Mercy Kuttan is president of the Kerala Sports Council. An Arjuna Award winner, she is unique among Indian athletes for having excelled in the long jump as well as the 400m. At the 1981 Asian Championships in Athletics, she won bronze in both long jump and 4x400m relay. At the 1982 Asian Games she secured silver in long jump and went on to represent India at the 1983 World Championships in Athletics. Later she switched to sprinting and competed in 400m. She represented India in 400m at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, reaching the second round. Continuing her contribution to sports, years later, Mercy and her husband, Murali Kuttan (he is former national champion in 400m and medalist at both Asian Track & Field Championships and Asian Games), started the Mercy Kuttan Athletics Academy in Kochi. Murali passed away in 2010 following a massive heart attack. Mercy still runs the academy. This blog met her at her residence in Kochi for a chat. Excerpts:
What made you start the academy?
It happened in 2009. We – my husband and I – had been thinking of starting a training academy from 2007. Both of us were international athletes. Plus, he was a qualified coach too. However for everything you need funds. That was a challenge. In 2009, the South Asian Games was held in Kochi. At that event, the then sports minister of Kerala, M. Vijayakumar asked me – why don’t you start the academy? As yet, only P.T. Usha’s school has come up. I said that if the government supports, we will be able to. The minister agreed. There is a process to commencing a training academy. It has to be a non-profitable charitable trust. We registered it so. The understanding was that we should begin work with our own resources and pull through for a year. Then, the government will help. We were lucky to get financial support from three-four friends in the initial stage. It cost us approximately nine lakh (900,000) rupees to get started. We took a couple of flats on rent in Kochi to provide accommodation to the students. At that time, we accepted both boys and girls. The first batch was four boys and seven girls. Within a short while, we realized that managing boys is tough especially when you have mixed batches. So we modified the batch to fully girls; eleven girls.
How was the academy imagined? Was it foreseen as a facility where students stayed, trained for athletics and then proceeded to study at school or college or was it to be an academy meant only for athletics?
We planned it as a place where they came, stayed, had their food, got sports kits, trained for athletics and also went to school from. We arranged all that. In my sports career, I went up to Asian Games and Olympics. My husband had a podium finish at Asian Games. Our goal was to see the academy’s students win laurels that neither of us could; perhaps a medal at the Olympics. That is my focus now.
Similar to the earlier question, someone starting an academy can have two options – you catch them young or you provide a facility that helps polish talent that is already acknowledged and has probably traveled some distance. Which of the two did you want and why?
We wanted to catch them young. There is a reason for it – when you catch them young, you know their foundation years. Otherwise, you end up dealing with someone you really don’t know much about. The problem today is that in the higher camps, medication is sometimes resorted to. I want natural runners. I take students between 11-13 years of age. As a school, we have reached competitions up to Asian Youth Championships and secured podium finish there. If a student already experienced in athletics is brought to me, I insist on knowing well her previous phase in terms of training, circumstances of training and performance. I assign fresh trials and on the basis of that, design the athlete’s training. In 2012, Anu Mariam Jose arrived for training in a similar fashion. In trials, she covered 400m in 57.9 seconds. The claim was that she had done 54.9 or so. I paid no attention to that. I went by my findings. In one year of training with me, she became the best in her category in Kerala. At the nationals, she finished second, gaining entry into the Indian team. In 2013, at the Asian Track and Field Championships in Pune, she ran 53:28 in the senior category. She was asked to report to the national camp. To my mind – whether she wants to go or not, that’s her decision. It is not my decision. I told her so. She told me that if she reported to that camp, she won’t be able to do anything. I then told her that if she doesn’t go, she risked losing opportunities. In competitions that followed, she secured podium finish at many places. Eventually, she made it to the World Championships. For the Olympics that followed she was assigned to the national camp. I told her to go. She refused fearing possibility of medication. She ended her athletics career. That is an example of what can happen to naturally talented runners at present. I said this to highlight the risk in running a school as finishing facility for experienced senior athletes as opposed to one that recruits beginners and knows them for long. The former, in their hunt for improvement, will ditch you and go to whichever facility promises better performance. The latter, if I take them in as beginners, stay on with me till they are 23-24 years old. Should they wish to stay on longer, they are welcome to. After that, if they want to go to national camp, they can make an informed choice. I tell them I have done my bit. Now it’s up to you. Nowadays it is mandatory that top class athletes attend the national camp.
Do you feel comfortable with the national camp being made mandatory for athletes heading to elite events?
It is difficult to agree. But what can you do? That is the rule. For example, two of our students went for Asian junior championships. Both had medal prospects. They were required to report at the camp, a week and a half before departure. That is the time to perfect them, when training brings them to their peak. I couldn’t do that given they were expected at the camp. So, I said go to the camp and continue what you have been training here. Now these are junior athletes. They are 16-17 years old. They are attached to their coaches. They need our support. When they suddenly work with another coach and are told to do things differently, the tension gets to them. Then there is the angle of whoever trained and mentored them for long, knowing best what their state on a given day is and how to motivate them. We know when we see them running, what their condition is at that point. Ideally, when big events happen it is the longstanding coach and mentor who should accompany the athlete. That doesn’t happen. But you can’t do anything. It is their turf. I am not interested in intervening because I have been part of the national squad and I know that world. So I train my students as best as I can and tell them: I have done my bit, now it is up to you.
How do you select your trainees?
