MANY RUNNERS BUT FEW ATHLETES – EXPLORING A MUMBAI PARADOX

Savio D'Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Savio D’Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

“ This is all I have. Make sure you don’t lose anything,’’ Savio said, handing us a small file.

It contained old issues of Mid-Day, Sportsweek and The Daily plus a plastic sleeve with a few photos stained by age.

The former national champion in the marathon used to have more photos from his life in running.

Many have been lost.

The file opened a window to a Mumbai no more there.

Sixty one years old, Savio D’Souza, is today a busy coach, training runners in a city that has become India’s running capital thanks to the iconic Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). That would seem a fine situation to be in except for two points Savio made in his characteristic in-your-face fashion. The SCMM started in 2004. While the annual marathon got many people into running, those latching on to the sport from Mumbai largely belonged to the 30 plus age group. Because of it, Savio said, there were no timings significant to Indian athletics, to report from the Mumbai lot. In 2015, the women’s national record in the marathon was broken by Kerala’s O.P. Jaisha at SCMM. But timings by runners from Mumbai were nothing significant. On the one hand, running had become a movement in Mumbai. On the other hand, it was far from being cutting edge performance by any Mumbaikar. “ We have a large body of recreational runners. But where are the real athletes? There was a time when Mumbai and Maharashtra produced great track and field athletes. Now the city doesn’t feature anywhere in that department. States like Kerala, Manipur – they have all gone ahead,’’ Savio said. And paradoxically, none of the states which overtook Mumbai and Maharashtra to prominence in athletics have an event comparable to SCMM in size or such a large body of recreational runners around.

From an old race; Savio at far left, the late Shivnath Singh at far right (Photo: by arrangement)

From an old race; Savio at far left, the late Shivnath Singh at far right (Photo: by arrangement)

The paper clippings in Savio’s file dated to the early and mid-1980s. As fragments of media from the past they told a story. There was a report from November 24, 1986, about Savio winning the Pune International Marathon, beating Stephen Marwa of Tanzania to second place. Marwa had been winner of the event in 1984. The 1984 Pune International Marathon (the second edition) had been Savio’s first major marathon, wherein he finished first at the national level and third internationally (Marwa was first). In his second marathon – the Singapore International Marathon – Savio finished 18th, reducing his timing by a wide margin. Later at the Hong Kong International Marathon, he was placed 13th (profiles on the Internet say he placed ninth in Hong Kong at the 1986 edition of the event). Savio had his beginnings in the 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m disciplines. He said his best timing to date for the full marathon is around 2:25. That would make him at his peak the equivalent of being sixth among Indian full marathon runners at the 2015 SCMM. And 2015 is around 30 years since Savio’s heydays. “ That’s what I am telling you – that many years ago with much less money and facilities in Mumbai, we had timings in long distance running that matches the timings reported today or were better,’’ Savio said. Indeed the late Shivnath Singh’s national record in the men’s marathon – 2:12:00 – set way back in 1978, still ruled at the time of writing this article, almost 37 years after the timing was reported.

The Mumbai athletics ecosystem of Savio’s time seems to have been different.

From his file, a November 1983 edition of Sportsweek reported on the Runathon, a 12 km-run through Central Mumbai, won by Savio. Other reports spoke of the annual Sportsweek Road Races, five in number, with an overall winner at the end of the series. If media be window to given times, it is interesting to note that most of these reports are detailed and although cricket is dominant news by a wide margin, athletics gets a fair amount of space. Uniquely, unlike contemporary news reports on running which tend to be event-focussed, highlighting the spectacle of event, these old reports dwell more on athletes and less the event. There is an intimacy in the reportage. Savio was national champion from 1984-1988. According to him, in addition to Sportsweek lending its name to running events, many of Mumbai’s private and public sector companies maintained teams in athletics. Mafatlal – the company Savio worked for – had teams in football, cricket and athletics. The city had several athletic meets in a calendar year and each of those races saw the best turn up. Mumbai had a fine share of India’s best for the local ecosystem was breeding and grooming talent. Athletics saw the city’s senior officials arrive to encourage and support. Shashi Kumar Nair, former athlete who is now a senior government counsellor and lawyer at the city’s High Court, recalls S.K. Wankhede (former president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India), O.V. Kuruvilla (former chairman of the Central Board of Direct Taxes) and R.R. Chari (former commissioner of Income Tax) as among those who regularly visited the University Ground to support athletic events. On its part, the public turned up to cheer for they knew they were in for a treat as Mumbai had good athletes. All that community engagement either dried up or similar events continue but without the overall social interest. “ Now we don’t have good long distance runners. Maybe some in Pune and Nashik, but Mumbai – no,’’ Savio said.

