9 years since London Olympics - KT Irfan is stronger, fitter, better in Tokyo
Its been nine years since KT Irfan made his Olympic debut in London 2012; going into Tokyo Olympics, he is a much better version of himself
As the twilight set around the majestic Westminster on 4th August 2012, a wide-eyed Indian announced himself to the world by putting on a spirited performance. Coming from a place where not many people know about racewalking, let alone competing and following the sport, KT Irfan etched his name in history books when he bludgeoned the national record at the Olympics.
Taking up the sport just 7 years before his Olympic success, Irfan qualified for the 2012 Olympics on the back of an impressive showing at the IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Russia in 2012. Not many Indians even dream of the feat that Irfan managed to achieve with much less experience in the sport.
Born in a village in the Malappuram district of Kerala, Irfan showed immense interest in athletics during his childhood. Playing Javelin throw, hammer throw and Football, Irfan could never taste much success beyond his school. He used to look up to his senior Rebas Mosahi, a promising racewalker and monikered as the "Best racewalker in Kerala" back then.
Irfan often accompanied Rebas during his training by stocking water bottles, noting his timings, or giving him massages. One of his friends from school Salman advised Irfan to take up racewalking and train with Rebas while accompanying him. Little did Salman know that his advice would give India, one of its future Athletic stars.
Irfan very reluctantly participated in racewalking at a school athletics meet and as fate would have it, defeated the state champion. Never having tasted success in any of the disciplines at such level before, Irfan knew he had switched his career at the perfect moment.
The fairy tale began as Irfan got enrolled into Sports Authority of India (SAI) and started to train under A Bose. Although he showed promise but, now a teenager Irfan had to start shouldering the responsibility of his family. His aging father, a daily wage earner and a housewife mother were not capable to support the expenses of a blossoming athlete.
Irfan got an opportunity with the army through the sports quota. As the legendary saying goes "Out of adversity comes opportunity", this adverse situation turned out to be the best opportunity for Irfan. He could train with the army at will and also had excellent facilities at his disposal.
Joining the army in 2010, he became the national gossip within a year by winning silver at the Inter-State Athletics Championship and gold at the National Open Senior Athletics Championship. He went on to smash the national record in 2012 by clocking a remarkable 1:22:14.
Making a name for himself in the national scene as a 22-year-old, Irfan had his vision set. Booking a ticket on that flight to London. He didn't disappoint in his first world event in Saransk by finishing well inside the Olympic "A" standard timing.
As we have seen before, the struggles don't end at the qualification. While Irfan had qualified, he didn't possess the necessary finances for an athlete.
"My father works on the field, and my mother is a housewife. Now, we have land and amenities, but before the Olympics, I had absolutely nothing. So getting the basics such as professional equipment was difficult." he was quoted as saying by Sportskeeda.
While opportunities to seek help seemed bleak, out of nowhere, Kerala's superstar actor Mohanlal financed Irfan's trip to London. Irfan could now have the best equipment while he takes the center stage at the pinnacle of athletics.
The kid was off on a dreamy ascent to a land far away. The performance in London depicted the same. Irfan managed to stay with the front of the pack throughout the course of 20km. He was within strides of the 2013 World Champion, finishing mere 3 seconds behind the Irish great Robert Heffernan, who had a few words to say about Irfan.
"Every time I pushed hard, he pushed harder. He didn't give up one bit and chased me down throughout. His performance surprised all the walkers, as he finished ahead of several experienced and higher ranked participants." said Heffernan to the press after the event.
The problem though was Irfan's discipline. While he managed to remain in the top five during the first 15 km, he had committed two fouls (Bending your knee or lifting both the feet up in the air is a foul) and a third foul would have meant disqualification from the event. Hence, he had to play it safe and not lose out on a finish while hunting for the medal.
Although he finished 10th in a toughly competed event, Irfan had made a statement that we could compete in a sport in which we didn't have a rich heritage to boast about.
There was jubilation in his hometown with the Kerala sports minister visiting his house, cultural functions with Irfan as the chief guest and a star had born. Even with this sudden burst into stardom, Irfan had his eyes set at the larger goal.
Irfan continued his training after noticing the enormous gap between Indian and western training facilities.
"The standard of training abroad is far better than in India. In terms of the infrastructure, support staff, etc. they are way ahead", he says.
Although disheartening as it seems, Irfan didn't falter. He competed in the IAAF World athletics championship and was walking third with just 2 kms to go. He had a medal in sight. The heart-breaking third foul that didn't happen in London, happened in Moscow. Irfan was disqualified with just 2 kms to go.
With Irfan being within touching distance of the podium at every world event, a medal was just an impending event that finally happened in 2017 when he clinched Bronze at the Asian Racewalking Championship. This medal followed a three-year layoff from the sport due to injury.
With such an impressive showing, Irfan was a definite medal bet at the 2018 Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games. While he disappointed in both the events, finishing an ordinary 13th in CWG and getting disqualified at the Asian Games, Irfan entered the 2019 season with a huge question mark. Had the purple patch ended?
He put all the doubts aside by becoming the first Indian athlete to qualify for the Olympics when he clocked 1:20:57 at Nomi, Japan. With pandemic slowing down preparations for a majority of the Tokyo contingent, Irfan had to go through nervousness most of them all as he qualified for the Olympics more than 2 years ago.
As the day finally comes closer, the nerves might settle down. He will compete 9 years after he announced himself to the world. 9 years wiser and 9 years fitter, Irfan could be one of the dark-horses that we could root for a medal. If he could keep his cool, try to focus on making minimal errors and maximizing his stamina during the final 5km, who knows? we might have our first racewalking medal in the Olympics.
Till then, let's hope our very own "Southern Malappuram Express" remains in the best frame of mind as his journey to the east begins.