There was a moment during the Tokyo Olympics when Amlan Borgohain’s worldview underwent a massive flip.
Sprinter Su Bingtian ran into the record books when he became the first Chinese athlete to qualify for the men’s 100-meter sprint final at an Olympics, setting a new Asian record of 9.83 seconds on the way. It was a big moment because the world, at its stereotyping best, simply believes that Asians can’t run fast.
Japan’s Takayoshi Yoshioka was the last Asian to appear in the 100m final, finishing last in the event at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. The break between that and Bingtain’s appearance was a long one and that is usually enough to give rise to some false notions.
Just around a month after Tokyo 2020, Borgohain had a chance to step on the track during the 60th National Open Athletics Championships at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Telangana and he was clearly in inspired form. First, he won the silver medal in the 100 meters with a personal best of 10.34 seconds and then he followed it up with a gold medal in the 200m with another personal best of 20.75.
“I expected to dominate the race,” said Borgohain after his win. “My coach said you can win the race in the call room and that’s what I did with my presence and confidence. I was happy with my performance but I made a few technical errors so I know I can still run much faster. Over the last few months I have made improvements in my speed endurance and my finishing speed. It is something me and my coach have been specifically working on for this competition.”
And running much faster is the key for Borgohain. Bingtian’s time in Tokyo has given the 23-year-old Indian sprinter a new goal for now.
“He ran 9.83 and I was like ‘okay, at least I can touch 9.99.’ We have potential in everything. Just that we don’t have the exposure. I have been training mostly in Odisha only but soon I will have some exposure trips.”
Borgohain was pleased with the silver medal but he regretted the fact that his starting blocks slipped as the gun went off, leaving him a couple of metres down at the 30m stage. However, that also allowed him to showcase his finishing speed. For now, he wants to keep focussing on both the sprint events.
Borgohain, who hasn’t represented India in international events yet, will now turn his focus to the Commonwealth and Asian Games next. Both events will take place next year and both represent very different challenges for the sprinter. The Commonwealth Games usually are tougher for track athletes due to the presence of Jamaican, Canadian and British athletes at the event. The Asian Games, on the other hand, usually see better performances from Indians. But sprinting success has proved to be elusive.
Borgohain, who has been training at the Reliance Foundation Odisha Athletics High-Performance Centre (HPC) in Bhubaneswar since April 2020, has benefitted from the guidance provided by Head coach James Hillier. The rapid improvement shows how important it is for an athlete to get the correct mix of inputs in areas such as nutrition, psychology, weight training, flexibility, recovery and conditioning. It has worked wonders for him.
“The biggest change is that when I would practise earlier, I didn’t quite exactly know why I was doing something,” said Borgohain. “I would just do it because the seniors said it must be done. But that has changed now. I have a much better understanding of how doing particular things give me the result I am looking for.”
Hillier wants to take Borgohain to Europe next year where he will be able to compete at a higher level. It will be a vital step that will ensure the sprinter won’t feel overawed when he perhaps steps onto the track during the Birmingham Games.
“One of the main areas we work on is ankle stiffness, a stiffer ankle allows an athlete to be more efficient with each step they take,” explains Hillier, providing insight into the technical aspects of Borgohain’s coaching regimen. “He is certainly the best 200m runner in the country at the moment. I would like to take him to Europe next year to compete on the European circuit and get some more experience competing against quality foreign athletes.”
The afterglow of Neeraj Chopra’s gold medal means that right now the attitude in and around Indian athletics has a different feel to it. The old stereotypes are being challenged and everyone wants to break the glass ceilings. Borgohain is no different and with the support of Hillier, he wants to do something special too. From ‘it can’t be done’, Indian athletics has very quickly gone to ‘it has to begin somewhere’.
“Unfortunately, we create invisible ceilings and barriers for ourselves all the time,” said Hillier. “We keep saying ‘it can’t be done’, ‘it isn’t possible’ and etc etc. But you have to dispel these myths. I don’t like to put times on anything. I just like to focus on continual improvement. Just before the competition, I told Amlan to just run like a kid in a playground. A kid in the playground isn’t worrying about how fast they are running or whether their form in right. They just want to win by getting to the finish line first.”
Hillier added: “And actually that is how things are. In a race, you have to run faster than the others in the race. If the person that comes second has run very fast then you have to run faster. And that is the sort of mentality and belief one needs. I don’t buy into this thing that Jamaicans are better the Americans and the Americans are better than the British and the British are better than the Indians. Jamaica have a culture for sprinting so they are just ahead in terms of time now but if you go back to the 80s, they didn’t have many sprinters. So India is in an exciting time in its sporting history because a lot of investment is starting to come in and people are tired of being called ‘a sleeping giant.’ It just feels like a lot of success with start coming out of India soon.”
And that is why Borgohain has set his sights as high as possible. He knows he’s starting late but that’s never held him back before.
“I just want to beat whoever I am competing against,” said Borgohain. “I just want to beat guys. So maybe the 200m is fit for me because you start on the curve and there are always some people ahead. If there are people in front of me, that gets me going. It makes me want to run an even faster race and beat them. I am usually a lazy kind of guy. If there is nothing to do, I won’t move but put someone in front of me and I won’t stop till I beat him.”