Vikas Gowda, Indian track and field’s best known face since the retirement of world championship medallist long jumper Anju Bobby George and till the emergence of javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, decided to call time on his career on Wednesday, just under three months from the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang.
The decision announced by the Athletics Federation of India through a tweet wasn’t really an unexpected one given the fact that Gowda hasn’t participated in any international competition this year and wasn’t really a regular on the circuit since the 2016 Rio Olympics where he was clearly below par after suffering from a shoulder injury.
“After a lot of thinking and consulting I have decided to retire from athletics. I do not want to punish my body anymore and I want to focus on the next phase of my life,” Gowda was quoted as saying in an AFI release.
The 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medallist, who turns 35 in July, was last seen competing in the 2017 Asian Championship in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, where he failed to defend his gold medal and managed just a bronze medal.
His father, Shive Gowda, had then hinted that 2018 would be a swansong year for India’s most decorated thrower in the last decade as he was struggling with injuries and had to look at further career options. And though he decided against defending his Commonwealth Games gold by not competing in the Federation Cup, he was expected to go out with a bang at the Asian Games, where competition is less fierce.
It would have been a perfect opportunity for the 6 ft 9 inch giant to go out on a high despite all the run ins with the Athletics Federation and the constant cribbing about lack of financial support from the Indian government.
Despite of all his successes, he would go into the history books as an unfulfilled potential who probably had the best chance of scripting history at the World Championship and Olympics, if only had he remained injury free more often.
Prolific early days
The Mysuru-born athlete, who shifted to United States when he was just 6, was a late convert as a discus thrower having tried his hand at shot put. But that burly body structure and huge wing span meant that he had a natural advantage and he was quick to display that potential at the 2002 IAAF World Junior Championship and built on it by winning the silver medal in the 2005 Asian Championship.
With his father, a decathlete and a former coach in the Indian set up, now coaching in USA, Gowda made US as his base and the arrangement was perfectly fine till almost the 2012 London Olympics during which he became only the seventh Indian track and field athlete to reach the finals in the quadrennial event.
The same year, Gowda had etched his name on the national record books when he hurled the discus to 66.28m in a meet in US and was perhaps at the peak of his performance for the next three years. He went on to win the Asian Championship gold twice in 2013 and 2015 and became the first Indian athlete since Milkha Singh to bag an athletics gold medal in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
It was a brilliant turnaround for Gowda, who was distraught after disastrous performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics where he finished 22nd and was without a coach for almost two years.
“I was just kind of coaching myself for two years after college. I had a lot of injuries. I didn’t know if I was going to keep going. Then I heard John Godina had started a training group in Phoenix, Arizona....
“I took a big chance and moved out there and in just a couple of months I had got so much better,” Gowda had told the IAAF website in 2014 after the Commonwealth Games success.
Run-ins with the Federation
While the success on the field was raising the stock of Gowda, the run-ins with the Federation and authorities in India had started to create other problems.
Gowda had, by then, decided to skip in the domestic events and preferred to participate in tournaments in and around the US. While that was probably understandable as the choice was more cost effective, the constant bickering with the Federation and comments on how the financial assistance from the government back home wasn’t sufficient only managed to create a rift between him and the authorities.
And things turned ugly just ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics as the Federation felt that they were kept in dark over his preparation and subsequent shoulder injury despite his training being funded under the TOPs scheme.
AFI president Adille Sumariwala had commented then in jest that his father had only conveyed to them that it was a “minor” injury and they would have to believe the father as they couldn’t send a doctor all the way to US only to assess his fitness levels.
As it turned out, Gowda went into the Games without competing in any other international tournaments apart from a local event in which he managed a throw of 62.35m. And it showed, as he was clearly below par in Rio and finished 28th with a best throw of 58.99m.
The infamous ‘Gowda rule’
Since that disastrous outing, Gowda was mostly missing from the circuit as he also had to undergo a knee surgery and took a long time to return.
By then, the AFI was in no mood to give into his whims and fancies and made the champion thrower give two trials to prove his fitness ahead of the 2017 Asian Championship in Bhubaneshwar.
To his credit, Gowda finished on the podium despite not being at his best but failed to qualify for the World Championship for the first time since 2005.
The AFI then made a rule that all non-campers would have to participate in the selection trials to prove their fitness and form for any major events and rejected Gowda’s request to let him compete in tournaments in US in the run up to the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.
Many experienced observers within the federation felt this development was directed towards the US-based discus thrower, who hasn’t always kept AFI in the loop about his whereabouts.
Gowda decide to skip the Federation Cup, the last selection trials and was not considered for the CWG.
However, he was learnt to have again asked the Federation to exempt him from participating in the Inter-State championship in Guwahati in June, which is to be the last selection trial before the Asian Games deadline for submitting entries by name on June 30.
The AFI rejected the request and went ahead and told all the athletes to either attend the tournament or risk missing out on the Asian Games participation.
It is yet not clear whether that prompted Gowda to advance his retirement plans or he is nursing another injury as a mail written to him was unanswered at the time of publishing this piece.
But whatever the reason, one cannot deny that the man who was the lone flag-bearer for India in track and field for many years won’t get a farewell he deserves and would probably go down in history books as an underachiever.
May be the qualified Maths tutor has some different equations in his mind.