Dharambir Singh points to the speckless white training shoes he is sporting during a warm-up session at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. “You should have seen my feet a few days ago. They were caked with mud. I was digging furrows to plant wheat. Don’t go by what you see me wearing right now. Hum kisan hai. Rozi roti ke liye gehu ki kheti karna padta hai,” Dharambir says adding the shoes were a gift from his coach Ramesh Sindhu.
The shoes were given in appreciation of Dharambir’s recent feat at the Asian Athletics Championships in Wuhan, where he broke the 15-year-old national record in the men’s 200 metres. Dharambir was in second place going into the final stretch and in a photo-finish won a bronze with a timing of 20.66 to break Anil Kumar’s (20.73) record.
On return from Wuhan, Dharambir quietly travelled back to Rohtak to help his father Shardhanand sow wheat. Three months ago, unseasonal rains and hailstorms damaged crops in Haryana, including the wheat on the small patch of land which Dharambir’s family owns. “We were banking on the money from selling wheat to fund my training. But the crop got damaged. I was hoping to sell wheat and earn about Rs 2 lakh, part of which I would use for my training and equipment needs. Since March it has been a hand-to-mouth existence for my family,” Dharambir says.
The 25-year-old, till last week, was sowing seeds with the hope that the harvest would bear fruit a few months down the line. “I need about Rs 40,000 a month for my training expenses, which includes dietary requirements. If we don’t have a good harvest again I don’t know how I will make both ends meet. I have a dream of representing India at the Olympics, but my current financial situation requires me to put as much effort on the farm as I do in training.”
Dharambir talking up his chances of going to the Rio Games is not exactly a flight of fantasy. Since making a comeback at the Open Nationals in New Delhi in November, after missing a dope test, Dharambir has been making waves. His 21.06 at the Open Nationals was followed by 21.12 at the National Games in February, where he won gold in both the sprint events. He went even faster at the Federation Cup in Mangalore when he was timed at 20.87.
The qualifying standard for both the World Championships in Beijing in August and the Olympic Games in the 200 is 20.50. “My national record set in Wuhan is 20.66. It was raining in Wuhan but I managed to clock my personal best. I believe I can qualify for the 200 metres for the Rio Olympics but I need some support. I don’t want to beg and plead with officials for financial support for my training needs. But tell me doesn’t a national record holder who is improving consistently deserve better. I haven’t got a single paisa for the medals I have won.”
His recent performances have raised eyebrows given the ease at which he has returned to competition and won medals since November. “Those who are questioning my timings must also look at my records from two-three years ago. I had won a silver at the Open Nationals in Chennai in 2012 with a timing of 21.00. At the Delhi CWG, I had clocked 21.20. I have been performing consistently over the years but I have not got any appreciation for my performances.”
The sprinter had started off as a kabaddi player at a government school in Rohtak before shifting to high jump on the advice of his coach. “I was part of the 4×400 metre relay team at the junior level before focussing on the 100 and 200. I am happy with what I have achieved. I have a national record in my name. I know I have the potential to run faster. But if my family needs me back home to work on the farm then I may have to give up athletics. At the end of the day no son wants his old parents to go to sleep worrying about money.”
For athletes, plenty at stake
* The 55th National Inter-state Championships will be held from July 10 to 13 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai. The meet is the selection trial for the World Athletics Championships to be held in Beijing in August.
* However, unlike selection for the Asian Grand Prix Series or the Asian Athletics Championships — for which the selection committee had a say — athletes will have to meet IAAF prescribed entry standards to qualify for respective events.
* In all, over 20 Indian athletes have already met entry standards, including a dozen race walkers. Prominent among them are Tintu Luka (800), Inderjeet Singh (shot put), OP Jaisha (marathon, 5000) Lalita Babar (marathon, steeplechase), Sudha Singh (marathon), Vika Gowda (discus), KT Irfan (20km walk).
* Athletes also have the opportunity to meet entry standards for the Olympic Games, the qualifying period for which runs from May 1, 2015 to July 11, 2016. The deadline for qualifying for the World Championships is August 10, 2015.