OLYMPIC GAMES IS NOT A BUSINESS MODEL: THOMAS BACH, PRESIDENT, IOC

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

At the recent general assembly of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) held in Doha, Qatar, Thomas Bach, president, International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said that the Olympic Games is not about making money.

In a speech, the text of which is available on IOC’s website, Mr Bach while emphasizing solidarity and political neutrality as vital to the universality of the Games has spoken against those associating the Olympics with business model.

He outlined the IOC’s mission so, “ our mission is to bring the entire world together in a peaceful competition; this is it. And what is the most important thing there, and what makes us so unique, is the entire world, is this universality and to achieve this universality, to show with the Olympic Games, the unity of humankind in all our differences. This is what makes the Olympic Games so unique, so important and so valuable.’’

Having explained the importance of political neutrality as ingredient for the mission, he said, “ another  means  to  achieve  this  universality,  besides  this  unity  and  this  political  neutrality,  is  solidarity. Without  solidarity,  without  caring  for  each  other  among  all  the  NOCs,  among  all  the  sports, there is no universality. And there, and some people, they want to explain to us that the Olympic  Games  have  to  be  considered  as  a  business  model.  It  must  be  about  how  can  we  maximise  profit  and  how  can  we  then  distribute  these  profits  according  to  the  economic contribution of the different stakeholders to this Olympic Games and to the economic success of this Olympic Games? And there to be extremely clear, the Olympic Games are not about making money. The Olympic Games are not about maximising revenues. The Olympic Games are there to  accomplish  our  mission  to  unite  the  world  through  sport  and  to  promote  and  to  defend  our  values− this is our mission.

“ So for the IOC, there I’m sure I can speak on behalf of all of you because you are the guardians of this solidarity. For us, as I said, in this G20 speech, money for us is just a means to achieve our mission because if we consider the Olympic Games to be a business model, we would not have  206  National  Olympic  Committees  and  the  athletes  from  the  entire  world  in the  Olympic  Games. We would not have athletes from 33 or 28 sports in the Olympic Games. It would only be a very select group, a very select group of athletes, not even of National Olympic Committees, but a select group of athletes in a select group of some of the Olympic sports; and the Olympic Games, as we know them, and the Olympic Games as we want them, and the Olympic Games as they were conceived by Pierre de Coubertin 125 years ago, would cease to exist. We would just  have  another  entertainment  product  in  this  world,  competing  with  other  entertainment  products,  but  not  related  to  any  kind  of  values  anymore;  it  would  just  be  show,  entertainment,  without any values, without any contribution to a better society. And  therefore,  we  will  not  consider  the  Olympic Games to be a business model.’’

The speech was available for reference along with related news report (dated October 17, 2019) about the Doha meeting, on the IOC website. The G20 meeting referred to in there happened in June 2019 at Osaka in Japan. At that June meeting in Osaka, Mr Bach had said, “ in a year from now, more than half of the world’s population will follow the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The Olympic Games are the only event that brings the entire world together in peaceful competition. At the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the world will see athletes from all 206 National Olympic Committees and the IOC Refugee Olympic Team united.’’

Apprising the gathered G20 leaders of IOC’s need for solidarity, he had said, “ this is the reason why we reinvest 90 per cent of all our revenues in the athletes and in developing sport around the world. In hard figures, this means five billion US dollars in the four years of an Olympiad. But please do not worry: not a single cent of taxpayers’ money goes to the IOC budget. We generate our revenues exclusively through sponsorship and media rights. But to be clear, for the IOC, money is not an end in itself. Money is just a means to achieve our mission.”

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

MARATHON RECORDS: SPOTLIGHT ON SHOES

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Over October 14-15, when the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) disclosed its male and female nominees for the 2019 Athlete of the Year awards, both the world record holders in the marathon – Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei – featured on the list.

Kosgei had just smashed the 16 year-old world record of Paula Radcliffe at the 2019 Chicago Marathon while Kipchoge, world record holder among men since the 2018 Berlin Marathon, had only a day before Kosgei’s feat, become the first human to accomplish a sub two hour-marathon albeit unofficially.

Going by media reports, questions are being posed on the shoes used.

Ineos 1:59 Challenge, the event at which Kipchoge dipped below two hours on October 12 in Vienna, was his second attempt at doing so. In 2017, at a run sponsored by shoe giant Nike and staged in Monza, he had clocked 2:00:25 (the project was called Breaking2). The 2017 attempt had employed a new shoe Nike was working on; it had carbon fiber plates in it and promised to improve running economy marginally. That measure, although small when quantified, matters a great deal when the battle is about shaving seconds over a distance of 42.2 kilometers. In an August 2019 article on shoes with this technology, Outside magazine wrote, “ The Vaporfly’s midsole also included a spatula-shaped carbon-fiber plate that the brand said was meant to help fling the runner forward with every stride—or to at least create a convincing illusion that something like that was happening. “I feel like I’m running downhill,” Nike-sponsored marathoner Galen Rupp purportedly said the first time he tried it.’’  The shoes are totally legal. By the time of Kipchoge’s 2019 attempt, the Nike shoe he used appears to have improved further. Nike’s website provides insight; the following is from a statement dated October 11, 2019 posted under the site’s news section:

“ Kipchoge first tested what was to become the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite in January 2016. He was instantly entranced by the radical tooling and the road feel. A few months later, Kipchoge wore the shoe, still an under-the-radar prototype, in London and again that year in Rio. Shortly after his gold-medal performance in Brazil, he addressed Nike designers with a few sharp questions: “What’s running in your mind after this shoe? Do you have plans for another version with more advanced benefits?” Since then, he’s been leading each iterative advance of Nike’s NEXT% range. Kipchoge first visited the Nike Sports Research Lab (NSRL) in 2016 as part of the journey toward Breaking2. The experience solidified friendships — Kipchoge had been regularly emailing Nike contacts for marathon footwear advice since 2013 — and set in motion a new stage in his competitive career.