Tracktrotters athletes and some of their parents with th Jameson Trophy in 1975 (Photo: copied from the club's 16th anniversary souvenir)

Tracktrotters athletes and some of their parents with the Jameson Trophy in 1975 (Photo: copied from the club’s 16th anniversary souvenir)

Two fantastic sports clubs, committed coaches, an accessible track to train on and roads shut down for people to run – these seem to have been old Mumbai’s magic potion to create athletes. For Edward Sequeira aka Eddie, the centre piece of old Mumbai’s infrastructure for athletics was the track at the Bombay University Sports Pavilion, popularly called University Ground. Essentially a track and field facility in the city belonging to the local university, this ground in South Mumbai was where Mumbai’s athletes – from state level to Olympian – converged to train. University Ground had a 400m-oval shaped track, two curves and two straights. “ This is the standard track,’’ Eddie said. The convergence of athletes here was courtesy two sports clubs possessing an evangelical fervour for promoting athletics – Tracktrotters (that is how the name is written) and Juhu Sports Club. Eddie – he is an Olympian, Arjuna Award winner, former Asian record holder in the 1500m and former national record holder in the 1500m, 5000m and the mile – is one of the founding members of Tracktrotters. Both clubs were near similar in what they wished to do and did, although some people cited a distinction by economic flavour with Tracktrotters being very middle class and Juhu Sports Club having a relatively well to do crowd.

Edward (Eddie) Sequeira (in front) at a race in Germany (Photo: by arrangement)

Edward (Eddie) Sequeira (in front) at a race in Germany (Photo: by arrangement)

Tracktrotters’ origin goes back to the late 1950s, to a group of senior athletes training together at the St Xavier’s Gymkhana, Parel. In 1962, they became Tracktrotters. The club charged nothing for its coaching. Parents brought their children for prospective training or youngsters approached on their own. “ We would sometimes test the candidate. That was all,’’ Eddie, 75, said. From 1969 onward, Tracktrotters’ regular training was at the University Ground. Although neither the two clubs nor all their trainees belonged to the university, the authorities supported their endeavour. Both clubs maintained boxes on the premises to store gear and equipment. Their coaches, training free of cost, were passionate and committed about what they did. Tracktrotters coaches included Eddie, Mervyn Jacobie, Alex Silveira, Philip Silveira, Vasant Kumar, Prithviraj Kapoor and Peter Rodrigues. The best known from Juhu Sports Club was Bala Govind, who now works in Nashik. He confirmed, training at the Juhu Sports Club also happened free of cost. “ Those days, the concept of charging money wasn’t there,’’ he said. And they produced results – many of Mumbai’s leading athletes from the period had links to these clubs and University Ground; among them – Eddie and Savio. A friendly competition prevailed between Tracktrotters and Juhu Sports Club. This was the athletics ecosystem then. “ Those are the days I will never forget,’’ Eddie said.

Mervyn Jacobie is remembered as a great coach by many. An evening in April 2015, at the playgrounds of Five Garden, Wadala, we met Ashok Shetty, an official at the Mumbai Port Trust and former state champion in the 400m, 800m and 1500m. Born into a poor family residing in Parel, his ability in sports was first spotted by Oliver Andrade, a well known coach in the city those years. Ashok’s first rendezvous with competition earned him no podium finish. With a friend who fared better in athletics, the boy landed up at Tracktrotters. At that time, the club practised at the premises of Khalsa College. “ Anyone could join for training. It was free. The first thing Mervyn did was catch me by the ear, tell me to cut my long hair short and report for training regularly,’’ Ashok recalled.

