When it comes to sports, India is fortunate that its athletes find a way to overcome the impediments that its officialdom throws in their paths—whole areas fraught with politics and unprofessionalism. If India is winning medals at the Asian Games, it has been possible in spite of official bungling, due to athletes’ own talent, resilience and steely determination. The government does provide facilities and exposure, but it’s a mite compared to the odds athletes face.
Many of the stories of the Games medal winners so far, and those who may or may not win, are tales of victories carved through adversity.
From being ‘baptised’ on a mud track in his village Chakkitttapara in Kozhikode district of Kerala, Jinson Johnson has come a long way—today he is Asia’s top-ranked 800m runner. After shattering the 800m and 1500m national records recently, his confidence is on an all-time high; he’s now eying the Asian Games podium in the two races.
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The two-time Asian medallist clocked 1:45.65 sec in 800m at the National Inter-State Athletics Championships in Guwahati in June to shatter legendary Shri Ram Singh’s 42-year-old national record of 1:45.77 sec, set at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In April, at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, Johnson clocked 3:37.86sec in 1500m to finish fifth, but still broke the 23-year-old national record by Bahadur Prasad (3:38.00sec). “Breaking the national records has boosted my morale. I’ve confidence that I’d win a medal in both races in Jakarta,” Johnson, a Naik Subedar in the army, tells Outlook from Bhutan’s capital Thimpu, where he’s training. “He’s a very mature and thinking athlete. Although he’s just 27, he thinks like a 40- or 50-year-old. He’s focused and trains sincerely. Importantly, he is away from all distractions, including girls,” says Jasvinder Singh Bhatia, the middle distance coach in charge of the preparations in Thimpu. The city’s choice as venue for the final camp before the Games could be decisive for athletes training there since May 19. The venue is 2,300 metres above sea level, at which breathing/running is difficult. But if an athlete conquers the conditions at that height, he finds it easy to compete at the sea level, like the Gelora Bung Karno Main Stadium in Jakarta, the venue of the Asian Games. In India, the highest altitude where a synthetic track is laid is at 1,600 metres in Coonoor.
How Johnson progressed from Chakkitttapara, where the only athletics facility was the 200m mud track, is fascinating. “I used to run on this mud track meant for grassroots athletes. I won my first state-level medal as well as my first junior national and school national medals after practising on it. Even now, when I’m at home I practise on it,” he says. Johnson’s father used to be a real estate contractor, but switched to rubber farming, even as Johnson kept running faster.