“ The symbiosis between Kipchoge and the NSRL manifested itself in his brilliant performance in Monza, then progressed to breaking the marathon world record in Berlin in 2018. It has also stoked Kipchoge’s insatiable appetite for pushing the limits of potential — illustrated in how he cares for his body, prepares for his races and shifts right back into his next challenge. In turn, Kipchoge’s verve spurs the NSRL to continue to pursue science-led innovations that push the limits of performance running. Kipchoge will attempt to break the two-hour barrier on October 12 wearing a future edition of Nike’s Next% marathon shoe. No matter the outcome, what’s clear is that this champion’s singular experience will prompt more feedback, more questions and, ultimately, more advance in the sport as a whole.’’ On October 12, Kipchoge, running at Ineos 1:59 Challenge in Vienna, covered the 42.2 kilometer-distance of the full marathon in 1:59:40, an unofficial timing not considered for record purposes.

On October 14, author Alex Hutchinson writing in Outside magazine, highlighted two points. First, Jonathan Gault of LetsRun had pointed out that the five fastest record-eligible marathons had all happened in the last 13 months and they had been achieved wearing versions of the Nike Vaporfly. Second, Kosgei’s post-race interview – again as appeared on LetsRun – hints that she too may have been using similar shoes although visually (as seen in photos from the race), Hutchinson felt, the shoe seemed closer to the “ commercially available Vaporfly Next%.’’ That last point is important for as he pointed out, in 2018 the IAAF tweaked its rules to say that any type of shoe used must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of universality of athletics. On October 15, The Times reported that IAAF and Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) had received complaints from athletes citing the advantage posed by the new shoes. It was also reported that IAAF issued a statement to The Times informing of a working group set up “ to consider the issues.’’

As trend, technological advancements shaping athletics is not new. The pole of pole vault and the javelin are great examples of new levels reached with the help of technology. In pole vault, the old bamboo pole gave way to poles made of tubular aluminum and later, fiberglass (including carbon fiber in places as required). Needless to say, technology enabled higher vaults. But there were also limits set. The javelin was redesigned when the distances thrown threatened to exceed the length of a stadium infield. In 2008, a new type of full body swimsuit by Speedo, capable of reducing drag in water by 24 per cent, was gear of choice in several world records broken. In 2009, the sport’s apex body enacted rules disallowing full body swimsuits and specifying type of fabric to be used. Against this backdrop, the relevant factors to emphasize in the case of marathons – it would seem – are level playing field in baseline (spirit of universality) and how much of technological advancement works against the essence of the sport. Needless to say, in an ever evolving world, this will be subject of periodic review and debate.

Incidentally as regards running shoes, Nike is not alone in using carbon fiber plate in the sole. In May, at an event to celebrate the launch of Carbon X from Hoka One One, American ultramarathoner Jim Walmsley had set a new 50 mile world-best mark (unofficial) of 4:50:07. A simple Google search for running shoes with carbon fiber plates yielded at least four models – Nike Zoom Vaporfly, Hoka One One Evo Carbon Rocket, Hoka One One Carbon X, Skechers Speed Elite and New Balance Fuel Cell 5280. Going by reviews and articles on these shoes, it would seem that carbon fiber plate combined with right foam cushioning and overall design is what makes the difference.

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

COMING UP: INEOS 1:59 CHALLENGE

Eliud Kipchoge (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Roughly a week after the action ends at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships, the world record holder in the marathon – Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge – is scheduled to attempt running the 42.2km distance in less than two hours. No human has yet managed to do a sub two-hour marathon.

The event called `INEOS 1:59 Challenge’ is the second such attempt by Kipchoge. The first was a project by Nike called `Breaking 2,’ held at a race track in Italy in May 2017, when Kipchoge managed a time of 2:00:25. It remains unofficially the fastest time so far for a marathon; it didn’t merit official recognition as world record by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for several reasons including the use of a battery of pacers. Same would be the case with INEOS 1:59. Variables have been weeded out for singular pursuit of timing. A suitable course has been selected in Vienna, Austria and a window of select days – originally October 12-20, 2019 and since narrowed to October 12-14 – shortlisted to stage the attempt when conditions are most favorable.

In his diary entries ahead of the challenge (available on the event website) Kipchoge has acknowledged that while his preparation for the event is similar to his preparation for any marathon, he is new to Vienna and will need “ a day or so’’ to get used to the city. He has seen pictures and videos of the course but will need to jog there once or twice to imprint it in his mind. He says that he didn’t sleep a wink before Breaking 2. This time, he hopes to catch some sleep before embarking on the challenge. But a couple of aspects about INEOS 1:59 make it distinct from previous runs. Usually you know the exact date of a run. Here, you don’t. “ I will need to have a flexible mindset, while also preparing as though I am competing on October 12,’’ Kipchoge says on the website. Further, unlike Breaking 2 where he had two runners – Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea and Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia – competing with him, in Vienna, Kipchoge will be competing with himself.

