“Ronaldo ne jaise he goal score kia, main paida ho gaya. Toh main bhi ban gaya Ronaldo (Just as Ronaldo scored the goal, I was born. That’s how I also became Ronaldo)” Laitonjam Ronaldo Singh blushes as he concludes the tale behind his name with this charming punchline.
The story goes something like this: In the summer of 2002, when Ronaldo was bulldozing past defenders and knocking off goals for Brazil in the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, thousands miles away in Imphal, Laitonjam Romen Singh and Sundari Devi were expecting their first child.
An international water polo player who was now serving the CRPF, Romen was a die-hard Brazil fan and a true Ronaldo faithful. He had placed a couple of bets with a colleague — Brazil will win the Cup and Ronaldo will end up as the highest scorer.
On June 22, when Sundari Devi went into labour, Romen was posted in Srinagar, following the World Cup. “My father was watching the replay of a Brazil game and at the exact moment I was born, Ronaldo scored a goal. Same time,” Ronaldo laughs, and quickly adds a disclaimer, “That’s what my father told me!”
A week later, Brazil defeated Germany in the final, all thanks to Ronaldo’s brace. “He won `80,000 I think… my father said Ronaldo brought him luck and so he named me Ronaldo,” the 17-year-old says.
Surely not quite like the legend he’s named after, Ronaldo, but the young cyclist, too is seen as a “fenomeno” of sorts on the world junior circuit. Last week, India won its first-ever worlds gold – senior or junior, women or men – in cycling. And Ronaldo, partnering Rojit Singh Yanglem and Esow Alben, played a pivotal role. He rode one of the fastest anchor legs as he wiped off Australia’s 0.03 second advantage, built over the first two laps, and led India to team sprint gold medal in the Junior Track Cycling World Championships in Frankfurt.
Junior results generally spread optimism but are little tricky. Many a times, they turn out to be false dawns. But it is difficult to undermine or overlook the significance of this breakthrough performance. Not too long ago, the track inside India’s only world-class velodrome, the capital’s egg-shaped sports complex inside the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex that was built during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, was covered in a thick layer of dust.
There were no qualified coaches, few cyclists and barely enough bicycles. Fast forward five years, and India are top ranked and world champions in men’s junior team sprint. The top-ranked junior cyclist in individual sprint and keirin events, too, is an Indian – the prodigious teenager Esow – and Ronaldo, the world number 3 junior sprinter, is fast closing in on his teammate.
The growing presence at the top in juniors and consistent podium finishes, with timings that are respectable even at a senior level, points at the fact that this may, after all, might not be a flash in the pan. It took a retired Air Force Human Resources manager and his ragtag bunch of committed teenagers who were once into rowing, swimming, volleyball, football and track and field to script a turnaround in a sport that India has absolutely no history in.
That they defeated Australia, a track cycling superpower, to win their first gold medal made it a lot more laudable.
There’s this inspiring tradition in Australian cycling that all young pedal pushers from Down Under talk about. As a part of the initiation, they are asked to undertake a “Champions Walk” that takes them through the corridor in the bowels of the velodrome at their national training base in Adelaide. The walk takes them past a gallery which has pictures of the country’s legendary cyclists like Cadel Evans, Stuart O’Grady and Katherine Bates. It serves as inspiration for the younger generation as well as remind them of the legacy they need to carry forward.
There was a time, roughly about seven years ago, when the Indian cyclists walked at the IG Stadium velodrome they were greeted by decaying walls and an overpowering stench of urine. However, it wasn’t always like that at the country’s only cycling arena. It had seen better days. The IG Stadium velodrome was among the last projects to be initiated before the 2010 Commonwealth Games but one of the first to be ready. It was built in a mere 17 months at a reported cost of Rs 150 crore. It was also hailed as one of the best facilities in the world by cyclists from across the Commonwealth, and there was hope that it would become the home of Indian cycling.
However, once the Games were over, the place was turned into junk. In the aftermath of the CWG scandal, as the officials squabbled in courts, the government suspended the cycling federation. It stayed like that for almost two years after the CWG and the velodrome was locked. The timber track was wrapped in plastic sheets to ‘protect’ it from Delhi’s extreme weather pattern. The seats were broken and remains of dead pigeons were scattered around the stadium.
During his visit in 2012, the then International Cycling Union (UCI) president Pat McQuaid called it a ‘matter of shame’. His Asian counterpart, Hee Wok Cho, too put his disappointment on record, saying he was ‘not happy with the maintenance’ of the velodrome. “It (velodrome) was in shambles,” says Onkar Singh, the secretary general of the Cycling Federation of India. “We spent `2 lakh just on cleaning the stadium.”
That, however, was just one part of the mess. The federation had a grand total of five cycles at their disposal. But it wasn’t as if there were riders queuing up for those five rides – India did not even have that many talented cyclists who could pose a challenge in Asia, let alone the world. But even more worryingly, it seemed at the time there was no one in the country who had the knowledge to produce riders.
Some countries launch their youth programmes on the back of colossal failures, like German football did at the turn of the century. A few others build on their success, as was the case with Australia’s cycling programme after the 1984 Olympics. India’s push in cycling, however, was born out of extreme desperation.
Cycling is one of the most-watched, marquee sports at the Olympics that offers a bulk of medals. Curiously, not one Indian cyclist has qualified for the Games since Tokyo 1964. And even though it looks unlikely that the trend will change when Tokyo hosts its second Olympics next year, the wheels have at least been set in motion for the 2024 edition.
