On February 29, 2020 as the US held trials to choose its marathon team for the Tokyo Olympics, the situation in India was vastly different. No Indian marathon runner had yet qualified for the Tokyo Olympics via the most obvious and straightforward route – meeting the qualifying time (athletes can also qualify based on their ranking). Given end-May as cut off period for qualifying, three months remained.
What stood out in the scenario, were two factors. First, the qualifying time is stiff. For men, you have to break the longstanding Indian national record – two hours, 12 minutes – to qualify; in fact, go well past it. The best Indian marathon runner since Shivnath Singh is still more than a minute and 30 seconds behind the mark Singh set over four decades ago. In the case of women, the qualifying time for the Olympics is 2:29:30; the Indian national record is: 2:34:43. Second, unlike the Olympic trials of the US, there appeared none for the marathon in India, leaving top athletes to qualify at either the country’s premier marathons or if the dates don’t fit their training schedule or they are seeking a better course, then attempt qualifying at one of the races overseas.
So far, 2020 has proved a dicey year for mass participation road races abroad. Thanks to the ongoing Covid 19 coronavirus outbreak in multiple countries, events were trimmed or cancelled. At the time of writing, the latest casualty was the 2020 Paris Half Marathon, which stood axed. Prior to that, the Hong Kong Marathon of early February was cancelled, the Tokyo Marathon of March 1 was restricted to elite athletes and the Seoul Marathon of March 22 was cancelled. Athletes who had hoped to qualify for the Olympics at the cancelled events must find alternatives. Meanwhile, the trend of disease outbreak so far, has cast a shadow on the Olympics itself.
The two major marathons in India from the standpoint of Indian elite athletes are the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) and the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon. The latter through association with the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), is also called the National Marathon. Despite not having a fast course and having crowd management issues and questionable weather, TMM has produced timings by foreign athletes that are faster than the Indian national record for men and women. As regards the National Marathon, the course is flatter and the roads decent, save for a small cobbled section. But the route has several U-turns capable of breaking momentum.
While the existence of Shivnath Singh’s 2:12 removes room for excuses in India, you can sneak in the question: do we have a course that meets required guidelines and is yet suited for a shot at breaking 2:12? In 2020, this question assumes prominence for a couple of reasons. First, if you want to qualify for the Olympics then a male athlete has to complete the marathon in 2:11:30, a real step-up for Indian marathoners. If that timing is deemed important to chase, then a good enough course in a right enough place (where weather conditions are favorable), to set your best athletes up for the opportunity, makes sense. It has to also dovetail suitably into athletes’ training schedules and the qualifying deadline of a given Olympic season. Second, even as some road races overseas are getting cancelled due to the virus outbreak and air travel to less affected regions also appears risky, India has so far (as of early March 2020) remained less impacted by Covid 19. Yet for lack of well imagined domestic Olympic marathon trials, we have this situation of our marathoners counting on overseas events with fast courses to qualify. As mentioned, some of these events have got cancelled. Besides, participating in these races entail expense while accessing them depends on the continued viability of aviation routes amid reports of the virus’s economic impact on airlines. So what stops India from having its own Olympic marathon trials? A race featuring the crème de la crème of India’s marathon talent on a suitable course approved by required authorities? It seems all the more relevant in 2020 given the unique global situation Covid 19 has got the planet in.
To the extent this blog inquired with professional race organizers, such a race in India to qualify for the Olympics is logistically possible. The race infrastructure (course length, timing apparatus etc) has to be properly approved. In terms of support and recognition by sports bodies, the backing of the concerned national federation – in this case AFI – has to be there. We have the meteorological competence to select appropriate dates for Olympic marathon trials. As for closing down a set of suitable roads (a fast course) for the purpose, please remember: city marathons are typically run on Sundays, early in the morning (not hours of peak traffic) and if the field is restricted to elites capable of coming close to the national record, you would have a very limited number of participants with the whole course restored to traffic in two and a half hours or less. Is that too much to ask, once every four years?
Such an event does not have to be the definitive platform for selection to the Indian Olympic marathon team. What it does is – it adds to available options, especially in an extraordinary year like 2020, when avenues to qualify stand restricted due to virus outbreak and India remains less impacted region. Further if established as regular practice, for amateur and elite alike, `Olympic trials’ is as much goal to aspire for as the `best,’ `biggest,’ `richest’ or whatever other attribute you may assign a regular marathon. A case worth mentioning in this context is the American ultrarunner Jim Walmsley. He qualified for the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials based on results secured at the Houston Half Marathon. At the trials of February 29, running his first full marathon, Walmsley finished in 2:15:05, placing 22nd. He didn’t make the team but it shows what Olympic marathon trials can mean. Based on what Indian elite athletes told this blog, the onus of organizing such trials is with the authorities. They have to be interested enough in the marathon to make options available in an Olympic year.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The qualification details for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics mentioned herein, is as available on Wikipedia. This article is by no means a definitive piece on the subject; it seeks to provoke thought – that’s all.)