He will have pacers. The list, as available on the event’s website is long: Thomas Ayeko (Uganda), Selemon Barega (Ethiopia), Emmanuel Bett (Kenya), Hillary Bor (USA), Mande Bushendich (Uganda), Matthew Centrowitz (USA), Paul Chelimo (USA), Augustine Choge (Kenya), Victor Chumo (Kenya), the Ingebrigtsen brothers – Filip, Henrik and Jakob (Norway), Philemon Kacheran (Kenya), Stanley Kebenei (USA), Justus Kimutai (Kenya), Shadrack Kichirchir (USA), Noah Kipkemboi (Kenya), Gideon Kipketer (Kenya), Jacob Kiplimo (Uganda), Marius Kipserem (Kenya), Eric Kiptanui (Kenya), Moses Koech (Kenya), Shadrach Koech (Kazakhstan), Micah Kogo (Kenya), Alex Korio (Kenya), Jonathan Korir (Kenya), Ronald Kwemoi (Kenya), Bernard Lagat (USA), Lopez Lomong (USA), Abdallah Mande (Uganda), Stewart Mcsweyn (Australia), Kota Murayama (Japan), Ronald Musagala (Uganda), Kaan Kigen Ozbilen (Turkey), Jack Rayner (Australia), Chala Regasa (Ethiopia), Brett Robinson (Australia), Nicholas Rotich (Kenya), Patrick Tiernan (Australia), Timothy Toroitich (Uganda) and Julien Wanders (Switzerland). Some of these athletes were in action at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha.

During the event, there will be a car in front of Kipchoge setting an accurate pace for the run and maybe (as some reports suggested), providing benefit of draft. Draft or none, the car is critical and its selection provides insight on the battle with variables when a single attribute – in this case 1:59 hours – has to be chased in isolation. The reason the car came in is because the best way to run a fast marathon is to sustain an even pace. Runners including Kipchoge, have the tendency to vary their pace over the duration of a marathon. This must be avoided as far as possible when the quest is sub-two, margin for error is thin and difference by a few seconds can impact final outcome. As they set about looking for the right car, the organizing team discovered that the cruise control systems on cars were not 100 per cent accurate. So specialists were engaged. The eventual choice was an electric vehicle. That was also because it helps the runners run behind without worry of breathing in harmful engine emissions. Finally, for redundancy, a second vehicle will also be on stand-by, the event’s website said.

All this raises the question – if it is so complicated, if so many variables have to be managed, then why have the sub-two attempt at all? Doesn’t it become too synthetic?

The answer to that lay in the sheer magnetic pull of dipping below two hours for a full marathon, something no person has done before. The publicity pitch for the event likens it to man reaching the moon. Not everyone agrees. In August 2019, CNN reported that Professor Ross Tucker of South Africa (he was an expert witness in Caster Semenya’s hearing at the Court of Arbitration of Sports in 2019) found the comparisson contrived. The crux of the argument relates to setting an utterly impartial baseline to decide athletic performance. Within that concern, fingers were pointed at advancements in shoe technology with models like Nike’s Vaporfly four per cent promising a quicker pace to its wearer. They are totally legal. But the shoe featuring carbon fiber plate and special mid-sole foam provides the athlete an element of unnatural advantage.

Eliud Kipchoge (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of INEOS 1:59 Challenge and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

“ According to Tucker, a runner expelling four percent less oxygen for the same energy output is able to improve on his or her performance by 2.5 percent at the elite level. Over the course of a marathon – 26.2 miles (42.2km) – this could translate to as much as two minutes,’’ the CNN article said. However other studies – there was one reported by Runners World in February 2019, involving a team of researchers from University of Colorado Boulder – show that four per cent energy saved with such shoes needn’t necessarily translate into a four per cent faster run. The runner’s height and weight as well the air resistance encountered, matter.

All this technology is construed as altering the baseline for deciding human athletic performance and comparing it. As Tucker argued in the CNN article – to reach the moon, man had an unalterable baseline to surpass; gravity. A controlled run in pursuit of sub-two with technology like the above for company, is akin to claiming a marathon record on Mars.

Notwithstanding such perspective, curiosity for the sub-two marathon will always be there. And along with it, the marketing leverage it provides. As it is, without dipping below two hours and running along with other marathoners at an established event like the Berlin Marathon, the world’s two fastest timings so far in the discipline – 2:01:39 by Kipchoge (Berlin 2018) and 2:01:41 by Ethiopia’s Kenenise Bekele (Berlin 2019) – are in a league by themselves. The pace therein, sustained over 42.2 kilometers, is beyond the reach of most runners.

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

PSYNYDE BIKES: WEATHERING TOUGH CHEMISTRY

Psynyde Dioxide (Photo: Vinay Menon)

In 2016, when Psynyde Bikes launched the Furan MTB, it was for India, a rare instance of cycling enthusiasts designing bicycles, manufacturing overseas and selling in modest numbers in the domestic market. After a promising start, the company is now in a phase of struggle. If it persists, it may be able to look back and say of now: that was a learning experience.

Roughly three years after introducing their first factory built-models capable of selling in modest numbers, brand Psynyde continues to retain the cultish feel that accompanies performance. In that time, it also experienced reversals on the business front not for want of product acceptance but things gone wrong internally in the fledgling company. The core team is back to two – MTB enthusiast turned bicycle designer and builder, Praveen Prabhakaran, and Vinay Menon who still rides hard and oversees marketing for the brand.

On the bright side, the initial 100 units-strong consignment of the trail bike they designed – Psynyde Furan – sold out in a year; as did an initial lot of 100 of the hybrid – Oxygen. Feedback was encouraging. There have been no complaints except for small issues with a plastic cap, Praveen said. However, the Chinese factory, which manufactured the bike frames he designed, fell into hard times. Praveen said he has identified alternative factories, capable of similar quality.

