The soft-spoken, grinning athlete came hopping in, after setting his national record. There were hardly 200 spectators present at the Indian Grand Prix as the quarter-miler finished his race and heaved a sigh of relief.

None present at the JN Stadium in New Delhi had an inkling of course, including the athlete himself. Muhammed Anas heard the time and let out a chuckle to himself, once again grinning and gesturing to fellow Keralite and room-mate at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, Anuroop John, the 100 metre runner.

Anas would come speak to a few reporters after finishing his dope test, coming across as painfully shy, but always sporting a warm smile on his face. The man from Nilamel, Kerala, offers a modest assessment of his abilities when questioned and will speak 2-3 words at a stretch, not more.

At the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Anas did something only two men prior to him had done: qualify for the finals of a track event. Make no mistake about it, the year preceding Anas’ track-burners in Australia was anything but easy for the 23-year-old.

The constant struggle with the authorities, the media glare and the attention has become symptomatic of an Indian athlete’s life cycle, and as jovial and light-hearted as Anas was, it couldn’t help but drag him down as well.

His national record of 45.32 shattered his own mark of 45.40 and helped Anas qualify for Rio Olympics, becoming only the third man in the 400 metres after Milkha Singh and KM Binu to do so. At Gold Coast too, only Milkha and GS Randhawa had participated in a Commonwealth track final prior to Anas.

Admittedly, nerves did get the better of Anas in Rio but the quarter-miler was in peak form post the Olympics, only for a crucial injury sustained in the Federation Cup. This ruled him out of the final, and led to reports that speculated that the Navyman had done so, in order to avoid a dope test.

Injuries and speculations pull him down

The same report stated that Anas wasn’t a surety for the Asian Athletics Championships. Anas arrived in Bhubaneshwar, slamming the competition and the reports, winning the 400 metres before anchoring the 4 X 400 metres relay team to victory.

In the post-event conference, Anas would come out swinging, “There were reports that stated that I had missed the Fed Cup final in order to avoid being dope tested. I was injured, no one bothered to clarify with me. Then I could have shown them the doctor’s report,” said the athlete who lost his father at a young age and had to look out for his brother, a long jumper, and his mother.

It was confirmed that the Kerala athlete had a lumbar spine injury and wasn’t even at 100% fitness when he arrived for the track events at the AAC. The man who had started off as a jumper, dragged himself and the relay team to the IAAF World Championships.

Quitting the national camp

Still reeling from the aftermath of a poor race in London, Anas and a few quarter-milers would quit the camp, opting to train under Kerala Sports Council coach PB Jaikumar. For Anas, he was not getting the kind of nutrition and diet that he wanted and he did not want to risk further injuries.

The Athletics Federation of India would also play hard ball, the first provisional relay list barred any non-campers from being in the Gold Coast team. Even if Anas did manage to qualify, it would be only the individual event for him. Further furore ensued when he clocked 51.77 at the IGP, in Patiala, one week before the Federation Cup.

Other members of the team were forthright in their views. “Without Anas running, we might as well not go,” said a member of the relay team. The AFI would eventually budge and include Anas, but only in the relay team as he was not considered good enough by the 45.30 standard they had set for the individual 400 metre race, a mark that would have been a national record.

Throughout the ordeal, Anas kept a straight face but that smile was replaced by a look of determination. At Gold Coast, he would come to within 0.01 seconds of the AFI mark, setting a new national record after running three gruelling races.

Unlike many who fade away in the biggest races, Anas didn’t shy away from his moment, a lung-bursting final stretch pushing him into fourth. When asked after the race whether he expected to break the record, he simply said, “Yes, I did.” The smile was back and deservedly so for a man, who had left everything on that track.