Ashok Shetty (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ashok Shetty (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

By all accounts Mervyn’s methods won’t sustain in today’s environment. Back then, it delivered results. He was a man of medium size, very strict, insisting on punctuality and completely committed to his work as coach. On Sunday, he took a break from coaching to attend church. Mervyn worked with Central Excise; he retired as Superintendent. In due course, Tracktrotters shifted from Khalsa College premises to the University Ground. Every evening, training began at 5PM and went on till 7.30PM. As coach, Mervyn was hard to please. Those who trained under him got whacked – that seems to have been a Mervyn trademark. Once, Savio, on winning a race, went up to Mervyn to share his glee. “ I got a whack and was asked: why did you look back and run? He told me, you could have run faster had you not looked back, ’’ Savio said. Ashok, after a victory went to Mervyn with trophy and some youngsters inspired to join Tracktrotters. Another whack and pointed advice on how to improve. “ I picked up the trophy, which had fallen from my hands and looked around for the youngsters. They had all disappeared!’’ Ashok said laughing. But Mervyn wasn’t this strict perfectionist alone. Unable to afford a railway pass, Ashok used to walk from Parel to University Ground when Tracktrotters first shifted to the South Mumbai ground for practice. An angry Mervyn would whack Ashok for repeated late arrival. Then he learnt that the boy didn’t have money for the daily commute. Mervyn got him a railway pass. When the pass expired, he gave him money to renew it. Similarly, every Saturday, the whole Tracktrotters team assembled at Santa Cruz and travelled to Juhu to run on the beach. The cost of everyone’s travel was borne by Mervyn. “ For Mervyn, coaching was his life,’’ Ashok, 59, said.

Shashi Kumar Nair (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Shashi Kumar Nair (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

At his office in an old building at Mumbai’s Flora Fountain area, Shashi Kumar Nair, 60, opened a shelf and pulled out some documents. “ This shelf is now the Tracktrotters’ office,’’ he said. In a souvenir marking the club’s 16th anniversary, Mervyn Jacobie, wrote, “ Humble as the beginning was, this club had sworn to train young and enthusiastic boys and girls throughout the year, both in and off season, free of cost without any entrance fee, membership or any such formalities, irrespective of religion, caste or creed, to attain standards in athletics. Besides providing training, these athletes are entered without any entry fee for all major athletic meets in the region; track shoes, track suits and spikes are issued to the deserving athletes, from donations received from sports lovers and friends.’’

Major Shashi Tiwari, 50, served with the Indian Army’s Bihar Regiment. He now works with Tata Power. Years ago, he was the national junior champion in 800m and 1500m; he was an athlete at Tracktrotters. “ I spent nine years of my life there,’’ he said. According to him, the main benefit of being at Tracktrotters was that it took anybody in and then put that person through the coaching of a dedicated individual like Mervyn. “ People like Mervyn are hard to find in today’s world,’’ he said. Incidentally, that old Tracktrotters souvenir concluded with a “ list of members – past and present.’’ They numbered around 352. Of them, 239 – that is 68 per cent – had won medals at regional, state or national levels or been participant at international level competitions. Some of them qualified for all four levels of honour.

Edward (Eddie) Sequeira (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Edward (Eddie) Sequeira (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

According to Eddie, the decline in Mumbai athletics started about twenty years ago when the university refused permission for outsiders, including the clubs and their wards, to train at University Ground. The exact reason for this development is unclear. Eddie loved this ground, which had built him into the sportsman he came to be. In 1982, after the Asian Games in New Delhi, Mumbai’s University Ground had also been venue for a six nation-athletic meet organized by Tracktrotters. So in 2011, when India’s decision to host the cricket World Cup saw its organizers seek space to expand the Wankhede Stadium and think of encroaching on the nearby University Ground, Eddie put his foot down. He and Shashi Kumar Nair drummed up enough support to prevent any such move. Today the ground survives. It even has a new synthetic track. Access however isn’t as free as before (an official at the office adjacent to the stadium said that the ground is mainly meant for university students; others get to use it if their application is approved). Besides, a new road leading to the cricket stadium has allegedly eaten into what used to be the old athletes’ warm-up area.