Vinay Menon riding at Flow Show, Canada (Photo: Vinay Menon)

According to Vinay, Psynyde’s bikes as well as the bicycle components it made featured at domestic and international competitions. The Furan was chosen steed for Psynyde sponsored-riders and some of the company’s customers, who took part in these events. There have also been a couple of podium finishes. Brand Psynyde – as component or whole bicycle – was seen at events including the 2012 FLOW Show demos in Canada, the 2013 and 2014 Asia Pacific Downhill Championships, multiple editions of the Himalayan Downhill Mountain Bike Trophy, 2016 and 2017 Bangalore Mountain Festival Downhill Race, TDRY Gui’de International Downhill Cycling Race in China, 2018 Mechuka Downhill Championship, 2018 National BMX Flatland Championship and the 2019 Bangalore Bicycle Championship (downhill race). But there was tragedy too, one that was felt deeply at Psynyde.

In July 2017, Ajay Padval, a talented mountain biker from Pune, died in an accident while biking down from Khardung La near Leh. This downhill ride, done on the road connecting Leh to Nubra valley via Khardung La, is a popular supported trip availed by many visitors to Ladakh. Ajay was no different; he wanted to taste the experience. He was driven up to Khardung La along with others set to ride down from the high pass to Leh. That day, unfortunately for Ajay, something went wrong resulting in serious injury. Found fallen on the road, he was rushed to the local hospital but passed away the next day. “ Ajay was a very important member of the Psynyde team in the little time he spent with us. Right from being a dedicated team athlete – not just mountain biking, he was excellent at slacklining too – to giving important inputs in operations and matters related to product design. Ajay’s unfortunate demise affected us a lot,’’ Vinay said. Ajay had grown up watching older cycling enthusiasts; among them Praveen and Vinay. They were all part of the same MTB ecosystem in Pune. Not long after Psynyde got into bicycle manufacturing, he joined the company. His untimely passing was therefore personal loss for Praveen and Vinay.

Ajay Padval (Photo: Veloscope)

On the product front, both the Furan and Oxygen were perceived in the market as versatile bicycles. The Furan was designed to be a hard tail MTB capable of tackling a variety of terrain and riding styles; the Oxygen known to be light weight and having geometry partial to speed has been used by customers for purposes ranging from regular commute and weekend rides to bicycle touring. In 2018, Pune-based Abhishek Iyer toured across Norway on a Psynyde Oxygen. From a second lot of Oxygen, at the time of writing, about 90 units remained in stock in Pune. The company needed to invest afresh in components if it was to assemble and sell all of them. As of July, Praveen and Vinay were looking for investors who understood Psynyde’s line of business as well as the performance image, brand Psynyde had created for itself.

Psynyde’s capital requirements are of modest dimension. But the challenge is procuring financial support without the associated baggage of altered direction for the company. Having created its narrative to date by aligning with the performance segment, Psynyde does not want to trade that image for recovery plans advising dilution of its profile. “ One potential investor asked us to change the brand name and make it more mainstream. That was unacceptable,’’ Praveen said.  At the same time, he was aware of the fact that a bicycle business can’t be founded wholly on presence in niche, performance segments. “ There is so much I wanted to do. Instead I have all this to sort out now,’’ Praveen said at his house on the outskirts of Pune. It was July 2019; annual season of rain.

Abhishek Iyer with the Psynyde Oxygen (This photo of Abhishek was downloaded from the Facebook page of Psynyde Bikes)

Praveen is happiest discussing bicycle technology and design. He took out his cellphone to show photos of a beautiful road bike with carbon fiber-frame mated to steel joints and wireless, electronic shifters that he had built for a client. It was part of the original custom built-bicycles business that was Psynyde; the seed which eventually spawned a company selling modest volumes of cycles designed by it and factory-built in China. Psynyde’s logo sat prominently on the road bike’s head tube.

Before us in the room, was the prototype of a new Furan. In a major departure from previous models of the Furan and Oxygen, the prototype sported only one chain ring at the front. There was a nine speed-cassette at the rear. The combination changed the traditional MTB gear ratios seen in India but made the bike simpler. It also had front suspension capable of greater travel and a hydraulic seat post that adjusted remotely allowing rider to sit low on downhills and revert to regular height once such sections were tackled. Should this model proceed beyond prototype and witness production, Praveen hoped to have a more aggressive angle for the front suspension. He was also considering steel as metal to build with; potential fallout of that being frame composed of absolutely straight lines unlike the prototype with down tube slightly curved towards its junction with the head tube.

Psynyde Psymptom prototype (Photo: Vinay Menon)

Also available to see as photographs were prototypes of two downhill bikes from Psynyde – the Psymptom and Dioxide. Both sported four bar design for rear suspension set up. The Psymptom had this set up essayed in CNC machine cut-aluminum (rest of the frame was chromoly steel) while the Dioxide was wholly 4130 chromoly steel. As with the Psymptom and Dioxide, a Furan 2 made of steel was not concept, suddenly conceived. Praveen had been toying with the idea of getting back to steel tubing for a while. In the story of bicycles, steel disliked for its weight had given way to aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber.  All these materials have their merits and demerits.  For instance, even as aluminum is lighter, points of welding are usually invitation to lose strength. As lighter materials gained currency in cycling, steel alloys evolved further. Today, very thin steel tubing that does not weigh a lot, is available. The return of steel is particularly visible in the MTB segment overseas, Praveen and Vinay said.

