At the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in south Delhi, the mercury shows no sign of easing up as evening approaches. At the multipurpose stadium, the third leg of the Indian Grand Prix commences at 4.30, half an hour past the scheduled start.
The number of athletes easily outnumber the audience and barring a few athletics enthusiasts, the media is conspicuous by its absence. FIFA World Cup and UEFA Champions League winner Carlos Puyol, who is scheduled to arrive later with Sports Minister Vijay Goel and singer/Union Minister/LOC member Babul Supriyo in tow, and sure enough, the notepads, flashbulbs and the TV crews throng the very same venue they have stayed away from the entire day.
Getting back to the evening, it is difficult to state with complete certainty that this is indeed a national meet, although the athletes are hardly to blame for this mess. The entire set-up is so haphazard that certain city schools may be expected to organise their athletic meets in a more systematic manner.
There are few recognisable faces; PT Usha is prowling around the tracks and making sure her students are properly warmed up. Dutee Chand in bright pink isn’t the only Olympian present here, as one of Usha’s charges 18-year old Jisna Matthew has just upset MR Poovamma, India’s fastest woman over a quarter-mile, in the women’s 400 metres.
At one corner of the stadium, a 22-year old calls up his mother to notify her that he has just broken the national record and qualified for the IAAF World Championships, watched by fewer than a 100 spectators. He calls up his coach in Kerala next before quietly heading off for the mandatory dope test.
He comes out of the NADA centre at the venue and is not too cock-a-hoop, exchanging a few hugs with his companions who live and train with him day in, day out. “I came here to clock my personal best. I had no intentions of breaking the national record,” says Mohammad Anas. He may not be exaggerating; after all it’s his own national record of 45.40 seconds that he has lowered by 0.08 seconds.
Anas is most withdrawn and will not answer in more than three words, unless pushed for an answer. In a curious mix of Malayalam and English, he admits that his maiden Olympic appearance ended in disappointment as he was a bundle of nerves, “I finished sixth in my heats but it wasn’t my best performance.”
Indeed, Anas’ heats in Rio was the toughest of the seven, as five runners progressed to the semifinal from Heat 7, the highest of any qualifier. South African Wayde Van Niekerk would eventually win the event, shattering Olympic and World records with a time of 43.03 seconds.
For Anas, who has shaved almost four and a half seconds off the 49’s that he was running not too long ago, it will be a humongous task to shave another two seconds off his time. But what he can become is India’s fastest ever man in the 400 metres, something that he already is and perhaps Asia’s, “My next aim is to win an Asian Games medal.”
Having become only the third Indian man to participate in an Olympic 400m race after Milkha Singh and KM Binu, a difficult task may be made that much arduous by the fact that Anas, a Navy man, has to struggle to make ends meet. A sailor by designation, the Rs 7000 he receives even post the Olympics has hardly helped the family of three – a younger brother also looking to make it big as a long jumper and his mother, having lost his father in the 10th grade.
Born in Nilamel, Kerala, Anas hails from a place which has no tracks for him to train on. Starting off as a jumper, Anas, a self-proclaimed Yohan Blake fan, was spotted by a physical education teacher, Ansar, who was the runner’s first coach. It was Ansar who saw the potential in the youngster and asked him to give up on his jumping.
Anas’ performances in local competitions turned heads and PB Jaikumar, who coached at the Kerala State Sports Council’s elite academy noticed him and took the runner in. His first major medal was the silver that Kerala’s 4 X 400 m team won at the National Games. Yet, it is the Kerala government that has failed to recognise the runner’s achievements and award the runner a government job, an option that all of his peers who are top Indian athletes currently possess.
Currently under the tutelage of former national runner Mohammad Kuny, Anas has his sights set on the IAAF World Championships in August this year, “I will do better in London. I have not yet hit my peak and will look to run a sub-45 time there.” First, he must contend with the Federation Cup in Patiala to be held at the start of June, followed by the Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneshwar in July.
Anuroop John, Anas’ room-mate and a 100 metre runner, describes the national record holder as a “miracle man” and proceeds to talk about the latter’s lighter side, “He is always very calm. While we are all slaving away in practice, he will come up to you and announce that he will run a particular time, something that he always accomplishes later.”
Miracle or not, Anas sits alone on top of the Indian perch and it will be upto him to see how closely his times rival those of his rivals around the continent and possibly, the world. This Olympic cycle may or may not see the birth of an Indian athletics medallist, but it will possibly give rise to the fastest 400 metre runner this country has ever known.
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