No one seems to have asked Srinivasa Gowda, 28, if he aspires to run faster than Usain Bolt. Unverified claims of the buffalo jockey from southern Karnataka, running 100 m out of a total of 145 m in 9.55 seconds in Kambala, set into motion an absurd chain of events. Personalities like Anand Mahindra and Shashi Tharoor offered fulsome praise on social media. Sports minister Kiren Rijiju even tweeted: “I’ll call Karnataka’s Srinivasa Gowda for trials by top SAI Coaches... I’ll ensure that no talent in India is left out untested.”
However, denying the man individual autonomy on something as important as his career, is very problematic. Was he asked, before dispatching train tickets to him and summoning him to SAI Bengaluru, if he wanted to dip his toes (or heels) into a sporting event which has yielded no financial dividends for 100-metre national champions all these years? He may have wanted to simply continue in kambala races (buffalo races) for which he has trained at an academy since 2011 — and where he makes about Rs 5-7 lakh every season.
Did the minister consider inviting him to the many tracks in Mangalore or the excellent Alva’s Sports College, Moodbidri, before pouncing on comparisons with Bolt and setting him up for a gimmicky spectacle?
That he is 28 — old by sporting standards — when he is being drafted into the sport, shows this as being nothing more than a headline-grabbing move. The narrative has a nice ring of “doing something for sport” to it. But the comparisons between Gowda and Bolt are unfair to both. In fact, picking his 100m time randomly from a 145m run — where the rolling start to Gowda’s 100m ignores Bolt’s (or any sprinter’s) significant challenge of speeding up from the 0 kph start — is disingenuous. No one runs in slush in formal track events — nor do they run barefoot, which changes the dynamic.
The suggestion that this is a novel way of scouting talent is deceitful and insulting to the hundreds of nameless coaches spread across SAI’s centres, who haven’t exactly been sitting and twiddling their thumbs for all these years. The assumption that India is teeming with athletic talent numbering millions, and that it only needs a keen eye to spot such talent, is humbug. That thousands of medals haven’t happened because of official apathy and bureaucracy is a comforting lie.
Blazing ignorance about sports leads to assumptions like kids in dance shows can lead to the next gymnastics talent, or that the country needs to embark on a mammoth rural exploration to discover the toiling farmer’s children whose bodies lend themselves to hardy sport. The truth is: India’s top athletes in physically demanding sports have always come from rural regions. No kid from an affluent background grows up dreaming about cracking the 100m sport for a railways or a services job.
Jamaica does two things that helps it produce an assembly line of sprinters: Its famous Champs meet where 30,000 spectators turn up to watch inter-school races. And, a health initiative going back to the 1920s which insists on hygiene, clean water and faecal/mosquito control as well as nutrition for kids to raise the quality of bodies on the island. Generations of training and conditioning later, Jamaica had Bolt: It’s not as visually appealing as two gloriously dressed up buffaloes pulling a chiselled man sliding his heels on slush. It’s rather boring, in fact. But India needs to start respecting the fundamentals in sport. That starts with asking a man if he’s interested before anointing him as the one to go chasing after Bolt’s shadow.
The notion that India is only 100m away from an Olympic sprint gold medal is insulting the dash and the challenges it represents for the athletes.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 18, 2020 under the title "Not the same race". firstname.lastname@example.org