The tubes used are butted steel tubes, which have varying wall thickness. Such fabrication isn’t yet a strong point with Indian manufacturing, particularly at the dimensions (wall thickness) needed for contemporary performance bicycles. Further when it comes to modest volumes of raw materials, like that needed by Psynyde, any Indian supplier capable of making butted tubes in steel finds it unviable scale. Result – the tubes have to be imported from British, Italian, American and Japanese suppliers; often at high import duty for no better reason than that its eventual application is in cycling. The Dioxide was featured on VitalMTB, a major online portal for MTB news. “ There will be downhill riders in India appreciative of the Psymptom and the Dioxide,’’ Vinay said. Problem is – downhill is a smaller world within India’s small world of MTB. That relapse to niche category brings us back to a familiar predicament.

Psynyde Dioxide, rider: Hrishi Mandke (Photo: Vinay Menon)

If its products are meant for niche within niche, where will Psynyde’s main revenues come from to sustain its avatar of company designing own bicycles, manufacturing overseas and selling in modest volumes in India? For sustenance, versatile products like the Furan and Oxygen matter. That’s why the current capital crunch has to be somehow overcome, stocks reached to a market, which anyway liked Psynyde’s products and the momentum carried on. An additional option is to create a set of affordable products closer to mainstream interests in cycling. If so, that would probably have to be done at arm’s length making sure brand Psynyde is not diluted in the process. But there is a deeper question lurking in the backdrop.

The talent required to manage a company is very different from the creativity that goes into bicycle designing or the kick one gets from riding and testing bicycles. Praveen’s house used to be Psynyde’s old factory floor; that was when all Psynyde did was design and custom build bicycles and machine specific components. At that size, the business was easier to manage. Praveen could stay creative and Vinay could continue riding. If they can’t get Psynyde’s current avatar moving at least partly on autopilot mode with good managers in place, then at some point, after cleaning up their liabilities, there will be a question awaiting the duo’s attention: is volume manufacturing their cup of tea? Or are they more comfortable with a boutique operation similar to old, designing and custom-building bicycles?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Praveen Prabhakaran and Vinay Menon. For more on Psynyde Bikes, please try the following two links: https://shyamgopan.com/2014/02/06/the-story-of-psynyde/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2016/11/09/psynyde-alert-the-hour-of-the-furan/)

COFFEE, CONVERSATION AND RUNNING

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Few things represent post liberalization India, as the coffee shop culture which sprang up in urban areas.

Coffee shops became places to meet.

People converged to socialize, discuss business and later as wireless internet spread, at least some started using these spaces as surrogate offices.

It isn’t that places to socialize were not available before. Every region had its unique flag bearer in this regard. Mumbai had its Irani cafes and Udupi restaurants, although neither encouraged conversation over commerce. A sense of allotted time hung like Damocles Sword at these outfits. In South India, besides the ubiquitous tea shop, there were the branches of the Indian Coffee House (ICH), an enterprise founded in the 1950s and firmly identified with the working class. They were affordable coffee houses, feet planted on the ground and having no pretense to being café or coffee shop, the latter concept associated in India with upmarket appearance and menu. ICH had branches elsewhere too but its mainstay was the south.

Following the initial flush of entrants in the coffee shop business, some of the players scaled back. It was Café Coffee Day (CCD) that eventually went nationwide in a prominent way, in the segment. V. G. Siddhartha’s business group had a major presence in coffee estates and coffee trading; CCD was in some ways its most visible retail face. The first CCD outlet opened in Bengaluru in July 1996. Notwithstanding costly fare (compared to the cafes and coffee houses of previous decades), CCD’s branch network spread to India’s cities and towns. This new space for coffee and conversation touched many of us, whose careers / adult years coincided with the India brewed afresh by liberalization. As of July 2019, CCD was India’s biggest chain of coffee shops by a significant margin.

On July 30, 2019, twenty three years after the first CCD appeared on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road, the media reported that Siddhartha had gone missing from the bridge over the Netravati River near Mangaluru. The next day his body was recovered from the river. News reports in the wake of the tragedy, pointed to a business under stress. The episode was tracked by many of us. We paused to reflect on Siddhartha’s demise because the number of us who visited a CCD outlet or passed by one in our daily lives, was not small. Quite a few of the conversations with runners and cyclists featured on this blog, happened at one CCD outlet or another for they represented space to sit and talk. Wikipedia’s page on the company says that in 2010 when CCD’s current logo was designed, it was to “ showcase the chain as a place to talk.’’

The coffee estates Siddhartha’s company owns have been location for the annual Malnad Ultra. It is a trail run involving ultramarathon distances. There is a September 2016 report in the Economic Times (available on the Internet) on the subject. The report precedes the event’s first edition. According to it, “ the coffee baron has offered a 10-year access to his plantations, which stretch across 13,000 acres of the Western Ghats.’’  The Malnad Ultra has since become an event with distinct fan following.

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

AFTER BADWATER, FLASHBACK: JAPAN

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The 2019 edition of Badwater 135 was won by Yushihiko Ishikawa of Japan. Two years earlier, in 2017, the race was won by Wataru Iino, a Japanese engineer and runner, posted on work to Chennai, India. Across men and women, as of 2019, Japanese runners had triumphed on four occasions at Badwater with Sumie Inagaki winning in the women’s category twice, back to back. Scan the results of another famous ultramarathon – Spartathlon; there are several Japanese runners among podium finishers over the years. Plus, who can forget Yuki Kawauchi’s gritty run at the Boston Marathon in 2018? Japan is a powerhouse in distance running, not that well known outside. Here’s a peek into an ecosystem for running in Asia’s Far East.

