For those of a younger generation, it may be difficult to answer the quiz question – Which is the longest-standing national record among the track and field events in athletics? This is not surprising, since the record dates back to the days when live sport was not shown on television in India.
Sriram Singh’s 800-metre national record – at the time also an Asian record – set at the 1976 Montreal Olympics stands till this date. In fact, his Asian record was intact until South Korean athlete Lee Jin-Il broke it in Seoul in 1994, 18 years after Sriram’s feat.
Cuban legend Alberto Juantorena won the race with a world record time of 1:43:45s, with Sriram creating a record of his own at 1:45:77s but would only finish seventh. At the next Moscow Olympics where future International Association of Athletics Federations chief Sebastian Coe would win silver, Sriram’s time would have been enough to finish second.
Yet, the 68-year-old has no regrets, only fond memories. One thing that does bother the record holder, though, is that the national mark still stands 41 years after he did it. “I am very sad that my record still hasn’t been broken yet,” the veteran said on the sidelines of the Asian Athletics Championships 2017 in Bhubaneshwar.
The then 27-year old’s will to win at all costs was unquestionable. Racing for the first time on a synthetic track, Sriram made his move before the halfway mark when he sprinted past Juantorena at the bell. His split timing of 50.85 was the best in the Olympics until it was broken 12 years later in Seoul.
The fact that he could break lanes after 300 metres made him jockey for a better position but his relative inexperience on a synthetic track as opposed to his competitors, who had raced on such a track before, added to his high fatigue factor. Remember, those were the days before physios and sports medicine had entered the Indian sports ecosystem. This meant that he lost steam towards the end. Juantorena would later credit Singh’s sudden surge for the furious pace of the race.
Singh had no regrets about that surge. “A race should ideally be run from the front, at least that’s how I like it,” he said. “My style was to get out in front and stay there. I was so nervous that I couldn’t sleep the night before the race.”
His style was to go all out. With a highly competitive field, and with the heats, the semifinals and the finals on consecutive days, he couldn’t leave anything to chance. “I shattered my personal best in the heats where I finished second fastest overall,” he said. “The semifinal was also difficult but I managed a fourth place finish and I was happy.”
The semifinal line-up included gold and silver medallists Juantorena and Belgium’s Ivo Van Damme, as well as future gold medallist Steve Ovett. Singh and the US champion James Robinson were also part of the line-up. Singh just about finished fourth, pipping Robinson by one-hundredths of a second.
One thing that Singh does bemoan is the lack of exposure that he faced prior to the Olympics. “Neither had I raced on a synthetic track in India, nor had I participated in any international event prior to the Olympics.”
Exposure is also a reason why Singh feels that the existing crop of runners in the country should be doing much better. “Today, they have the proper equipment, more international meets and sports medicine with a focus on recovery and fitness,” he said. “These runners are good, but they should be performing better than this, considering that the pace of the races have gone up.”
Hailing from Bhadnagar in Madhya Pradesh, Singh joined the Rajputhana Rifles regiment and only then did he take up running. He became national champion in the 100 m and 200 m, and even took up the 400 m before meeting his coach, the legendary Mohammad Ilyas Babar.
“Of course I felt bad,” Sriram said. “I was national champion and here I was asked to switch to the 800. I did not like it one bit. But at the end of the day, Babar sir was right. I enjoyed more success in the 800 than I would have in the 100, 200 or the 400,” added the two-time Asian Games gold medallist.
Singh, notoriously media-reticent, is enjoying a rare day away from his home in Jaipur but stresses on the decline in Indian athletics, particularly in the lack of overseas success. The runner himself had won his first national meet in Bengaluru, then Bangalore, before heading to Bangkok where he won his first Asian Games medal, a silver in the 800 metres.
It was the start of a golden period for Shekawat, who won the gold in Tehran four years later before repeating his feat at Bangkok in 1978, as he was the undisputed champion of Asia during his heyday.
The ongoing AAC also holds fond memories for Singh, who won three golds at the second Championship in 1975 in the 400 m, 800 m and the 4X400 m relay, where he ran the final leg. In the inaugural AAC held in Manila, Singh won a silver in Marikina, Philippines.
“Today, these athletes win a national championship and they relax,” he said. “That shouldn’t be the ultimate aim. The logical progressions should be the nationals first, then they should try to conquer Asia, after which they should try to compete in the Olympics and win a medal.”
Having retired from the army in 1988 and then finished a stint as a coach at the Sports Authority of India in 2008, Singh slams the state of long-distance running in the country today.
“If my record hasn’t been broken for 40 years, it means that we are 40 years behind the rest of the world,” said Singh, before calling for more focus on 800 m and above rather than sprint training.
“Today when an academy is opened, it is mostly for the sprints or sometimes for throws. But we must play to our strengths and not go for that which is unobtainable. We must learn from Kenya and Nigeria. What we are attempting for are power sports, while our real strength lies in stamina-based disciplines, such as long-distance running and walking,” concludes Singh.
Singh stated that the definitive proof of India’s decline in the long distance events is evident by the other long-standing records that haven’t been broken: Shivnath Singh’s 1978 Marathon record, Gopal Saini’s 1981 record in the 3,000 m Steeplechase, and Bahadur Prasad’s 1992 mark in 5,000 m.
All hope is not lost though, according to Singh. “There are ways around this. We must emulate more successful nations. There needs to be high altitude centres where our better athletes can go train in extreme conditions to assert themselves on a global level.”
Singh has a clear message to athletes: “I understand that it takes hard work and a lot of discipline. But the most important thing is to stop thinking that we can’t win in Asia or we can’t win at the worlds. Then and only then, may things pick up.”