THE `PHAW’ OF FOOTBALL

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The 2018 FIFA World Cup concluded on July 15 with France taking home the trophy. We wait another four years for the event’s next edition. Bulbul Rajagopal is a final year MA student in Kolkata, the city she grew up in. Here she writes about Kolkata’s craze for football and the ambiance that prevailed there this world cup season. Bulbul is reporting intern and contributor at this blog.  

“ Gabriel Jesus! Maybe if we all call out his name, Brazil might finally score…” groaned Tonoy Dutta as he scanned the screen hosting the group stage match against Costa Rica. Dutta, a student of class 12, was member of Dum Dum area’s Bondhu Bandhab Club in Kolkata. My quest to observe the city during the 2018 World Cup had led me to Kolkata’s outskirts where a local boys club was watching the match. Brazilian flags took much space in their club room, while the odd Argentine ones peeked out. Soon the arena was packed with more of Dutta’s friends, all fans of the Brazil national team. Bathed in the glow of the TV, their faces appeared enlightened. Watching their yellow and green-flecked gods dance on screen, they sat in revered silence before their religion – football.

Scanning the band of boys and old men – the former playing hooky from school due to the heat but mostly because of the World Cup; the latter come out of the woodwork only for the game – club regular, Rajat Basak, noted my bemused expression and laughed. “ Those who don’t even know the phaw of football [phaw denoting the phonetic ‘f’ in the Bengali script] can’t resist the charm of the World Cup,’’ he said.

Every four years, the arrival of the FIFA World Cup envelopes Kolkata – a city known for its long flirtation with the game – in an all too familiar buzz. Kolkata’s obsession with the game’s international proceedings began with what the city calls the “magic of Pele.’’ In the 1970s, television sets were scarce in the city. Communal viewings where entire neighbourhoods huddled over one TV set in a household or two, or even a local club room, were common practice. In spite of this, the 20,000-strong crowd that greeted the Brazilian football legend at the city’s airport in 1977 was testimony to their love for the game. By 2017, Kolkata had played host to both Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi — the latter’s visit drove 75,000 Calcuttans to swell the ranks in Salt Lake Stadium, one of the largest football stadiums in the world.

The footpath leading to Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Preparation for the World Cup is taken very seriously here. It is almost ritualistic. The altar for warm-up is the highly popular Maidan Market, which houses a collection of roadside stalls stacked high with jerseys and flags linked to teams in the World Cup fray. The occasional shirt loudly brandished with the face of Messi or Ronaldo is almost as desired. In the lead-up to the more popular matches, which in Kolkata are mostly the ones featuring Brazil or Argentina, frequent sights include parents inspecting the jerseys of favorite teams with their children, and school and college-goers rifling through the collection hoping for a decent bargain. This World Cup season, almost all store owners reported that their fastest-depleting stock were the jerseys of Argentina and Brazil. Being coveted items, these were priced the highest – about 450 to 500 rupees. For Aziz, one of the salesmen, a constant worry every season is the unsold jerseys of the less popular teams like England, even Portugal. “The public always keeps an eye out for internet updates and the original jerseys they see there. Then only do they come to us. As for myself, I am an Argentina fan,’’ he said. Asked for a reason, Aziz said laughing, “ because their jerseys sell the most.’’

Deep in the market stall upon stall catered to Kolkata’s football fever. Each hawker eyed every passerby beadily trying to guess which team they were loyal to in order to push their ware. Subhroneel Bose wove his way expertly through this maze. On acquiring a target, he studied the stock of Argentina jerseys, all bearing the number 10. Bose has been a regular here since the 2002 World Cup. Time had made him an experienced bargainer. He came away grinning excitedly with a jersey for 180 rupees. “ I’ve bought it for my football trainer, he loves Messi. I’m a die-hard Brazil fan actually. It causes frequent clashes at home since my father is an Argentina fan,” the college-graduate said. Such arguments are a regular feature when the tournament rolls in. Tushita Basu fell in love with football following the matches she played with her father. On a bad day, watching a match together kept the blues at bay. Though the father and daughter started out supporting different teams – Brazil and Spain respectively – Tushita felt “with age I’m becoming more like my dad. I want Brazil to win this year.’’