We advertise in the media seeking candidates in the age group of 11-13 years. I hold the trials in different places in Kerala. We have a panel of coaches. They sit together and decide who to invite for the next stage. This is followed by an eight day-training camp at the academy which will give me further insight into specific details about the candidate. The final selection happens after that. Currently, we can accommodate 14 students at our hostel. We train for a few select disciplines – 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m; up to 3000m I can handle. We also look at long jump and triple jump. Having said that, the students also indulge in other disciplines but that is typically as a component of overall training, not specialization. We have students who participate in hurdles. But if hurdles turn out to be that person’s forte and there is a strong case to specialize in it, then I won’t hang on to that student. I will pass that student on to a coach who is competent to instruct in that discipline.
You said you recruit your trainees when they are 11-13 years old and they are free to continue at the academy till they are 23-24 years old. What is your retention rate? How many students stick on that long?
It depends on their attitude. Some lack the required commitment and motivation. There is little you can do with such people. In cases of that sort, I recommend that they move on. The training atmosphere is austere and disciplined. I don’t allow use of cellphones at the academy. I am very strict about it. Parents are allowed to call only on Sunday. Every month they can visit the student. After every competition, I allow the students to go home for 3-4 days. The students have to study well. Some are stronger at studies than in sports. They are better off pursuing academics. We have students who completed five years at the academy. The longest a trainee stuck around so far is six years. Seven students from the academy have represented India to date in their respective discipline and age category.
Do they pay any fees?
Nothing; I am not collecting a single paisa. Even when they get an award, I don’t take anything from them. It is tough to run the academy. If the government supports me, that year goes smoothly. Else, it is difficult. We know of government support only from year to year as part of annual budgetary allocation. I didn’t get anything from the last government. The one before that gave me 25 lakh rupees and 20 lakh rupees. The current government gave me 50 lakh rupees in the first instance; with that I was able to manage for two years. Then I got 20 lakh rupees but I was unable to withdraw that in time. At present, we incur an expense of approximately 1.75 lakh rupees for every student. Then there is the infrastructure cost, rent for buildings etc. I have asked the government for land to set up the academy properly. I spoke to Sports Authority of India (SAI) and they said that if I have land, they will assist in building infrastructure. I have sought seven acres of land in Ernakulam district. If the government gives it on lease, we can plan on a bigger scale. If not, I continue on rented premises. That will be a challenge as I don’t have many sponsors.
Ideally what should be the expense per student, if for instance, they are to also travel and participate in good competitions as needed?
Ideally, it should be at least two lakh rupees.
Can you give an overview of the training infrastructure the academy currently has?
We started the academy by using the infrastructure that was available at Sacred Hearts College at Thevara in Ernakulam. There is a ground there. It is not up to the mark. But that is where we train. Some mornings we train at the Maharajas College ground, which has a synthetic track. Sacred Hearts has a grass track. Three to four days a week, we go to Maharajas. We have a vehicle and driver. We travel to do sand and hill-running. We have an assistant coach, a warden for the hostel and two cooks. I appointed the assistant coach last year. After my husband passed away, I was doing the coaching alone. I used to stay at the hostel along with my students. It is only off late, after people said I shouldn’t leave my house locked, that I have begun spending days here again.
You commenced the academy with your own funds and contributions from friends. Could you find any sponsors?
In the initial stage it was friends who helped along with sponsors that came in periodically through their network. Then, the government helped. Paul Raj of Kochi based-Alpha Group is the secretary of the academy. He assisted much financially. In 2013, Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India (CREDAI) contributed 15 lakh rupees. That helped me manage things for a year. After that CREDAI’s state unit helped with some small contributions. We are hoping that the relation with CREDAI at the national level evolves into a more sustained support. I have also got funding of 15 lakh rupees this year, from the state budget. A lot of the government support was used for equipment, kits and infrastructure including gym facilities. But there has been no interest in long term support shown by companies. The challenges in funding are among reasons why I cap the total number of trainees at 15.
Why do you think athletics finds it hard to find sponsors?
The typical game – like cricket or football – lasts a few hours. That is time, useful for sponsors to obtain return on investment. In contrast, athletic performance is over in minutes, sometimes seconds. To my mind, this is the main problem. I think the government must do what it can to support athletics because more than games, it is athletics that brings glory for state and country. That said; there is also the strange issue of not finding students who are dedicated and committed towards athletics. My generation had nothing and yet we rose in competence to compete at elite levels. I had national records at the school and university level before setting records at the senior national level. We wanted to reach some place in athletics and when we got there, we aspired for a higher goal. My journey to the Olympics began after my son was born. I told my husband of my dream. He was a sportsman; he said he will support me. I resumed training when my son was three months old. By nine months, I was national champion again. That’s how I trained and made it to the Olympics. Today, it is difficult to find such drive in our youngsters. Now the aspiration is getting a job. This situation is despite facilities in general being more, salaries being higher. More and more youngsters are not walking to college. They have two-wheelers. When they get a job, they make sure they buy still better two-wheelers. Their life has taken a different trajectory. There is no room for athletics in it.
You mentioned the short duration of athletic performance and how it limits media attention and room for sponsor to get mileage. The flip side of high media attention and engagement by sponsors is increased pressure on athlete to perform, which is among reasons triggering malpractices like doping. How do you deal with that?
What we need is enough sponsorship to have adequate events so that upcoming talent gains exposure to competition.
What is your vision for this academy?
If the government gives me land, I would like to run this academy like a proper school with male and female students and with overall numbers that is more than the 13 we have now. We will have good staff. I would also like to make the model transferable so that the school continues after my time.
How do you picture the ideal sponsor?
An ideal sponsor should understand how a school like this works. They must understand that results don’t come fast in athletics.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This interview was done in late March 2019. At that time, Mercy Kuttan was vice president of the Kerala Sports Council.)