The sport of race-walking is pretty obscure in a country like India. Beyond the craze of cricket and football, there are pockets of the country which prefer contact sports, hockey, and archery. Some take up athletics and track events while others venture into aquatic sports. However, race-walking is the furthest from anyone's first preference.
This was also the case with KT Irfan, who became the first Indian to qualify for Tokyo Olympics back in 2019. This is going to be his second Olympic Games appearance. Not unlike many Indian kids scattered in small towns and villages all over the country, KT Irfan too picked up cricket as a child. He used to play along with his friends and would even race them on tracks!
The knowledge of race-walk existing came much later in his life. For that, he has to thank an inspiration in his own village. A person called Ribas used to be the best race-walker in Malappuram, the village where Irfan grew up and myth has it that he used to serve him refreshments.
That is where he first came to know about the sport and his interest only grew after that. So much so that he ended up becoming the 'Malappuram Express.'
Dreaming to serve in the Indian army, Irfan would wake up early every single day and train and work on his fitness. That's where his professional career in race-walking began in 2010.
He qualified for the London Olympics in 2012 and set a national record there with a time of 1:20.21s. He also clinched a gold at the 2012 Federation Cup Senior Athletics Championship and surprised everyone by finishing fifth in the World Racewalking Challenge in China.
Irfan's journey from Malappuram to London to Tokyo certainly hasn't been easy. His path has been beset with controversies, small and large alike. In 2018, he was expelled from the Commonwealth Games along with another athlete after a needle was discovered in their room and their answer wasn't satisfactory.
He was also disqualified from the 20 km racewalk at the 2018 Asian Games after seeing a third warning for 'loss of contact.'
He has found several helping hands along the way though. None more famous than Malayali superstar Mohanlal, who provided Irfan financial assistance and helped him realize his Olympic dream in 2012. The earmarked funds allocated to the athletes weren't directed to the racewalker. His father being a daily wage worker, the family did not have enough money to buy equipment.
Irfan, too, was only a sepoy in the Madras Regiment of the Indian army back then. That is where Mohanlal came to the picture and helped him buy six-seven pairs of special shoes for an amount somewhere in the range of Rs.40,000.
In Tokyo, however, Irfan will be eyeing a medal and nothing else. He knows that he's fully capable of achieving it. "I recorded 01:20:21 in London. The bronze medallist China's Wang Zhen in the London Olympics recorded 1:19:25. The medal was not that far from me. I lacked technique, but this time I have experience and improved my technique. My target is to touch 1:19 and I am sure I will do that. I want to be the first Olympic medallist in race walking for my country," Irfan told TOI.
It remains to be seen whether he lives up to his promise or not. Regardless of what happens, several Indian kids will take up race-walking after being inspired by KT Irfan, quite like his own journey.