The results of the men’s 20 kilometre race walk at the 17th Federation Cup athletics championships reflected the strides made in the sport. Eleven walkers finished sub one hour and twenty-eight minutes. The timing is significant because until a couple of seasons ago,1:28.00 was good enough for a podium finish at a national meet.
An unprecedented nine Indian walkers have achieved qualification standards for the Moscow World Championships in August. Of these,the A standard has been achieved by three men in the 20k and by one in the 50k.
Kolothum Thodi Irfan,the current national record holder who finished 10th at the London Games,is just 22 while Khusbhir Kaur,18,has achieved the B standard for the worlds.
Four years ago,when Babubhai Panucha became the first Indian walker to qualify for the World Championships in Berlin,the Athletics Federation of India took note of the country’s potential in a sport that didn’t require bursts of speed but relied on endurance and technique.
India has taken a cue from China’s success in walking. The Chinese started focussing on the sport in the 80s around the time Chand Ram won gold in the 20k at the Delhi Asiad. The latest star to emerge from China is 20-year-old Chen Ding,the first male Chinese walker to win gold at the Games in London. Four years ago China turned to legendary Italian walking coach Sandro Damilano to help perfect their walkers’ techniques (loss of contact of feet simultaneously and knee-bends are fouls) after a collective dip in form.
India have put faith in coach Alexander Artsybashev from Russia,a country with a race-walking tradition. India’s race walkers come from the smaller towns and villages and all of them walk a lot from their early years. Their wiry physique and stamina make them ideal walkers, says Artsybashev. Irfan’s natural ability in walking can be traced to the four-kilometre walk to his village,Kuniyil in Malappuram,from the nearest bus stop.
Former national record holder and currently India’s coach Gurdev Singh recalls that in the late 90s and the early 2000s the walkers’ camp consisted of just three to four walkers. Now we have a pool of 50 walkers and the number is growing.
Nihal is the deputy sports editor based in New Delhi.