that evening is their then coach, Yuri Ogorodnik, sitting helplessly hunched over his laptop in his room, lit only by the feeble light of the screen. The Ukrainian coach, who had been working with the Indian sprinters since 1999 and had built the 4x400 team into one of the best units in Asia, had taken the blame. Ogorodnik’s version, backed by the athletes, is that they had run out of supplements provided by the Sports Authority of India (SAI), and Ogorodnik had told the girls which vitamin supplements to buy.

“These are the same supplements the girls have been taking for the last one year and they have not tested positive. Maybe this batch they bought was not genuine, but it’s not the girls’ fault," Ogorodnik had said then. He was fired.

“The only real coach I’ve had in my whole life," Akkunji says. “He was fantastic, but he had to go. That was the saddest thing for me."

The first few days after the ban were confusing and tumultuous. Fighting depression and tears, the athletes went around filing pleas, getting in touch with lawyers, and searching for a place to stay. They were being bombarded by phone calls—sports administrators and the media—and many of the calls were plain vicious.

“Dope cheat, dope cheat, dope cheat—that was what we heard all the time," Akkunji says. “Everyone forgot that we had been tested before and after the CWG and Asian Games, and nothing was found. We were still gold-medal winners, none of our medals had been taken. But no one supported us, no one offered help."

Dope cheat: an ugly and unforgiving phrase that hides all that is messy and difficult under the label. “Do you think doping can be done just by an athlete on his or her own?" asks P.S.M. Chandran, president of the Indian Federation of Sports Medicine, who worked as the director of sports medicine at SAI for 27 years. “What to take and in what dosage can only be calculated by doctors with the help of coaches. It’s always a team effort."

Many athletes say that the supplements provided by SAI are of poor quality anyway, and athletes who can afford it buy theirs from outside.

“If we had to rely on the food and supplements SAI gives us, we would be so unfit that we wouldn’t even qualify for any competitions at the Asian level," says wrestler Sushil Kumar, a double Olympic medallist. “So, yes, we buy our own supplements, get them checked by our own doctors."

But what was done was done. How to move forward? The 400m quartet rented an apartment near NIS, and decided that the best way not to get sucked into depression was to go back into training. Easier said than done. SAI refused them entry into the Patiala campus. They went to run in parks, but the grounds were too uneven for proper sprinting. Worse was the crowd of men that would gather to stare at them. “Like they have never seen a girl in sportswear," Akkunji says. “They would harass us, call out to us, whistle."

They tried shifting to the SAI centre in Sonepat, near New Delhi, but were denied entry.

Akkunji moved to the Capital, renting a small terrace room. She went to Lodi Gardens to run—“because it was safe". It was here, living alone, that she began to realize how cocooned her life has been.

“We spend our whole lives in prison," she says. “Especially if you are a girl. When we go to these training centres, we are kept under close watch all the time, we cannot leave the premises. We eat at the canteen, do what our coaches tell us. We learn nothing about life, we barely study. They make us ignorant. That’s the life I’ve known ever since I was 12. I was unprepared for normal life."

But if there was one thing being an athlete had taught her, it was to be tough, to endure.

“Oh yes," Akkunji says. “Who supported us before we won medals at the CWG? We came from small villages, did everything on our own, struggled most of our lives without coaches, proper food, or good training facilities. That had made me strong already."

Through everything, Akkunji kept reminding herself why she loved running in the first place. She thought of her home, the calm beauty of the small areca-nut and pepper fields where she grew up; the sinuous lanes through flooded paddy plantations where she used to race past buffaloes. Her village, over 100km from Mangalore, was the one place where she could be happy. But she could not train there, and she wasn’t about to give up on running. So Akkunji stuck it out. Running in Lodi Gardens, planning a comeback, biding her time.

On 3 July last year, when the ban on her was lifted, she returned to Patiala and started proper training. Two weeks later, she ran at a selection trial there, finishing second. She was back in the team. Within a year, she had got much of her pace and rhythm back, qualifying for the 4x400m team for the 2014 CWG.

“Winning at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi...what a time that was," Akkunji says. “I had never experienced anything like that. That kind of happiness, excitement, it will never leave me. I think that’s what made me run so well at the Asian Games."

For now, she has not set herself any targets for Glasgow. She has been out of training for too long. Before the 2010 CWG, the sprint team had spent a whole year training together, competed in 11 tournaments in India and abroad, and had been on a tailor-made diet for the first time in their lives. This time none of that has happened: no competitions, no foreign training, no focus on nutrition.

“Sometimes, I think, why are we dying trapped here like this? For what? Nobody cares, no one bothers. We still go on," she says. “The only reason...I think I can do something with my talent, I want to find out what I can do, what I have left in me."

In the growing darkness outside her hostel room, with its high walls and concertina wires, the dogs come up to her playfully, wagging their tails.

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