The Brazil-Argentina divide is one that splits Kolkata in two distinct camps. It is a generational one that is marked by the rise of technology as well. Though Pele had once reigned supreme here, by 1986, with television sets proliferating, the next generation could witness Maradona in all his ‘Hand of God’ glory. By the time his protégé Messi entered the scene, the fanfare for Argentina was set in stone. Though a friendly rift highlighted by the characteristic banter the game demands, this is hardly the first football-related fissure Kolkata has seen. The formation of the historical football teams of Mohun Bagan and (subsequently) East Bengal are symbols of the partition the state underwent when it split into West Bengal and East Bengal. The former stayed with India, the latter came under Pakistan (East Bengal would eventually become Bangladesh). The heavy flow of migrants into Kolkata (then Calcutta) sparked crisis over refugee settlement, identity and communal tensions. However, the first taste of football-induced victory for the Bengalis had nothing to do with the state’s partition – it was Mohun Bagan’s win over East Yorkshire Regiment for the IFA shield.

An alleyway in the Santoshpur area (Photo: courtesy Srijan Mookerji)

Both India, specifically West Bengal, and Bangladesh find common ground in their support for Latin-American teams like Brazil and Argentina. Shahid Imam, an advocate at Calcutta High Court believed that the Latin-American circuit had a huge impact on the playing style of Bengalis: “ It is heavily mimicked, especially the dribbling style. I am a strong supporter of the Brazil team,’’ he said. Imam belonged to a football team made up of lawyers. The football tournament organized by the High Court has no age limit but is open only to members of the bar association. Last year, 16 teams took part. Though it lasts only a day, “it is intense for those 24 hours,’’ the advocate said. The World Cup was a favourite among them as well with regular screenings conducted in the High Court Club tent, situated behind the East Bengal Club’s office. “Judges and advocates all come together to watch. While most of us are Brazil and Argentina supporters, there are quite a few Germany fans since this team has been winning for quite some time,’’ Imam told me.

In my years here, I have noticed that unwavering loyalty is characteristic of the average Bengali football fan. For the past few World Cup fixtures, Brazil and Argentina – both loved by Bengalis – have either clocked out early on or come very close to victory only to be denied it (a greater loss, in my opinion). In spite of this, the city does not budge from its loyalty: the teams’ losses are taken in stride, fans mourn with them with equal fervour as they do when they win. 2018 was no different. With Germany heading home in the group stages itself and Argentina knocked out, Kolkata’s hopes rested on Brazil for the semi-finals. But this too, became dream dashed. A pall of silence shrouded the city, punctuated with the odd joke that Kolkata now had entered a state of existentialism. Alleyways and streets in the city were dotted with flags of blue and yellow. One in Santoshpur was a sea of Argentina flags and resident Srijan Mookerji dubbed it to be “as quiet as a tomb for now.’’ Setting these flags up is a locality-centric event. It happens almost in the blink of an eye. As I waded through the crowd and the waterlogged streets of monsoon, I frequently overheard that there was now no point watching the football matches. This happens every time. It is pointless to pay heed to such statements because as with all those years before; come the World Cup final and the city would shake itself out of collective sulk to huddle around the screen, sides reluctantly picked.

Kolkata boasts eclectic football teams of its own. The Kasba Up-to-Date Club (KUTDC) is one of them. Almost all of its members are above the age of 40, the oldest being 54. Forty-four year old Sudipto Banerjee, club member and supporter of Germany since 1986, ensures that he buys the team jersey from Maidan every time around. So dedicated is Banerjee to the game that he and two of his teammates went to Russia for the group stage matches. Located in the titular Kasba area, KUTDC engages in football rivalry with the neighbouring Amra Shobai Club. “ This rivalry has been going on since my school days. But we play better and are older as well given ours is a pre-Independence club [set up in 1943],” he said. His club organizes screenings in the area as well, but mostly for the semi-finals and the final.