Most runners and fans of running study Africa.

The highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia are famous for the runners they create. Over the past few decades, podium positions at major races worldwide have gone to athletes from these countries. This dominance wasn’t always the case. Following his much appreciated book from 2013: Running with the Kenyans, author Adharanand Finn, turned his attention to the Japanese. The result was 2015’s The Way of the Runner. It dwelled on the running culture in Japan, a country that was churning out performances in long distance running next only to the Kenyans and Ethiopians. “ Before the running boom in the west; before the Africans, the Japanese completely dominated marathon running in the world,’’ Finn explains in an interview posted on YouTube by publishers, Faber and Faber in May 2015. According to that video, in 1965, around 11 of the top 12 runners in the world were Japanese.  Next year, it was 15 of the top 17.

“ They were dominating like the Kenyans dominate now, partly because they were one of the only countries running marathons on a large scale. It’s not very well known that Japan has got this obsession with running. Part of the reason for that is that the biggest races are all internal races. They have these huge long distance relay races which are called ekidens. They traverse quite large distances; from 200 kilometers, 300 kilometers….the longest one is around 1000 kilometers,’’ Finn says. Ekidens are very popular in Japan. The biggest ekiden – the Hakone Ekiden –spans two days and is a much watched telecast. “ Everybody watches it, even people who have no interest in running the rest of the year. This is real passion for running,’’ Finn says in the video, about the Hakone Ekiden. But because it is all happening within the country, ekidens are not that well known outside Japan.

According to Wikipedia:  The first ekiden was held in Japan in 1917 as a 3-day, 23-stage run from Kyoto to Tokyo for more than 507 kilometers, in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Tokyo’s establishment as the nation’s capital (from its previous status as the shogunate Edo while Kyoto was capital city). Eki means “station” and den translates as “to convey”. It was the name given to the old Japanese transportation system for government documents and officials by relay of horses or men. At the heart of the modern relay race is a sash carried by each runner (it is slung from the shoulder and worn across the body) and passed on to the next. This sash is everything. You run to ensure that it is passed on. Should a runner fail to pass it on, then a whole team risks being disqualified. In turn the devotion to sash and runners trying their level best to not fail, are seen to directly complement team building and obliquely, evoke imagery of the warrior spirit. To put things in perspective, the Japanese take sports seriously. It assumes importance at high school level and by university the importance given to training and coaching is quite high. There are ekidens featuring high school and university teams.

Yuta Shitara, who placed second at the 2018 Tokyo Marathon in a remarkable late stage surge. In July 2019, the Japanese runner – he is a former national record holder – set a new course record at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Gold Coast Marathon)

Sample this observation in Wikipedia about the 2010 (86th edition) of the Hakone Ekiden: Of the 380 athletes representing the 19 universities, 328 have run under 14:40 for 5000 meters; 150 at 14:20 and 33 under 14:00. Stepping up to the 10,000 meter distance, the same sources show that these 19 Tokyo universities list over 190 runners with personal bests under 30:00. For comparison: as of 2019, the Indian national record for men in 5000 meters is 13:29:70 and for women, 15:15:89; in the case of 10,000 meters, it is 28:02:89 and 31:50:47. The Hakone Ekiden’s course starts in central Tokyo, goes out of the city and up the mountains to the base of Mount Fuji. The next day, the event reverses direction and runners race back. Wikipedia pegs the first day distance at 108 kilometers and the second day at 109.9 kilometers. Each day’s run has five sections. In a write-up on the Hakone Ekiden in January 2014 in The Guardian, Finn himself noted that the event’s 10 stages are close to half marathon distance with over the two days, 30 students running a “ half marathon-equivalent time of under 63 minutes’’ excluding timings on the race’s fastest sixth segment, which is mostly downhill. In the whole of 2013, only one runner in UK – Mo Farah – ran a half marathon in under 63 minutes, Finn wrote highlighting the quality of runners at the ekiden. It doesn’t stop there.

Suguru Osako; as of July 2019, he held the Japanese national record in the marathon – 2:05:50 – set at the 2018 Chicago Marathon (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page. It is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.)

Large Japanese companies maintain ekiden teams. A February 2018 article by Martin Fritz Huber on Japanese runners, available on the website of Outside magazine, mentioned that some five dozen corporate teams existed, each having at least 20 full time, paid runners. That is a pool of 1200 elite long distance runners. There are leagues for these teams; there are corporate championships. The interest of corporates in ekidens has also opened another angle. Professional athletes survive on the strength of sponsorship, appearance fee and prize money. As Finn points out in the video, typically, if a professional athlete is injured or is past his / her prime, the challenges are many.  You have to make a new beginning, find new means to survive. At companies having ekiden teams, a good athlete gets backed by regular salary. When such an athlete retires from the sport, he / she settles down to a job in the office. Finally, going by what multiple sources on the Internet speak of the ekiden, the human drama associated with the event ranging from team spirit to ensuring the sash is passed on at all cost, make races interesting for telecast. Videos of ekidens show spectators lining up to cheer. In the case of ekidens featuring corporate teams, spectators include company employees and their families.

