India is fielding more walkers than ever before at major events, including the world race walking cups and the world athletics championships. Since the sport attracted a snatch of attention when Harminder Singh won the bronze in the 20-kilometre event at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi nearly four years ago, a domino effect has resulted in swelling of numbers at national camps. Harminder can take credit for triggering interest in a sport living off the glory days of Chand Ram’s gold at the Delhi Asiad.
But underlying reason for an unprecedented 10 walkers qualifying for the IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Taicang, China, is the fierce competition between three camps held simultaneously but under three coaches, including a Russian. Glance at the men’s 20km squad — the hotbed of the rivalry — selected for the Taicang event. National record holder KT Irfan trains under Gurdev Singh. Gurmeet Singh, increasingly pushing Irfan, is coached by R Gandhi.
In their latest skirmish in Taicang, Irfan finished 26th and Gurmeet was just a place behind. Both have consistently clocked sub 1 hour and 22 minute timings and their respective coaches believe it is only a matter of time before they shave off another two minutes to become medal prospects. There is no love lost between these two Indian coaches and the foreign coach — Alexander Artsybashev, the Russian. Artsybashev handles the biggest pool, including rising woman star Kushbir Kaur, who broke her own national record in China. Devender Singh, K Ganapathy, currently just paces off Irfan and Gurmeet, are tutored by Artsybashev.
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While Gandhi claims to have introduced speed training, Gurdev is an revered old-school coach. Artsybashev hails from the foothills of the Ural mountains but his methods are modern. In trying to outdo each other, these coaches have collectively ensured that Indian walkers take rapid strides.
(Nihal is senior assistant editor based in New Delhi)