Kolkata sweetshop Balaram Mullick & Radharam Mullick partake in festivities around the World Cup with edible trophy, stadium and players (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

These local or para clubs are deep-seated in the culture of Kolkata and the rest of West Bengal. Belonging to different localities, they make their mark for the community in two primary areas: the yearly organization of Durga puja and small football fixtures and screenings. Peppered all over the city, each has its own band of resident loyalists. Bondhu Bandhab Club usually rents out a projector for the entirety of the World Cup fixture to screen every single match. This year, however, the club had saved up enough to buy a Titan Chrome projector of their own. Bright sunny days do not deter their spirits when it comes to projection, because inside their club room is a small LCD TV they can depend on. The club is open to all and about forty people watch the screenings on an average. During the final, the number easily soars to over a hundred.

Football does not pertain to Bengalis alone in Kolkata. Going against the dominant trends in the city was the majority of the Armenian community. According to Armen Makarien, the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy on Mirza Ghalib Street favoured rugby over football, as the latter has been played in their home country for the last 130 years. “But we have a formidable U-19 football team, and we follow the World Cup closely,” he said. Makarien – an Iran-born Armenian – supported the Iran national team, while most of the community in the College favoured Spain. “Armenians come to Kolkata from all over Europe and Asia. They prefer to support the countries they come from and call home. There are hardly any Brazil or Argentina fans here,” he said. N. Gopi of the Calcutta Malayalee Samajam had made football-loving Kolkata his home for the past 45 years. He hails from the equally football-frenzied state of Kerala. However, Gopi belonged to a generation that had seen Kolkata’s craze for football in better days: “That traditional spirit of fanfare is fading now, I feel. Everything has become so commercialized. The old enthusiasm is lagging. The craze everyone sees now is only half of what it used to be,” he said.

Subhroneel Bose scouting for the perfect jersey at Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Partaking in the football celebration was a typically male phenomenon and for a city where football is famously equated to life, women and girls do feel overlooked in this regard. Historically, one of the ways the British integrated the sport into Kolkata was through the setting up of football teams in colleges that were modeled on British public schools. Though the odd women’s team exists in colleges and universities here, the attention they get is minimal compared to their male counterparts. Local teams geared for women are practically unheard of. Rahman, a college student and footballer believed that women’s football “faces a vicious cycle. If you pull up statistics, you’ll find that women’s teams earn far less prize money than men’s teams. The visibility is also low since it is treated as a ‘masculine sport’.’’

When Rahman first started playing football, the primary reaction was one of incredulity. She was often branded as an attention-seeker. “Sexism and cultural barriers discourage women from taking up the sport,’’ she said. Rahman was on the lookout for amateur women’s football clubs in the city to hone her skills. Tushita too had been at the receiving end for her interest in the game: “To this day, I have male friends who would rather discuss the World Cup with another guy who is absolutely uninterested in football than ask me for my opinion,” she said. According to her Bengali women are stereotyped into being singers and dancers; the only sport assigned to them is swimming. “Maybe, if schools started coaching girls from a young age and there are at least two academies invested in women’s football, the scenario would change,’’ she said.

