As he walked off the track after winning the men’s 5,000m race at the Federation Cup on Saturday morning, Kheta Ram was mobbed by onlookers at NIS Patiala. While it’s not unusual for fellow athletes to cheer their colleagues, a number of Indian coaches too walked up to offer their congratulations — not just to Ram but also to his coach Surendra Singh, who joined his ward soon after the finish.
The celebrations were not simply because of the fact that Ram had won the race with a time of 13:49:17 seconds, eclipsing the previous meet record of 13:52:64s set by his coach Surendra Singh himself seven years ago. Nor were the cheers from the coaches solely due to the fact that the time was nearly five seconds inside the minimum qualification standard (13:54:11) set by the Athletics Federation of India for the Asian Games.
The cheers indeed was as much for them as for Ram and Singh. Only two months ago, on the sidelines of the Inter State National Championships in Lucknow, they had been dismissed as having “zero knowledge” and “of school and college level” by AFI president Adille Sumariwalla. “They are not of the level to produce international-level sportsmen.
If we want medals in the Asian or Commonwealth Games, it would not be possible without foreign coaches,” Sumariwalla had been quoted as saying.
In Lucknow, at least in the long distance events, Sumariwalla had been proved correct, as the athletes coached by Bulgarian coach Nikolai Snesarev had won the 5,000m and 10,000m events in both the men’s and women’s categories.
Ram had finished a lowly 7th in the 5,000m. He had taken the early lead with a blistering second kilometre, but that initial effort meant he was out of energy and gave up a 60m lead at the finish.
“It was very disappointing to read something like that. But you can’t complain. You have to work and prove your point. Before the tournament we were very determined. We had a point to prove,” says coach Singh, who had himself trained under Snesarev before he retired after suffering shin fractures on both legs in 2009.
The point was well proved on Saturday morning. This time the Bulgarian’s athletes — Suresh Kumar and Inderjeet Singh (who won gold in Lucknow) — finished behind those of the Indian coach who serves as a subedar in the Army.
Kumar, who finished with 13:53.58s, led for most of the race but was run down over the final lap by Ram who had bided his time before unleashing a 2 min 40 sec final kilometre. Inderjeet Patel only finished fourth behind Laxmanan — who like Ram is another army athlete trained by coach Singh at the national camp in SAI, Bangalore.
“This was a very important win for us,” admits Ram. According to him, after the Inter State Championships in June the national campers under coach Singh had been denied a request to train at the high-altitude centre in Ooty even though Snesarev had been training with his athletes at the centre for several months.
“When we asked the authorities if we could train in the high-altitude centre we were asked what have we achieved that we should get that facility. At that point of time, we couldn’t really say anything,” says Ram.
‘Job still far from over’
Even though his athletes have made a statement on the track on Saturday, Singh admits that the job is still far from done. He expects Ram to match his feat in the 5,000m in the 10,000m event on Tuesday and beyond that, there is still the Asian Games next month. Even with his improved timings, Ram is still nearly 15 seconds behind the eighth fastest competitor from Asia.
“It will not be easy for us at the Asian Games. Over there you have a lot of athletes who are representing the Arab countries who are from Kenya. But at the same time there are plenty of advantages.
You are competing in a closed stadium where there is little wind. You have a lot of motivation because there is a large crowd, and you have the advantage of a strong pace that is set from the start. So, while I can’t say whether he will win a medal or not, I think he can finish with timing of around 13:35:00s,” says Singh.
While his male athletes may have faltered, Snesarev still managed a 1-2 finish in the women’s category. But while OP Jaisha defended her 5,000m title clocking a noteworthy 15:54.21s, and national record-holder Preeja Sreedharan (Kerala) finished second with 16:23.07s both were way off the minimum qualification standard of 15:54:09s set by the AFI.