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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  The long road to the Olympics
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The long road to the Olympics

India's first focused, long-term sporting project is looking to develop a bunch of young athletes into world-class runners over a 5- to 10-year period

Hugo van den Broek leading a trail run. Photographs by Mujeeb Faruqui/Hindustan TimesPremium
Hugo van den Broek leading a trail run. Photographs by Mujeeb Faruqui/Hindustan Times

Gavit Murali Kumar looked down at his feet, smiled sheepishly and ran his hand over his close-cropped hair. This was the stuff of dreams. He was saying a shy hello to Wilson Kipsang. Wilson Kipsang! Former world record holder in the marathon, winner of the 2014 New York Marathon, a running legend. All around Kumar were runners in neon-coloured training gear, mostly locals, but also some who had come from England, the Netherlands, Italy, France and the US.

This crisp August morning, he was to be part of a large training group being led by Kipsang. At a command given in Swahili, the group pushed off in a cloud of brick-coloured dust. For the next hour and a half, they ran a Fartlek session—3 minutes of fast running followed by a minute of easy jogging, no breaks. They went uphill, and downhill, past maize plantations and forested land, over high embankments and past grazing sheep, till they approached a motorable road with a red scaffolding arching over it saying, WELCOME TO ITEN HOME OF CHAMPIONS. There are few places on the planet that have better claim to that pithy tag line than Iten, a small town on an escarpment on Kenya’s Rift Valley, 8,000ft above sea level and the world’s foremost producer of elite distance runners. At the 2012 Olympics, each one of the 11 medallists from Kenya came from, or had trained in, Iten and its surrounding towns in the Rift Valley.

“Iten was a eye-opener," Kumar says. “Most of the time we were not even able to train with the men in Iten; we were training with the women, and even they were faster than us."

At a population of roughly 40,000, Iten has a ridiculously outsized proportion of world champion, Olympic champion and world-record-breaking runners. If it were a country, it would easily top the list of Olympic medals per capita. It could not be further removed from India, which is stuck firmly at the bottom of the real list of Olympic medals per capita.

Kumar, 18, was one of six Indian runners who spent a month training in Iten last year as part of an ambitious and unique sporting project called the Elite Distance Running Program, or EDRP. When he went to Iten, he had been running for barely two years and had been in formal training for less than a year. Kumar comes from an Adivasi village in Saputara, a hilly, forested area in the Western Ghats in Gujarat. He started running because he wanted to join the armed forces after school, a tradition in that area, Kumar says.

“I used to run on the road, and the coach at the district sports centre would pass by in his car and see me every day," Kumar says. “One day he stopped and said to me, you should train as an athlete. Come and meet me if you want to."

Within a few days, Kumar packed his bags and took the leap.

“He trained me for two-three months, and then he told me about this trial that’s going on for a new programme and sent me for it." These trials, to scout for talented athletes for the EDRP, were held in seven Sports Authority of India (SAI) centres around the country. The winners were then told to run a time-trial during the Delhi Half Marathon in November 2014. Forty-five athletes made it through that and were sent for a month’s trial to Bhopal, where SAI had opened the third of a series of proposed sport-specific academies, this one dedicated to distance running. At the end of that month, 15 athletes, including Kumar, were selected for the EDRP (every year, a few new athletes will be added to the roster).

The EDRP is unique in two ways: First, it is the only sports project in India which has a long-term goal—it aims to keep this group together (subject to regular checks on whether the athletes are maintaining or improving their standards) for 5-10 years, till they mature into international runners, under the same coach. Second, the programme is being jointly funded and run by SAI, Procam International, India’s most prolific race-organizing company (it also organizes the Mumbai Marathon and Delhi Half Marathon) and Global Sports Communication (GSC), a sports management company that boasts of some of the world’s finest distance runners, including Kenenisa Bekele, who holds the world record for both the 5,000m and 10,000m races for men.

Vivek Singh, joint managing director and founder of Procam, gives a simple break-up of the partnership: “GSC pays part of the head coach’s salary and for foreign training stints like the one in Kenya, SAI hosts them in Bhopal, and the rest (participation in races both in India and abroad, and gear) is on us."

*****

On a comfortably warm morning in February, Hugo van den Broek, the Dutch head coach of the EDRP, a soft-spoken, slight man, leads his group of athletes through training, preceded only by the resident stray who joins the group for all its trail runs. Till very recently, Broek, 39, was an active marathon runner, and you can see that in his build from a mile away. When Broek first came to India to conduct the month-long trial in December 2014, his first impression, he says, was that there was plenty of talent. All he knew of Indian athletics before this was its dismal record at international competitions, and it was a relief for him to see that those results were not because of an innate lack in ability.

“The runners were smooth, efficient," Broek says, sitting on a sunny patch of lawn behind his spartan quarters at the SAI centre in Bhopal. “If I have 5-10 years, they have the talent, and I have a plan. Together, we can make them into very good distance runners."

Broek should know talent when he sees it. He lives in Iten, and has worked as a coach for elite athletes there. His wife, Hilda Kibet, an Iten athlete who took Dutch citizenship, competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, and won the 2008 European Cross-Country Championships. Together, they run Kibet4Kids, a non-profit that builds rural schools and works on education and healthcare for children in Kenya.

