The controversy surrounding Indian long-distance runner OP Jaisha, who represented the country in the women’s marathon of the Rio Olympics, took an unexpected turn on Tuesday as the athlete claimed that her coach, Dr Nikolai Snesarev, was the one who had declined Indian officials' offer to provide refreshments and water during the race.

"I just came to know from CK Valson, secretary of the Athletics Federation of India, that Dr Nikolai was the one who had been asked whether water and refreshments were required and he was the one who had refused, saying that the arrangements by the [Olympics] Organising Committee would be enough," Jaisha told Valson had previously also told Hindustan Times that it had been the coach's call not to give any additional refreshments to the runners.

When asked whether the Indian officials had approached her about the water arrangements, Jaisha shot back, “Why would I lie? I was not asked about it. But whom should they be asking? Is it me or Dr Nikolai, who’s running the race?” Jaisha also said that she had tried to look for the coach for three to four days after the marathon, but could not find him.

On why Dr Nikolai would refuse the offer of refreshments provided by the Indian team officials, Jaisha said that she was in the dark about the exact reasons, but stressed that Snesarev was paranoid. “He does not trust anybody. Maybe he thought that the water or the refreshments would get tampered with, and hence he declined.”

The AFI, in its statement, had stated that the Indian team manager visited both marathon runners, OP Jaisha and Kavita Raut, and their coach, Snesarev, "in their room and asked them to provide their choice of personalised drink which would then be sealed in their presence and handed over to the organisers for installing them on the booth along with a placard as per the requirement of the athlete".

Jaisha and coach didn't get along

After speaking to Jaisha, it became clearer that she didn't gel with her coach, who was known to be a taskmaster. Their views were conflicted to the point where they didn't agree on which event she should run. Jaisha said she wanted to qualify and run in the 1,500- or the 5000-metre race, whereas he had pushed her towards the marathon. She said, “I never wanted to run the marathon. I was forced into it by the coach. My favourite event is the 1,500 metres, for which I have Asiad medals to show. Why would I run an event that is 31 times the length?”

Now, with the federation chiming in that it was the coach who had refused to accept the refreshments offer, the vital question is: Should Jaisha have been asked? Shouldn't her preferences have been taken into account? Surely, it is the runner who knows herself the best.

Also, going by the history between the two, there were always going to be disastrous consequences somewhere down the line. The AFI cannot claim to be in the dark as Jaisha, Lalitha Babar and Sudha Singh had quit the national camp in Ooty, where Snesarev was also present. The AFI had to intervene before the three returned to camp.

Lastly, if Jaisha was under so much pressure from the coach, she could and should have spoken about it earlier, but she kept quiet on the matter until now. There definitely needs to be a platform in order to allow athletes to speak out in such cases. As Jaisha said, "I have never complained about anything till now. Why would I start making something up now?"

Problems in Rio

Jaisha has fought against the odds her entire life. As a child, poverty dogged her family to the extent that the 33-year-old had to eat mud to survive. She wasn’t expecting any such hurdles at the Olympics for the 42.195-km marathon. Suffering from a mixture of dehydration and exhaustion, Jaisha collapsed at the finish line, clocking a time of two hours, 47 minutes and 19 seconds, which was 13 minutes below her personal best and the national record set at the International Association of Athletics Federation World Championships in Beijing in 2015.

On returning from Rio, Jaisha had complained that a lack of drinking water and refreshment facilities during the race had made her faint. She said, “I could only drink from the water provided at official water stations set up by the organisers, which were present once every 8 km or so. In any case, that did not prove sufficient.” Jaisha also went on to claim that although she had wanted water and energy drinks provided to her by the Indian officials, she did not get any during the race.

The IAAF’s rules for road races state that “…Refreshments will normally be provided by the Organising Committee but it may permit athletes to provide their own, in which case the athlete shall nominate at which stations they shall be made available to him. Refreshments provided by the athletes shall be kept under the supervision of officials designated by the Organising Committee from the time that the refreshments are lodged by the athletes or their representatives. Those officials shall ensure that the refreshments are not altered or tampered with in any way.” The rules also state that “...water shall be available at suitable intervals of approximately 5 km.”

Athletics Federation refutes allegations

The AFI, in its statement on the controversy, said, “As per the prevailing rules and regulations, the organisers installed one water point every 2.5 km and one refreshment booth every 2.5 km.” The statement thus refuted Jaisha’s claims that there was a refreshment booth provided by the Organising Committee only at 8-km intervals.

Additionally, the IAAF’s rules dictate that apart from refreshments provided by the OC themselves, the officials of the contingent to which the runner belongs can be present and provide them extra refreshments if required: “…a maximum of two officials per Country may be stationed behind the area designated for their country at any one time. Note: For an event in which a country may be represented by more than three athletes, the technical regulations may allow additional officials at the refreshment tables.”

Recalling the arrangements at the marathon, Jaisha said, “Other countries had refreshment desks after every 2.5 kms, but ours was unmanned and empty.” Asked if she had filed a complaint with the Indian Olympic Committee or the AFI afterwards, she was hesitant. “Who will I file a complaint to? Who will take my side in this case? ” she said.

It was also reported that India's other woman marathon runner, Kavita Raut, did not fully concur with Jaisha’s statement, saying that she had rejected any offer of refreshments or drinks of her own will. Raut, who finished with a time of 2 hours, 59 minutes and 29 seconds, said, “I said I am OK with water and don't need any special drinks. There were refreshment drinks at the designated spots and I took it from the volunteers stationed at those desks.”

The Indian Sports Minister Vijay Goel on Tuesday formed a two-member panel to investigate the entire matter. The panel has a week to submit its report. The 33-year-old Jaisha, shaken by the entire experience, said, “I may go back to track and field after I recover. But I will never run the marathon again.”