Can a giant city’s position in athletics decline simply because a ground shut its doors to the public? Eddie explained it. The question is not the ground per se but what it did and how it worked in combination with the two clubs. The University Ground is perfectly located. Although in South Mumbai, it is accessible by road and rail. It had the city’s only good running track years ago; it has a new synthetic track now. What it did as part of the matrix offered by the clubs and their training, qualified the years gone by. In those years, Mumbai was catching its athletes young. Unlike most games, athletics is an individual sport. Physically demanding, you peak early in it. “ You can be a national champion at 16 or 18 years of age. That is why you have to catch them young,’’ he said. Old Mumbai was interested in sports; it scouted for young talent and found it. Still restoring a ground to regular public use is only part of the panacea. If you want a revival in athletics, the issues to address are several.

To start with, today’s children – including Mumbai’s children – lead lives dramatically different from the children of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Thanks to contemporary lifestyle, interest in the active life has dipped. A procession of distractions exists – particularly the mobile phone. “ When we trained, we were not allowed to speak to each other or have any distractions,’’ Major Tiwari said. According to him, people from economically challenged backdrops and those hailing from rural areas may still have that required discipline. “ Mumbai has lost it,’’ Major Tiwari said. Veteran coach, Bala Govind, 73, felt that once motivated adequately, today’s children are good. But there is the issue of distraction and how naturally motivated children are toward sports. “ Those years – 30 to 40 years ago that is – were totally different. The children of that time were motivated differently. They saw sports as fun and once motivated, they had no distractions,’’ he said. Currently, even if a child managed to be in sports despite distractions, a major hurdle looms by tenth standard. Studies squeeze out sports. “ In competitive sport, you take a break and come back, your contemporaries have surged ahead,’’ Savio said.

With studies stifling sports, another old trait also began drying up.

Savio was born in Goa in 1953. After finishing his SSC, he moved to Mumbai in 1972. He was a footballer but didn’t enjoy it. He used to train at the University Ground and got admission at Maharashtra College near Byculla in the city, on the strength of his performance in sports. By 1976, he was representing Bombay University in the 5000m and 10,000m. “ I was noticed. Those days we had talent scouts and a system that provided sustenance to dedicated sportspersons,’’ Savio said. Schools and colleges looked around for good talent. Scholarships were provided. If your athletic abilities earned you a seat at college, your continued performance was noticed by companies who gave you employment. “ Such employment matters. I used to be away seven to eight months a year, training and competing. But my employers gave me a regular monthly salary,’’ Eddie said of Tata Steel. According to him, as per an old estimation of 1982, the Tata Group had in its fold then, six world champions, five medal winners at the Olympic Games, four Commonwealth Games medal winners, 36 Asian Games medal winners, 33 Asian Championship medal winners, 41 Arjuna Award winners, 51 Olympians, 57 sportspersons who had participated in the Asian Games, 54 people who had participated in the Asian Championships, one Padma Bhushan and 11 Padma Sri recipients for contribution in sports. He also said that in those days, Tata companies recruited a sportsperson once every two years.

