“Faster Than Usain Bolt? Karnataka Man Running With Buffaloes Covers 100 Metres in Just 9.55 Seconds. I urge the Athletics Association of India to take this man under their wing & make an Olympic champion of him. Wonder how many hidden talents we have,” Shashi Tharoor tweeted on Saturday morning.
Tharoor was referring to ‘kambala jockey’ Srinivasa Gowda, a 28-year-old from Karnataka who has become the latest Indian to get overnight stardom, with comparisons being made with Olympian Usain Bolt.
“I’ll call Karnataka’s Srinivasa Gowda for trials by top SAI Coaches,” Sports minister Kiren Rijiju tweeted soon after.
The reason for this jubilation was a buffalo race run by Gowda, a kambala jockey who has been in the profession for the last seven years, on February 1 in a village 30 km from Mangluru. On the day, he ran 142.5 metres in 13.62 seconds – which can be equated to completing 100 metres in 9.55 seconds – faster than the 100m world record held by Bolt.
Srinivasa Gowda (28) from Moodabidri in Dakshina Kannada district. Ran 142.5 meters in just 13.62 seconds at a “Kambala” or Buffalo race in a slushy paddy field. 100 meters in JUST 9.55 seconds. pic.twitter.com/mphRcbFRKi
— Omkar Shetty🇮🇳 (@omkar_shettyg) February 15, 2020
However, is this jubilation warranted? Is equating speeds in a race for buffaloes and speeds in a race for humans even logical? As noted sports journalist Barney Ronay quipped in reaction to Tharoor’s post: “And his buffaloes too, who must also be quicker than Bolt. Serious cluster of talent there.”
The many Usain Bolts of India
Last year, there were at least two major instances when Indian sports fans went on a sprint of fancy after reports from the field of athletics.
Something very similar to what is happening with Gowda played out in Madhya Pradesh. Rameshwar Gurjar, a farmer, enjoyed a period of very short-lived fame when a video of him ‘running a 100 metre lap in 11 seconds’ without any shoes on a dirt road went viral. He too had been called the ‘Usain Bolt of India’.
A trial race was arranged for Gurjar at the SAI centre in Bhopal, but he finished last with a disappointing timing. “He is exhausted due to the glare of publicity so couldn’t perform well. Will give proper time and training to him,” Rijiju tweeted after the race. Gurjar has not been heard of since.
EXPLAINED | Can a man run 100 metres in 9 seconds?
Before that, Hima Das – who raced into the nation’s hearts with a series of impressive performances in 2018 – was reported to have won ‘five gold medals in a month in Europe’ in 2019. Soon though, it emerged that the races won by Hima were won with timings which were way off her best and that her competitors had been mostly Indians even though the races had been held in Europe.
What is it about Indian athletics that makes fans go overboard with plaudits? Is it because stars in this field are so rare? Is it because the timings or distances shown on the scoreboard are much less attractive to the casual fan than the thrill of watching an athlete burst into a few seconds of high-intensity performance?
The need for (manufacturing) speed
Even as we discuss Gowda’s speed, there is a lot of chatter around his impressive physique and the tradition of kambala itself. “Just one look at his physique & you know this man is capable of extraordinary athletic feats,” tweeted industrialist Anand Mahindra.
His timing of ‘100 metres in 9.55 seconds’ is not being delved into much. It is just a qualifier so that Usain Bolt can be invoked.
Let alone the fact that hand timings – such as followed in traditional Indian sports like kambala – vary from electronic timings, Gowda’s speed of ‘100 metres in 9.55 seconds’ is most liktely due to the speed of his buffaloes.
Bolt’s speed during his record run was 27.8 mph. The Bolt-esque buffaloes Gowda was running with did not have their timings electronically recorded — this lack of specificity giving everyone the added license to go overboard. But buffaloes have been known to run at speeds of up to 35 mph. Buffaloes used in kambala races are usually trained around the year for these events and so it can be assumed that their speeds were not very far from that.
Gowda, who works as a construction worker in the kambala off-season, is himself ecstatic at the sudden attention on him and his sport but is more circumspect about the Bolt comparison. “People are comparing me to Usain Bolt. He is a world champion, I am only running in a slushy paddy field,” he told ANI. In fact, the star of the moment seems more grounded about his achievement.
“The credit of my success should also go to my two buffaloes. They ran very well. I chased them or drove them,” he told News18.