TOKYO OLYMPICS: INDIA’S MARATHON ELITE AND THE SEARCH FOR VIABLE OPPORTUNITIES TO QUALIFY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

It is only a handful of athletes. But what they have to attempt is a challenging task; match a longstanding national record and then improve it by another 30 seconds. All this must be accomplished in one or two races during the winter of 2020-2021. Will we set them up for it?

On August 12, 2020, the Paris Marathon became the latest mass participation event in running, to embrace cancellation for the year. It was initially postponed. In August, the organizers disclosed they had decided to cancel.

Earlier on July 28, World Athletics informed that the Virgin Money London Marathon, due to take place on October 4, is committed to working with World Athletics to promote the opportunity to athletes around the world and assist with their travel challenges so they can participate in London and achieve their Olympic qualifying time. It was also mentioned that World Athletics will try something similar with the ADNOC Abu Dhabi Marathon. The move followed concerns over the lack of qualifying opportunities that may be available for road athletes before the qualifying period for the rescheduled Olympics, finishes on May 31, 2021. On August 6, the organizers of the London Marathon informed that the 2020 edition of the race will be held as an elites-only affair; there will be no amateur runners participating.

The cancellation of races worldwide, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has become a problem for marathon runners wishing to qualify for the Olympics. While the decision of World Athletics to work with the London Marathon and the ADNOC Abu Dhabi Marathon is related to this issue, two events don’t satisfy the need of all athletes. The London Marathon is scheduled for early October while the one in Abu Dhabi is normally held in December. To utilize these events properly, you have to be in good form by then.

The qualifying time for the men’s marathon at the Tokyo Olympics is 2:11:30. This means that any Indian male marathoner seeking qualification has to smash the longstanding national record of 2:12.00. On March 17, 2019, T. Gopi had completed the Seoul Marathon and qualified for the 2019 World Championships (Doha, Qatar) in 2:13:39. That is the closest anyone has come to the 1978 national record set by the late Shivnath Singh in Jalandhar. As of August 2020, some of the country’s top marathoners were at various stages of recovery from injury. This blog spoke to Nitendra Singh Rawat, T. Gopi and Srinu Bugatha – all of them elite marathoners; two of them have represented India at the Olympics, all three have been podium finishers in the Indian elite category at some of the country’s best marathons including the Mumbai Marathon. They felt that targeting the London Marathon of October 2020, as opportunity to qualify, wouldn’t be the best option.

Recovering from injury and regaining the old tempo in training takes some time. Additionally, under normal circumstances an endurance athlete shifts between races in the plains, training center and locations for special training like those at high altitude, seamlessly. With pandemic protocols, these inter-state movements risk quarantine. The current period is thus far from perfect environment. Given the training regimen they have been traditionally used to, two to three months of diligent preparation suffices to get back to shape. But it is already past mid-August. October is too close for them to return to form, especially for a national record-breaking effort. Going by the options World Athletics presented in their July statement, this shrinks window of opportunity to the ADNOC Abu Dhabi Marathon, which has the advantage of being in India’s neighborhood. The problem then is – if you fail there, you are out; unless, more windows of opportunity open up, ideally in the first quarter of 2021.

The general tenor one could glean in race organizing circles in India was that by the last quarter of 2020, some level of activity should return to sports. Even if India chooses to be conservative in recommencing sporting activity (at the time of writing, the country had cumulatively recorded the third highest number of COVID-19 cases worldwide), for needs like top talent wishing to qualify for the Olympics, opportunities to run may open up in the Middle East. As one race organizer said, “ If ADNOC Abu Dhabi is held as scheduled, it may encourage the Dubai Marathon of January to examine its options.’’ But there is a catch. Nobody is saying yet that when events revive it will be in the mass participation format. The London Marathon – like the 2020 Tokyo Marathon of March – will be an elites-only affair. Asked if the elites-only model may work with events in India, the race organizer admitted it will be tough because sponsors may not be interested during financially difficult periods like the present. Same could hold true elsewhere in the world. If you want to help athletes qualify for the Olympics, then either a sponsor has to be sufficiently supportive or a national federation – like World Athletics did – must notice the situation, go the extra mile and make those opportunities happen. “ An additional window will be helpful,’’ K.C. Ramu, former elite marathoner and now Srinu Bugatha’s coach, said.

Amid times of international travel deemed risky and need for athlete to preserve health as best as possible, domestic opportunities to qualify for the Olympics attract. Unfortunately, the Mumbai Marathon (January) and the New Delhi Marathon (National Marathon / February) which have traditionally served as qualifying grounds for various events, are not perceived as well-suited for the purpose. Mumbai’s weather conditions have rarely been ideal for top notch running. The city marathon’s course has a hill; it is not the flat, fast type that runners seek when chasing a qualifying mark. Delhi has better weather conditions than Mumbai in the winter months (keeping aside the problem of air pollution) and a flatter course. But there is a portion of the course having too many twists and turns. This assessment won’t sit well with some observers. And there is a valid reason for it – every male winner (overall winner) of the Mumbai Marathon since 2011, has timing below 2:11:30. The latest course record, set in January 2020, is 2:08:09. What are Indian athletes complaining of then? All one can say in defence, is that as a country we are not yet in the same league as those churning out such timings although Shivnath Singh touched 2:12:00 once. Additionally, Singh’s record, unbroken since 1978, makes breaking it a project of sorts. “ How many Indian athletes are we talking of as those eligible to try qualifying for the Olympics; four or five at best? It makes better sense to have them fly overseas and qualify,’’ the race organizer said. He clearly has a point, if decision is left to economics and scale.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

However, a race to qualify for the Olympics doesn’t have to be as elaborate as your regular road race. The upcoming London Marathon for instance, has an altered blueprint for 2020.  According to the statement of August 6, put out by the event’s organizers, “ elite races for men, women and wheelchair athletes will take place on an enclosed looped course in St James’s Park in a secure biosphere (a contained safe environment like that of Formula 1 and England cricket) with times being eligible for Olympic qualification.’’ This means the course can be smaller than usual and repeated as a loop to meet the distance required; something similar to Eliud Kipchoge’s iconic run in Vienna last year, when he dipped below the two hour-barrier. A well-organized race, oriented towards qualifying with pacers to ensure required momentum – this was the wish list. “ Even a good five kilometer-course that can be repeated as a loop will do. February-March should be the cut-off period, not beyond that,’’ Nitendra said. Depending on whether you can locate a good enough course, how motivated a national federation is and how supportive sponsors can be, this should be feasible in India.

Amid pandemic will we go the extra mile for the marathon and a handful of our elite athletes?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)   

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