Indeed, it wasn’t without the good old bureaucracy leaving its mark. “From the time we first proposed this idea to the Sports Authority of India to when it was eventually approved, five director generals got changed. Every time we made a presentation, that DG would be shifted and we had to begin all over again,” Onkar says. It would’ve been funny if it wasn’t so frustrating. The federation’s idea was based largely on the journey of Andaman cyclist Deborah Herold – the 2004 tsunami survivor who splashed on to the scene by winning two gold medals at the 2014 Track Asia Cup. Onkar says Deborah, who started training in Delhi in 2011, was a ‘pilot project’. “We were looking for athletes in raw, untouched regions who could be trained at the centre in Delhi. Deborah was our pilot project. It succeeded and we wanted to expand it,” he says.
In 2014, two years after the proposal was first floated, things finally began to take shape. The UCI, SAI and cycling federation joined hands to launch a training centre in Delhi. The world body even donated 40 cycles to India. Now all that remained was to create a form pool virtually out of scratch. And they managed to do that just as easily as it sounds. “We looked at models of different countries before adopting England’s system and tweaking it a little based on our research. We decided to recruit a completely new bunch of riders. But we looked for athletes…” Onkar says, “…not cyclists.”
They first had to weed out the non-performers. And quite aptly, that task was taken up by a former Air Force HR manager, who was now the chief national sprints coach, RK Sharma. “Coaching seniors, I thought, was a waste of time because they had reached their limit,” says Sharma, who took a voluntary retirement from Air Force in 2013 to get a coaching diploma in cycling. “I had to tell them, ‘you can’t go beyond this level. So it’s better if you go for your studies or whatever else you want to pursue.’ We had to catch young athletes. Even if they couldn’t ride a cycle, it was okay.” It literally was like that.
When Nikita N queued up at the SAI Centre in Andaman for a selection test two years ago, she had no idea about the sport for which she was trying out. The then 15-year-old knew just two things: the scouts had come from Delhi and this was the only way for her to move to the Capital. It was only when the coaches went to Nikita’s house in Bombooflat to meet her parents and inform them about her selection that she got to know it was for cycling. “I did not even know cycling was a sport. I hardly cycled as a child… but that didn’t matter. I was excited just to go to Delhi,” she says.
This year, she won a silver medal in team sprint at the Junior Asian Track Championship, partnering Triyasha Paul, who was a 100m runner and long jumper before the federation and SAI’s talent spotters urged her to take up cycling. The country’s top cyclist and world’s best junior Esow was a rower in Port Blair before he switched to cycling after appearing for selection trials in 2014. His sprint teammate Keithellakpam Jemsh Singh, 19, was a volleyball player and had barely ridden a cycle before moving to Delhi. Yanglem Rojit Singh aspired to be a footballer while Ronaldo hoped to follow his father’s footsteps and take up a water sport.
“The talent spotters made us run 150m sprints, chin-ups, push-ups and 1600m runs. I didn’t know I was doing this for cycling and there was no way to guess it either because there wasn’t a cycle anywhere around,” Ronaldo says. Sharma, the chief sprints coach, says the trials were designed to test explosiveness and endurance. “We got normal athletes who didn’t even know how to ride a bicycle. Sprint is a straightforward event – you have to be faster than your competitor. So our team checks their physical capabilities. And for me, the most important requirement for me is, if he is overtaken by another rider toh uske tan badan mein aag lag jaani chahiye (then he should be infuriated),” Sharma says.
These cyclists formed the core junior group. They live at the SAI hostel next to the velodrome. Every weekend, teachers from a nearby school visit the trainees and offer them tuition. It is a rare break from their grueling training programme, which is strictly regimented.
Everyday, they spend hours on the cycle, hurtling down the track at blinding speed. In the gym, they lift upwards of 120kg in leg press, among other exercises, to get the muscular thighs they crave for — a cyclist’s thigh stands out just like a wrestler’s ear. The rest of the time is spent in recovery. And once they are back at the hostel, they are cut off from distractions.
During camp, the cyclists’ mobile phones are deposited with the coach, only allowed for a couple of hours every evening to talk with their friends and family. “If they keep the phone with them, they’ll be on social media till late in the night. For the kind of schedule they follow, it is very important that they rest well and recover. So no phones are allowed in the premises and at 9.30pm sharp, the lights are out,” Onkar says. There have been instances where those who’ve broken the curfew have been asked to leave the camp. “I understand it is a bit harsh. But if you want results, there has been to be a strict mechanism in place,” Onkar says.
The coach and federation take pride in the fact that, except the equipment, the entire programme is ‘made in India.’ The federation’s annual budget has gone up from `1 crore seven years ago to approximately `25 crore now. From five cycles, the federation now has 195 – each costing between `2 to 10 lakh. The sprint group, almost non-existent a few years ago, comprises 20 junior cyclists. “None of this would’ve been possible without the federation, SAI and Honda, one of our biggest supporters,” Sharma says.
For India, this is just a baby step into a blurry world where every millisecond matters. Cycling has morphed into a virtual arms race, with countries exploiting technology for marginal gains. From deploying methods like wind tunnel testing to wearing advanced skin suits and riding custom-made cycles, there’s an intense competition between national programmes.
You would assume that India, having warmed up to the sport so late and with a limited budget, already start with a massive disadvantage compared to the other nations. But in their projection to the sports ministry, the cycling federation has given in writing that they will win a medal at the 2024 Olympics.
For a country that has not been able to send a cyclist to Olympics for the last 55 years, it comes across as a rather bold and ambitious target. But Sharma is confident. “Why isn’t it possible? Till now no one could dream we could win a medal at a junior world championship. We did that without any external help or technology. We just had a velodrome, a few kids and a strong plan,” the 52-year-old says. His optimism rubs off on the cyclists. “2024… Surely. That’s my target,” Ronaldo says. “The way we are developing, it is a realistic goal too.” Just how good is the Brazilian football legend’s namesake at netting goals, though, remains to be seen.