Wataru Iino,winner of the 2017 Badwater Ultramarathon, at the production facility of Daimler India Commercial Vehicles in Chennai, India (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

So how does this ecosystem translate into performance at elite levels? The earlier quoted observation from Wikipedia provides overview of performance parameters at university level. The Outside magazine article – the expert consulted therein was again Adharanand Finn – offered similar perspective with a major marathon for backdrop.  In 2018, Yuta Shitara secured second place at the annual Tokyo Marathon; he finished the race in 2:06:11. What impressed was that Japan had six runners in the top ten in the men’s category and altogether nine, including those outside the top ten, who ran quicker than 2:10 – all this from one race (the data is still there among archived race results, on the event’s website). When the author of said article looked up the fastest times in marathon history, he found that in contrast, only 17 American runners had managed sub-2:10. Restricted to record eligible-courses, the number shrank to 11. At several major races, Japanese runners finish in the top ten but amid highly competitive sport with narrative seeking African runners, they get overlooked. The world’s best timings reported by the Association of Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS), is usually a list awash in names from Africa. Among a spattering of names from other regions, the Japanese also feature. In 2018, the fastest Japanese marathon runner was Suguru Osako; his third place finish at the Chicago Marathon with a time of 2:05:50 (at the time of writing it was Japan’s national record in the discipline) placed him 27th on the list. The current world record, set by Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge in September 2018 in Berlin, is 2:01:39.

Yoshihiko Ishikawa, winner of the 2019 Badwater Ultramarathon (This photo, downloaded from the Facebook page of Northern Ireland Running, is from the 2017 Belfast 24 Hour World Championships. No copyright infringement intended)

As with any ecosystem, there are stories around the ekiden too. One such is about a man often described to have taken the longest duration yet to complete a marathon – 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds. In that time, Shizo Kanakuri got married, had six children and ten grandchildren. His story started in the early years of the 20th century. According to Wikipedia:  During the November 1911 domestic qualifying trials for the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, although the length of the course was probably only 40 km (25 miles), Kanakuri was reported to have set a marathon world record at 2 hours, 32 minutes and 45 seconds. He was thus selected as one of only two athletes that Japan could afford to send to the event. Kanakuri had to travel 18 days to reach Stockholm from Japan; first by ship and then by the Trans-Siberian Railway. He took five days to recover from the journey.

That year, the Olympic marathon was plagued by unexpected warm weather conditions. More than half the field suffered from hyperthermia. Kanakuri, already weak from his long journey and having issues with the local food; lost consciousness midway through the race. He was looked after by a farming family. Embarrassed by his failure he returned quietly to Japan without informing race officials. Swedish authorities recorded him as “ missing.’’ Although he competed at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp (where he completed the marathon in 2 hours, 48 minutes, 45.4 seconds to place 16th), it seems to have missed Sweden’s eye. Decades went by before Swedish authorities found out that he was alive in Japan. In 1967, Swedish Television invited him back to complete the race he had begun in 1912. According to Wikipedia, Kanakuri who is celebrated as “ the father of marathon’’ in Japan, played an important role in establishing the biggest of the ekidens – the Hakone Ekiden.

Yuki Kawauchi aka Citizen Runner and Civil Services Runner, at the 2018 Boston Marathon (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Boston Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.)

Given its reputation for discipline and industry, conformation would seem prized in Japanese culture including the culture around running. Ekidens are an important aspect of Japanese running culture; as are corporate teams. You would think they are unquestioningly followed as ideal progression for runner. That isn’t always the case. There are those who navigate differently. In the video, Finn mentions one such athlete – Yuki Kawauchi, among Japan’s best runners in recent years. Kawauchi worked at Kuki High School in Saitama Prefecture. He was not on any corporate team. In fact, Wikipedia mentions that after graduating, Kawauchi did not receive much interest from corporate running teams. “ He is one of the top runners and yet he has completely shunned the entire Japanese system. So he is very rebellious in that way and people love him for that,’’ Finn says in the 2015 video. Kawauchi – he is often called “ Citizen Runner’’ and “ Civil Services Runner’’ – is best remembered for winning the Boston Marathon in 2018, a year when the race had its coldest start in three decades and was run amid tough weather conditions. That said, news reports after the 2018 edition of the Boston Marathon said that Kawauchi was planning to quit his government job and shift to being a professional runner. Apparently he had been thinking of doing so since a ten day visit to London in 2017, for the IAAF World Championships. The move was seen as helping him improve his existing timing in the marathon and compete with the world’s best. He wished to use the prize money he got in Boston to effect the transition. In April 2019, a report in Japan Times said that Kawauchi had become a professional marathon runner.

Ekidens are now held outside Japan too. According to Wikipedia, they are held in Hawaii, Guam, Belgium, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Singapore.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He hasn’t seen an ekiden except on video; he hasn’t been to Japan. The above article is based on information available on the Internet. For an article on Wataru Iino, winner of the 2017 Badwater Ultramarathon, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/10/26/in-oragadam-a-badwater-winner/)     

STRAY DOTS CONNECTED BY NELSON’S EYE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

From high mountains to vehicle sales and jobs with fat salaries, the industrial paradigm is blinding us to the obvious.

2019 was not the first climbing season on Everest hosting queue of climbers.

One recalls photos shown by those who climbed Everest in the past decade. Lines have happened before; maybe not this bad on the final stretch of the ascent. A line is a potential queue; a queue is potential congestion. In other words, 2019 was in the works.

All that was needed was favorable circumstances converging. A slightly higher number of permits doled out, fickle weather of climate-change, a cyclone big enough to have distant impact in the Himalaya and climbers rushing to take advantage of a narrow window – that appears to have tipped what was potential into reality. In the days following the tragic deaths of May 2019 official explanation puzzled. A memorable line of reasoning was that people had died of altitude sickness, poor fitness and lack of experience, not traffic congestion on the peak. That is probably true.