University Ground (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

University Ground (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Some public sector companies still persist with the policy of supporting sports through employment. But a lot has changed in the private sector. There may have been snaps in continuity of support for sports in the city, when the old textile mills – Savio used to represent Mafatlal – restructured, slipped into hard times or plain died out. Mumbai’s new generation industry and the old that survived are more market focussed, preferring to see results and then support, that too in sports enjoying visibility. Exceptions exist. In conversations around recent athletes we had, the Mittals, Jindals and ONGC found mention as patrons of athletics. But that is not how it used to be. In times gone by, being a sportsperson was on par with being good at studies in terms of prospects in life. Today, nobody wants to know your struggle to succeed. They will support you once you are successful. It would be tempting to justify this trend with that approach loved by market and GDP – survival of the fittest. Actually it isn’t that simple. Most coaches know that to find good, hardy talent you have to cast your net wide and not everyone spotted so can survive without a supportive ecosystem. This is true even in the recreational running of today’s Mumbai. Some of the best timings are from people who came up the hard way and whose passage in sports was assisted by supportive others. Ecosystem matters. One comment from the conversations we had about years gone by remained embedded in the brain as a classic synopsis of what our world calls change. Somebody we spoke to said, “ we were doing a good job in athletics and coaching. What we didn’t have was a Power Point presentation like today’s market savvy folks.’’

“ The required change has to happen from school level onward. Without it there is no chance,’’ Savio said. He felt, the system of coaching at schools must be changed with sportspersons taking over the task. “ If the coach is a sportsperson, then he or she will make sports happen no matter what the challenge, because they enjoy sports,’’ he said. An interesting aside here is that when Eddie got his first job as a mechanical apprentice at Central Railways, sports was compulsory for railway employees. According to him, a Mumbai revival in athletics could start with training the resident coaches properly; send them abroad so that they get to know what good coaching is and bring it back to the city. He pointed out that unlike the salaried government coaches of today, the city’s old coaches – the ones who blazed a trail at Tracktrotters and Juhu Sports club – were devoted to sports and coaching for the love of it. They charged nothing. And they produced results if Mumbai’s past in athletics is anything to go by. Such passion must return to the city. There has to be more athletic meets. “ Bring back the old road races. Rain or no rain, the Oval Maidan is there; the University Ground is there, Marine Drive is there. Don’t have just one meet in a year – of what use is that?’’ Eddie asked. Finally “ forget about seniors; focus on juniors.’’ He wanted corporate sponsors for junior teams. “ My suggestion is that every big company should have at least one athletics meet for juniors,’’ he said, emphasizing alongside that the habit of pushing in over aged persons into junior categories to win prizes, should stop. According to Eddie and Shashi Kumar Nair, Tracktrotters is hoping to make a comeback. The club held a general body meeting in this regard attended by 50-60 old members. “ From the club’s side, we are giving the commitment that we will return the old glory to Mumbai athletics,’’ Nair, vice president, said.

Savio (Photo: by arrangement)

Savio (Photo: by arrangement)

We leave you with a vignette of old Mumbai; an edited abstract from the old Sportsweek report on the Runathon:

“ Police Commissioner Julio Ribeiro in a dashing Bombay Police track-suit set the big field (491 to be exact) off from Shivaji Park at 7AM. Though the start was together in the classic Boston Marathon style, for the different groups, the race was terminated at different stages of the course. At one stage, the runners were strung out from Dadar, down to Parel and Lalbaug, over Currey Road and Lower Parel bridges and into the homestretch. The traffic police and the Naigaum police co-operated throughout in keeping the roads reasonably clear for the runners. Savio D’Souza, Bombay’s and Mafatlal’s ace runner led the field right through, at first a few lengths ahead, then more, finally striding almost alone, king of the road. There were runners from Track Trotters, Atomic Energy Central School, St Sebastians of Dabul, Young Athletic Club, Customs and Income Tax. Captain Reza Beg of Air India was there. The day before, he was jogging in Tokyo. On Sunday, he took off with the rest of the runners from Shivaji Park. Course completed, he carefully logged his personal time in a logbook. The regular early morning Shivaji Park joggers and walkers joined in, including a 76 year old-veteran. Later a special prize was announced for him but he had disappeared. The prizes ranged from sports scholarships to silver cups, Hot-Shot cameras and other items. Bombay has started running for fun. Perhaps a little behind the rest of the world, but it has started.’’

The year was 1983.

(The authors Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon are independent journalists based in Mumbai. The timings at races are as provided by the interviewees. Where photo credit says ` by arrangement,’ the picture concerned has been sourced from Eddie or Savio.)

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