Central Delhi’s Nehru Park, known as the hub for recreational runners, has of late been host to a bunch of junior track athletes, some of whom have even represented India. These trainees have had to resort to this venue as the Capital’s stadiums, which reopened a few weeks ago, offer only short stints for practice.
“We athletes have a very high-calorie intake and once you stop training, you put on weight very quickly. During the initial lockdown, we sat at home and it was very tough. But now we can come to this park and at least maintain our fitness. I do my warm-ups in the grassy area and then take rounds of the jogging path. We are fortunate to have access to such a park,” says Harendra Kumar, 2019 Youth 1500m national champion.
There are four coaches who train close to 50 students at the park now. Other youngsters are staying home due to the fear of the virus or have gone back home to their native villages, mainly in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
Coach Dinesh Rawat has been training his wards at the park for the last couple of months. The Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, where he coached regularly, has allotted two time slots of 45 minutes each, which according to Rawat is as good as not holding training at all.
“You can’t fast-forward the training regimen and sitting home isn’t a choice most of us have. For a young athlete, a month’s training missed is like going back a year. They have to be active,” explains coach Vipin Kumar, who was also forced to switch from the Nehru Stadium to Nehru Park to train his wards.
Training at Nehru Park is conducted in two slots and is mainly focused on endurance. “It’s a blessing in disguise. The park has ample hills which we make use of for our strength and conditioning programme. The lawns are well maintained and have a lot of grass which ensures the impact of training doesn’t cause any injuries,” says Rawat.
There are limitations, of course. “Asking athletes to train without a synthetic track is like telling swimmers to train without a pool,” says Vipin who is also a full-time coach at the Gargi College in South Delhi.
Then there’s the transportation problem. Most kids come from the outskirts of the city and can’t afford private transportation. The biggest challenge, however, is to keep the athletes motivated as there is no tournament to target at the moment. Rawat, who at JLN would monitor kids from the stands, has now taken a more active role. He turns up every day wearing his running gear and trains with his wards. “It is just a way of encouraging them. Two months of training has resulted in a four-pack. I’m not far from six,” he says.
However, there was a time when Nehru Park used to regularly serve as the training venue for some of the best athletes in the country. Legendary middle-distance runner Sriram Singh, who held the 800m national record for over four decades, trained at Nehru Park from the early 1970s to 1980s. The now-retired armyman competed in an era when the country did not have any synthetic tracks. India got its first track set-up for the 1982 Asian Games.
“I was with the Rajputana Rifles and our base wasn’t far from the park. It was perfect for my training because there were hilly areas, flat surfaces, good grass cover, and a long-running track. I have trained here for several competitions including the 1976 Montreal Olympics,” he recalls. Singh’s performance in Montreal is considered the highlight of his career as he set the national mark of 1:45.77s which stood for 42 years before Jinson Johnson rewrote it in 2018.
“When we had camped for the preparation of the 2000 Sydney Olympics in Delhi, the Indian athletics team did its off-season and hill training at Nehru Park,” remembers coach Rawat who eventually didn’t make the cut for the final contingent.
“We used to train at the Nehru Stadium in the mornings and Nehru Park in the evenings. KM Binamol (two-time Asian Games gold medallist), Paramjeet Singh (who had broken Milkha Singh’s 38-year-old 400m national record in 1998), Anil Kumar (former 100m national record holder), Rachita Mistry (former 200m national record holder), and Sriram Singh were some of the leading athletes of that time who used to train here,” he adds.
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