A statistic from the men’s 20 kilometre event at the 3rd National Open Race Walking Championship serves as an indicator of the strides the sport has taken in the country. The top-seven walkers clocked a time within the qualifying mark set for the Rio Olympic Games. Add to this number the two women, Khushbir Kaur and Sapna Punia – both had qualified before Saturday’s event. Two others, Sandeep Kumar and Manish Rawat, have been fast enough to be eligible for both the 20k and the 50 kilometre event.
A country is allowed only three entries in each event (men and women 20k; men 50k), hence only the best nine can be on the flight to Rio. The competition among Indian walkers will now play out at the Asian Race Walking Championship to be held in Nomi, Japan, on March 20. Keen followers of the sport believe race walking in India has turned a corner. Pierce O’ Callaghan, an IAAF race walking judge, with the experience of officiating in 45 countries, said that India is one of the four countries with the potential to field nine walkers at the Rio Games. “I would put India alongside China, Spain and Italy (Russian walkers, following doping bans, are unlikely to be at Rio). Indian walkers have made significant improvement,” O’Callaghan, who was a judge at the Jaipur event, said.
O’Callaghan is not off the mark
The country didn’t field a walker at the Beijing Olympics, though Babu Bhai Panocha had qualified. Four men walkers, including one in the 50k participated in London four years ago. It was in London where KT Irfan set the national record of 1:20.21. And though it has not been bettered yet, the sport has not stagnated.
A year after London, nine walkers had fulfilled qualifying norms for the World Championships in Moscow.
Entry standards since the last edition of the Olympic Games have been revised to a unified mark – between the tougher ‘A’ standard and the ‘B’ standard across disciplines. For example, the qualifying mark men have to achieve in the 20 kilometre event is now 1:24.00 whereas for London the ‘A’ standard stood at 1:22.30 and the ‘B’ was fixed at 1:24.30. Indian walkers, however, are not taking an easy route to Rio. Five walkers in the men 20K and two in the 50K have qualified for the Rio Olympics with timings better than the tougher ‘A’ standard set for the London Games.
National coach R Gandhi talks about the advancement he has witnessed.
“Till four to five years ago, 1:25.00 was considered an excellent timing in India. A walker who was this fast was guaranteed a medal at the national level. Now there are half a dozen walkers in the country who can go sub 1:23.00. The Rio Olympics qualifying standard is 1:24.00. It shows the improvement walkers are making. Moreover, many walkers believe they can qualify for the Olympics. There has been a change in mindset,” Gandhi said.
There are other factors which have led to an upswing in the sport. Between 2010 and 2012, the national record in the 20 kilometre was broken four times. It progressed from Panocha, to Gurmeet Singh to Irfan. “When the national record is broken frequently it generates interest in the sport,” Gandhi said.
Walking also received a boost when Harminder Singh won a bronze in the 20K at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. It was the first major medal after Chand Ram’s gold at the 1982 Asiad at the national capital.Since then Indians, including Gurmeet Singh, Baljinder Singh and Khushbir Kaur have won medals at the Asian Race Walking Championships. Khushbir also won a silver at the Incheon Asian Games of 2014. With idols to look upto, younger walkers are prepared to stay on course rather than drop-out.
Participants at the 3rd National Open Race Walking, in its third edition, have increased,” Athletics Federation of India’s chairman (technical committee) Tony Daniel said. “In this edition we have over 100 entries, the highest so far. It is because of the increased interest in walking that the AFI has started a separate competition, similar to what is conducted at the Asian and world level, apart from those clubbed with national athletics meets,” Daniel said.
India’s Russian-born coach Alexander Artsybashev believes that Indian walkers have reached a stage where they can consistently win medals at the Asian level, where China is a force. However, at the Olympic Games, Artsybashev is realistic about predictions. “A top-10 finish in the three race walk events is achievable in Rio,” Artsybashev said.
The Russian lists certain advantages Indians have in the event which does not even require stadium facilities to begin training. “The slim but wiry body type in India is advantageous for race walking. Moreover, anyone can walk and train on a road. You don’t even need shoes to start. Of course it is a technical sport but once you pick up the skill set required, improvement can be quick, provided it is backed by a strong work ethic and the correct inputs from a qualified coach,” Artsybashev said.
He also throws light on the background of the walkers. “In India it is a rural sport rather than an urban one. If you look at the background of the best walkers in India all of them are from smaller towns or villages. It helps that they are hardy and ready to work hard.” Khushbir is a walker who has made the sport popular back home – Rasulpur Kalan village near Amritsar.
“Girls have started taking up the sport in my village after I won silver at the Asian Games. Earlier at the national camp there was only me, now there are four girls,” Khushbir said.
Panucha, now 38 and one of the faces of Indian walking, narrates an anecdote which highlights the changing perception. “I used to tell people in my village (Ambava village, Malpur) in Gujarat that I was a sprinter. This was because nobody understood why there was a competition for walking. Nowadays, I think they accept what I do.”