Traffic jam at altitude

Consider the following. Altitude sickness is checked through acclimatization. But there is no certainty that it won’t strike. When it hits, the best remedy is losing elevation. Poor fitness can spell trouble when climbing a mountain entailing physical strain and the challenges of altitude. Experience counts. The more you have been to the high mountains and endured different scenarios, the better your understanding of self (and its limits) and greater your bandwidth to cope with nature.

In the event of altitude sickness, how easy will it be to turn around and lose elevation if the climbing route has too many people, at least some of them slowed by strain of altitude? If your fitness is poor and experience limited, how well will you cope with extended exposure to harsh nature, which is what happens when caught in a queue? Point is – long lines on any high mountain is unsafe. That raises the question: why do we ignore signs of potential accident? Why do we defend after tragedy?

One reason (certainly not the only one) would be the difference between mountaineering as activity and the same as industry. Across sectors, industry has typically showed reluctance to acknowledge its faults. There are investments, businesses and livelihood at stake. Viewed through such prism, old lines from old photos may not have seemed early indicator of what could potentially be. The other thing you notice in activity cast as industry is how notion of dynamic nature recedes and predictability becomes prized. Approached as industry, a high mountain becomes branded objective bought off a shop shelf. As with any other product, expectations rule the transaction and those expectations have to be met. The tragedy and defence from Everest spanned May-June 2019.

Traffic jam at sea level

On June 19, a leading daily reported that Mumbai had some of the worst traffic jams in the world. The report was notable for pinning blame almost wholly on civic authorities responsible for roads and the traffic police, responsible for issues like parking. There are two actors overlooked in the story of traffic jams – vehicle manufacturers and consumers.

Vehicles are manufactured, marketed with high voltage campaigns, sold at attractive prices and backed with consumer finance – all by the automobile industry. The ones willfully spending, congesting the roads with their purchase and often prone to driving rashly are the customers. Yet no solid blame reaches these two segments. Vehicle manufacturers have traditionally kept big advertisement budgets; something media seeks. About two decades ago, officials at Indian auto companies used to argue that they are above spoiling the market with aggressive pricing, low interest loans and product discounts. Growing competition among auto companies, the pressures of surviving market cycles, the technological challenges facing the global auto industry, the rising relevance of public transport and ethical preference for less polluting means of mobility – all these changed industry. There is desperation to sell before product relevance dries up. Now the Indian market also hosts freebies, discounts and cheap loans. Sellers are targeting pockets where the consumerist dream still attracts and tales of urban congestion are distant.

Questioning the habits of readers / viewers (who are also vehicle customers) to the point of irritating them is not affordable to media. Editors have limits decided by business model. As people spend on vehicles in age of high salary and more disposable income, both customer and industry are spared acute scrutiny by media. Civic authorities and traffic police take the blame instead. Like the mountaineering industry’s inability to visualize potential danger in a long line at altitude, vehicle manufacturers and customers reserve a Nelson’s Eye for their role in traffic congestion. They see their combined activity as feeding GDP (even if time wasted in traffic jam is productivity lost). GDP is currently unquestionable; it is a nice place for big fish to hide.

There is a cost for our collective existence – growing and burgeoning – that nobody wants to acknowledge. Like Mumbai’s traffic jams and May 2019 on Everest, all costs eventually come home. Yet the architecture of potential mess appears lost on even the educated.

Traffic jam in the head

The new rain; rain of vehicles (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

And so in June 2019, it was Nelson’s Eye again, as a former senior official of the Indian IT industry argued that what stifled employment in the country was not lack of jobs but lack of well paid jobs. It harked of an older fantasy sold (much successful like vehicle sales measured in numbers) – that of celebrating exploded population as demographic dividend. Doesn’t demographic dividend / workforce have the propensity to be consumerist with consequences thereof? If you are not blinded by GDP, you will notice that more money does not reduce the carrying cost of our bloated existence and its equally bloated aftermath ranging from stress to congestion to trash. Instead, allowing ourselves to see without tainted spectacles would be a good starting point.

One example for how money solves nothing is government finances creaking under the load of rising wage and pension bill. Transplant the habit to private sector, you will simply spread the disease. In the urge to appease constituencies monetarily, inequality grows and the economy is stalked by inflation. What we need is reasonable hours of work, reasonable salary and most importantly – affordable cost of living that stretches currency’s mileage. This demands a very fundamental reinterpretation of life away from mono-cropped imagination. After all, the best way to enjoy Everest without damaging it, is not to have everyone aiming for the top but respect even those content to watch it from far. In other words, spread earnings and opportunities around. Unfortunately, our educational system (that’s where we gain perspective of life) has been surrendered to GDP. It is the stuff of rat race; it even advocates it. We have few original characters born from it. There is no contrarian thought. To the extent it is all driven by money, alternative incentives like social acceptance and support, relevant to sustain non-mainstream imagination, have shriveled up. Your intuition warns that the overall accounts of existence are not balanced. Money tells you: don’t listen to that internal auditor, just keep minting money. What would you call such book keeping if it was a company, bank, airline or housing finance outfit, you were auditing?

In June again, there was a news report which said, some youngsters were living frugally and saving as much as they could to retire earlier than usual. It smacked of industrial superstructure tapped solely for income with an acknowledged lack of soul-connect to it. Unlike before, meaning it seemed, lay in retirement. There were others stepping out to see the world on small budgets; hope in their hearts to compensate for lack of cash. Now, that’s a different approach. At least, it’s no Nelson’s Eye.

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