Bahadur Prasad was unwinding on a lazy Saturday afternoon at the railway’s golf course in Varanasi when he received a WhatsApp message that brought back memories of a race he ran 23 years back. The message contained a screenshot of Jinson Johnson’s timing in the 1,500m finals at Gold Coast. It didn’t take long for him to realise that his 1995 record of 3:38.00s was finally broken.
“I wasn’t surprised at all. I knew Johnson was going to break my record at the very next competition after his brilliant run at the Federation Cup in Patiala. I am happy that finally my someone has replaced me on the record list. I have been waiting for this day for ages now,” says Prasad, who now works for the Indian railways and is posted in Varanasi. In 1995, Prasad had bettered his own national record at South Asian Games for the third time. Interestingly, when he first entered the record books in 1989, it also came after a 23-year gap. He had rewritten Mumbai runner Edward Sequeira’s mark.
It took a special effort from 27-year-old army man Jinson Johnson to break a record which he has been eyeing ever since making his foray into athletics. The Kozhikode-born athlete ran his heart out to clock 3:37.86s in the finals. In the process, he finished fifth in a field that included the 2017 World Championship gold and silver medallists.
He had earlier finished second in his heats with 3:47.04s on the clock to reach the finals. A medal was always a far-fetched dream in a field that had Kenyan powerhouses such as Elijah Manangoi (3:34.78s) and Timothy Cheruiyot (3:35.17s), who took the first two spots respectively. But Johnson can take solace from the fact that he could give his personal best and rewrite a 23-year-old record. Like Prasad, Johnson’s former coach Mohammed Kunhi wasn’t surprised to see Johnson rewrite the mark. “The record was long-coming. I always knew that if there was anyone who could surpass Prasad’s record, it was Jinson. I spoke to him the night before his race and I advised him to run full out from the very first lap. The idea was to improve his personal best. Seeing him break the record makes me proud and happy,” says Kunhi who guided Johnson from 2012 to 2017.
Johnson began athletics when he was just 11. He took part in various inter-school events, where local coaches were left astounded by his natural speed and stamina. After completing his graduation from Baselius College in Kottayam, he joined armed forces in 2009 and has represented India in several competitions including the Rio Games where he was the first from the country to qualify for the 800m event since 1984.
Unlike Johson, Prasad entered sports directly into the senior category. The first competitive race he took part was when he was 20. “Mein toh athlete bhi nahi tha. I tried sports after joining the police and someone told me I have the potential to become a middle distance runner and so I just gave it a shot,” says Arjuna Awardee.
Prasad says he’s a bit surprised and saddened that runners, despite getting far better facilities left his record intact for such a long time.
“During my days we did not even have a regular camp. The federation really didn’t care about us and we had to manage with whatever resources we had had, unlike now. In all countries, the national records keep changing all the time. It’s only in India that so many records are lying undisturbed,” Prasad says. He believes running technique is an overrated concept when it comes to middle distance running.
“Although I haven’t seen him run live, I have observed his races on television. I think he’s got a lot of speed and that’s what makes his better than the other Indians,” feels Prasad. Coach Kunhi echoes Prasad’s views before showering praises on his wards dedication to his art. Johnson’s favourite event has always been the 800m but at Kunhi’s insistence he tried his hands at 1,500. “In the Federation Cup in 2015, I observed how consistent his timing was in all the three laps. Since then, each time I meet him, I ask him to focus more on 1,500,” says Kunhi.
Prasad believes there is still scope for improvement and Johnson should try to improve his record. Any advice for Johnson? “Mein advice nahi, basbadhai de sakta hun,” he adds.