Manish Singh Rawat is a driven man. The 25-year old from Sattar in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand may have finished 13th in the 20 km walk at Rio, but he is far from being finished with the Olympics.
In 2012, Rawat’s best time for the event was in excess of the 1-hour-32-minute mark. By comparison, Predrag Filipovic of Serbia, the last of the racewalkers to finish the 20 km at London 2012, had clocked a time of 1:27:22. Chen Ding of China had gone on to take the gold with a time of 1:18.46.
In Rio, Rawat finished with a time of 1:21:21, a full two-and-a-half minutes ahead of Ding, who came 39th, and six-and-a-half minutes ahead of London silver medallist Erick Barrondo who finished in 50th place.
In addition to shaving almost 12 minutes off his time within a span of four years (he qualified for Rio with a personal best of 1:20:26), Rawat also beat four former world champions, three Asian champions and two European champions. In fact, he finished just 1 minute and 44 seconds shy of the bronze medal place, in what was a slower race than London 2012.
The authorities are not interested
Rawat’s personal best is five seconds off the national record set by KT Irfan at London, who finished an incredible 10th. When asked if compatriot Irfan’s feat had spurred the authorities into action, Rawat said, “There has been no major change in four years. Racewalkers still have to make it on their own. Otherwise, you will struggle.”
Having taken up the sport in 2006, Rawat struggled for half a decade to make ends meet and even considered quitting the sport. “I had nothing prior to 2012 and it made me rethink about why I wanted to continue with the sport,” says Rawat.
With his first taste of racewalking coming at the age of 15, Rawat had hoped that taking up the sport would help him land a government job. After winning a medal in a national racewalking competition in 2009, he decided that he would try to qualify for the Olympics.
During this time, Rawat worked odd jobs in order to support his family and his training expenses. Rawat's application for a sports quota job in the police was rejected despite his being a national medal winner. That job would have fetched him Rs 10,000 per month. Having got the job eventually, Rawat was promoted to sub-inspector after his Olympic performance.
Cramps in Rio
Rawat's performance in Rio was impressive, but still not as good as it could have been. He kept pace with the leading pack till the 10-12 km mark, actually being in seventh place, before tailing off in the latter half of the race. He did recover to end well at 13th.
“My stomach started hurting in the middle of the race. I fell behind the leading pack and struggled with cramps for about five kilometres. I had to slow down and although the pain had subsided, I could not catch up with the pack,” says Rawat who adds that Rio’s extreme weather conditions forced him to choose between the 50 km and 20 km events, though he had qualified for both. Rawat's decision was based on the fact that his time in the 20 km was more competitive.
Consistency is key
Rawat believes India can win an Olympic medal in racewalking. “We are not far away from the topmost walkers. We rank within the top six or eight at international meets, so we most definitely can get into the top three.”
He is also very clear about why that final push hasn't materialised. “There are other walkers like me, waiting to be discovered. But no coach or authority wants to go into the villages to find them,” rues Rawat.
The racewalker also believes in rigorous training throughout the year. Currently recuperating after Rio, Rawat will resume training on the roads of Dehradun very soon, walking up to 40 or even 45 km every day.
“Maintaining a good timing constantly is crucial to your Olympic hopes. It is easy to do it once, but to do it on a regular basis requires continuous training and monitoring,” replied Rawat when asked about the rigorous nature of his training.
He is also an ardent admirer of Australian racewalker Jared Tallent. “To win a medal in three consecutive Olympics is quite an achievement,” Rawat says, of Tallent. The Australian had won gold in the 50 km walk in London in between two silvers in the same event in Beijing in 2008 and this time in Rio.
Rawat says his next target is a medal finish at the International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships in athletics to be held in 2017 in London. With a history of improvement behind him, Rawat may well be walking on a road to medals.