Kibet’s great-aunt Lornah Kiplagat, an Olympian and the holder of multiple road-race records, runs the famed High Altitude Training Centre, or HATC, in Iten, where many of the world’s best distance runners train.

“If you tell me we want medals at the Olympics, well, that’s a hell of a job," Broek says. “Right now, you don’t even have people who qualify for 5K or 10K. To get an Olympic medal, it’s a very, very long gap, a very long way to go. But I’ve become more and more confident that five years from now, we will have a bunch of long-distance runners who will be able to compete with the top runners in the world."

In fact, Colm O’Connell, an Irish priest turned self-taught coach of Kenyan runner David Rudisha, who broke the 800m world record at the 2012 Olympics, uses no technology beyond a stopwatch. O’Connell started coaching in Iten in 1976 and has produced 25 world champions and five Olympic gold medallists so far, a statistic that makes him, arguably, the most successful running coach in history.

Priti Lamba, 18, was also part of the group of six who trained in Iten. Ropily muscled and fast-talking, Lamba says training in Iten gave her a new perspective.

“It’s an incredible place," she says. “You go out in the morning and all you can see everywhere are people running on the trails. You don’t know who is an Olympic champion and who is a local girl who’s just started training. They have no infrastructure there, no money, but they keep producing champions. It gave me great confidence."

Lamba comes from a village called Jawan, near Ballabgarh, in Haryana, and won a bronze in steeplechase at her debut senior national championship in 2015, after Broek made her switch from 1,500m to this event.

“I saw Priti doing her first-ever steeplechase at 10 minutes, 40 seconds," Broek says, “and I was like wow, that’s amazing for the very first race."

Priti Lamba (left), Gavit Murali Kumar (second from right) and Virendra Pal (extreme right)
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Priti Lamba (left), Gavit Murali Kumar (second from right) and Virendra Pal (extreme right)

“The first time I ran in a school competition, I was in class VIII and I won the race and got a chocolate," she says. “I was so happy. I thought, if I get a chocolate for winning a school race, what will they give me if I win a district race? New clothes? And what if I won at the state level?"

Her parents, she says, told her that if she was really serious about athletics, they would do whatever it took to give her the support she needed.

“If we have to sell our house, or our farm, we will do it, my father told me," Lamba says.

*****

Broek says he was pleasantly surprised to see the kind of infrastructure and support that is in place for athletes in India. “I am used to Kenya and the Netherlands," he says, “where you won’t find a place where hundreds of athletes are paid by the government to stay under one roof, and get training and food."

Yet, there is that gap. Broek has spent a lot of time thinking about it, to understand the major challenges he will have to overcome.

“Of course, one of the big reasons is that there’s just not enough people in the sport," Broek says. “Here, a very small part of the population runs. You just don’t have the talent pool, like the way you do with cricket."

Then there’s the infrastructure; even if there are things in place, they are often not what is required.

“When I first came here, I was shocked because all the long-distance runners told me that they are running on the track three-four times a week," Broek says, referring to the 800m synthetic Olympic-grade track. “I don’t know anyone in the world who does that. The usual is once a week, maybe even less than that. So people often end up in the wrong events because everyone is trapped on the track. In most SAI centres, you go outside and you are in the middle of traffic, so there are no trails to run on. So of course everyone is a middle-distance runner because they can only run on the track, and how many laps can you make of it before your brain just shuts down out of boredom?"

One of the first things Broek did is to clear a trail along the Bhopal SAI centre’s boundary wall. Now his focus is to match the athlete to the right discipline, and here, he says, everything he has seen so far tells him that Indian runners are better suited to long-distance than middle-distance races.

“In the marathon, it’s not all about who is the fastest in the last 400m," Broek says. “You are dealing with a lot of other strategies, lots of other factors, like the weather, that can help Indian runners. In the 5,000 and 10,000, the last lap (400m) is run at a very high speed—51 seconds or so for men, 59 for women. The best 400m runners in India struggle to make that time, let alone someone hitting that kind of speed after running 9.6km.

“When I see most runners here, I feel that they are not the kind of speed monsters that can win a middle-distance race at the world level," he adds. “Then if you want to compete on the world scene in 5 or 10, you have to make it to the Diamond League races (the annual calender of races organized by the International Association of Athletics Federations), and only very few people are invited there, and even there only the top three or so make any money from the competitions. Whereas in the marathon, there are so many big marathons all over the world, and in India. You can compete with the world’s best and make money as well."

As yet another training session comes to an end, Broek smiles as he watches one of his students, Virendra Pal, a toothy, lanky boy from Allahabad, who had no formal training before he joined the EDRP, do a time-trial around the track.

“The way I see him running now, I can just enjoy looking at him running at 19 kilometres per hour and it’s effortless," Broek says. “I see him and I think this guy will be running at this speed at a full marathon in a few years; I see how little energy it takes for him to hit that speed."

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Published: 04 Mar 2016, 09:00 PM IST
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