The unheard stories of Indian race walkers going to the Tokyo Olympics
5 Indians have earned qualifications for the Tokyo Olympics in the 20km racewalk discipline. Let us look at the stories of these three men and two women racewalkers.
Athletics, comprising track and field events, is one of the most glamorous sports in the Olympics. Superstars of the Games like Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt, and Paavo Nurmi were born from the track events such as 100m, 200m sprints, hurdles, relay, long jumps, among others. However, one such event often remains hidden under the pile of other popular events is racewalking. While most other athletics competitions are focussed on the speed and strength of athletes, racewalking is a sport that primarily relies upon precision, where the margin for error is also minimal.
The upcoming Tokyo Olympics will feature two different events of racewalking - 20km and 50 km. A total of five Indians have been able to earn qualifications in the 20km discipline. While we have stars-studded athletes like javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra on the one hand, let us look at the stories of these three men and two women racewalkers who have been outside of the limelight — Sandeep Kumar, Rahul Rohila, Irfan Kolothum Thodi, Priyanka Goswami, and Bhawna Jat.
The experienced racewalker from Haryana, Sandeep Kumar clinched his berth for the Tokyo Olympics by breaking the national record in racewalking at the National Open Race Walking Championships in Ranchi in February, clocking 1:20:16. Sandeep, who hails from a farming family in the Mahendragarh district of Haryana, had never heard of race walking until he joined the army. His admission into the Jat Regiment Centre tempted him to take up racewalking professionally and dream of earning a medal in Olympics. Sandeep Kumar broke a new national record, previously set by Basant Bahadur Rana (3:56:48) at the 2012 London Olympics, clocking 3:56:22 at IAFF World Race Walking camp at Taicang, China in the year 2014. Sandeep competed in the Rio Olympics in the 50 km category, where he finished at the 35th position. Kumar made headlines when he broke a national record of 3:56:00 in the 50km event at the National Race Walking championship in 2018. For three months during the lockdown, Kumar had to train on paddy fields of farmland he owns in Haryana's Sureti Jakhar village. In 2020, Kumar had participated at the national championship in Ranchi, where he had missed the qualifying mark - 1:21:00 - by 34 seconds. A year of staying out of completion, he managed to break record and qualify for Tokyo Olympics. Kumar was diagnosed with COVID-19 in May. But after testing negative, he is back with training at the Bengaluru SAI campus, from where he will be flying for the Tokyo Olympics next month.
Rahul Rohilla followed the footsteps of Sandeep Kumar to bag the qualification for Tokyo Olympics at the National Open Race Walking Championships in Ranchi. He finished behind Kumar and won the silver medal, clocking 1:20:26. The 24-year-old Rohilla hails from Bahadurgarh in Harayana, started his journey with 10km race walks in 2016. But within a year, his eyes were set for the Olympics, and he switched to the 20km discipline in 2017. Despite remaining without competition for a year, Rohilla managed to improve his timings from 1:21:59 to 1:20:26.
Irfan Kolothum Thodi
KT Irfan, hailing from Kerala, was the first Indian athlete who had qualified for the Tokyo Olympics back in March 2019 after he met the required timing finishing fourth in at the Asian Race Walking Championships in Nomi, Japan, clocking 1:20:57. Last month, the 31-year-old who recovered from coronavirus had been one of the best race walkers of the country who is eyeing a medal in his second Olympic outing. Irfan participated in the 20km race walking event of the London Olympics, where he had finished 10th, clocking his till date personal best of 1:20:21. Despite qualifying for the Rio Olympics in 2016, Irfan missed out on participation because of a stress fracture. When he qualified for the London Olympics, Irfan didn't have proper shoes to take part. It was then the popular Malayali actor Mohan Lal paid for the race walker's shoes. Irfan grew up in a humble background, where his father was a daily wage earner who collected coconuts from the region and supplied them to oil mills for extraction of oil. Irfan also joined his father sometimes. Growing up, Irfan played multiple sports - hammer throw, javelin throw, football, long jump - but race walking was not one among them. His interest in race walking started by following his close friend and school senior KP Salman. Irfan has been training in Bengaluru in the SAI facility along with his other race walking compatriots.
Meerut's Priyanka Goswami earned her qualification berth for the Tokyo Olympics by winning the gold medal at the 8th National and International Race Walking Championships 2021 in Ranchi, where she finished the race in 1:28:45, beating the previous national record of 1:29:45 made by Bhawna Jat. The 24-year-old junior clerk in Indian Railways started from humble beginnings. In an interview with Hindustan Times, she had said, "I dabbled in gymnastics in school for about six months before trying out athletics. But the truth is that I started running because medallists used to get bags, since Meerut has a lot of sports businesses; I wanted one of those bags so started participating, but didn't win anything. Then in one race walking event, since there were only three girls participating, my coach asked me to walk with them. That's when I won my first bronze medal, and a bag too." She aims to finish her race at the Tokyo Olympics within the stipulated timing of 1:27, which could earn her a medal at the Games.
Bhawna created a national record in 2019 at the seventh edition of the National Open Race Walking Championships in Ranchi. The athlete completed the event at 1:29:54, within the required qualification mark of 1 hour 31 minutes. Bhawna also improved her personal best time of 1:38:30 from the National Open Championship in October 2018 by more than eight minutes. Bhawna hails from the village of Kabra in Rajasthan, where women's rights are still a matter of debate. People in her village used to taunt Bhawna for wearing shorts and going to practice. Therefore to avoid everyone, she used to set out for practice at around 3 in the morning. Bhawna's father, a Jat farmer, supported his daughter with all the means possible, but she had to drop out of college due to financial hurdles. She has been preparing for the last ten years and had won the silver medal at the national level while studying in the village school. An employee of Indian Railways, Bhawna harvest big dreams of making her presence felt at the Tokyo Olympics.