However, Kolkata also houses a team that uses football as tool to banish such stigma. The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, located in the Sonagachi area of Kolkata, is an organisation that fights for the rights and upliftment of sex workers. “Children of sex workers are stigmatized because of their mothers’ occupation. To counter this, we started the Durbar Sports Academy where football teams of U-13, U-15 and the second division thrive,’’ Chief Advisor Dr. Smarajit Jana, said. Avid World Cup fans, the children regularly watched matches in their club room with their trainers and coaches who explained team strategies to them. Their practice sessions at Baruipur drew the attention of local radio channel Red FM during the 2014 fixture; they organized an awareness programme called ‘Baruipur to Brazil’. For Jana who has seen numerous children being taunted and abused by others due to their mothers’ line of work, the progress these teams had made spoke volumes of how far they had come. They plan to integrate the teams with girls as well. In my interaction with the young footballers here, 18 year-old Milan Sarkar caught my eye. A player for the second division team, Milan was discovered by the Academy when he was nine years old; when a “footballer dada noticed me playing in a nearby field.’’ His mother was a sex worker and for the past few months, the family had been financially hard up. But Milan’s dedication to the game was impressive: “I work as a food delivery boy from 6:30 to 11 PM. I go for practice thrice a week,’’ he said. Practice for them started at 7 AM. It was not an easy feat given his schedule. However, the young right-back managed to see the positive side of the situation: “My shift ends just in time for the 11:30 match, those are the good ones, anyway,” he said. This year, both the U-13 and U-15 teams qualified for the I-League which shares the top spot in the Indian football system with the Indian Super League (ISL).

A section of the Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Even if the World Cup is a phenomenon that takes the city by storm only once in four years, football is a celebration enjoyed all year round. Come rain, hail or the beating rays of sun, there are very few entities deemed obstacles here in one’s quest to play football. Kolkata never faces a dearth of matches to participate in or even to simply watch from the periphery of its numerous playing fields. As the World Cup rolled in during the monsoon, numerous rounds of hot tea or pints and pegs of beer and rum were counted on by Calcuttans everywhere when matches proved to be nail-biting. With crowd favourites like Argentina, Germany and Portugal by way of Ronaldo knocked-out of this year’s fixture, an unusual silence pervaded the city. Entire stretches of roads had been painted with Messi’s face and club houses acted as shrines to Brazil and Argentina. Fanaticism has always been present in Kolkata and the decorations for the World Cup proved it. The tea shop and living quarters of Messi fanatic Shib Shankar Patra was doused entirely in Argentina colours, earning it local fame as ‘Argentina Tea Stall’. The reason was simple: love makes one do crazy things. The silence was merely the lull before the storm. Even if the preferred teams do not end up playing in the final, it was tough to pry the people here away from the screens because ultimately it is their love for the game that roars through the din.

In the lead-up to the Croatia-France final, viewing parties and outings were the talk of the town. As luck would have it, my TV at home gave out a few hours before kick-off. I was not too worried. Kolkata – Jadavpur University to be precise – came to my aid. University screenings are common in the city, and the camaraderie they trigger well known. I was welcomed that night by a crowd of 200 college students, a few street dogs that frequent the area and the perfume of rum and beer that pairs characteristically with a football game. The constant drizzle did not dampen spirits. The cloth screen and projector were well-protected and banter was on the rise. When the weather turned worse, the usual grumbling was absent; the students merely opened a festoon of umbrellas and life went on. It was almost midnight in Kolkata when French team began their festivities, but the former was awake as well. It was not the victory the city was hoping for, and remnants of its love for Argentina and Brazil remained as their flags were still flying in some areas. That Sunday night was the last vestige of the city’s final hurrah before the waiting period of another four years commenced, Monday morning.

(The author, Bulbul Rajagopal, is a final year MA student in Kolkata. She is reporting intern and contributor at this blog. On her own relation with the game, Bulbul says: I do not actively support any team or club, but I enjoy studying the styles of play. Often, I am biased towards certain teams based on a few players, which would explain my irrational support for Argentina during the 2018 World Cup. Irrational, only because the team was running on the fumes of glory past and the lion’s share of the pressure was weighed down on the shoulders of Lionel Messi. Even while I study the game, I consider it important to look beyond the touchline, towards the people who observe football. To my knowledge, no sporting situation triggers banter as amusing as football does. The game has a history of friendly banter becoming ugly, even morphing into racism. But true ribbing in football is infectious and when done correctly, it is witty. I find it fascinating when minor arguments break out amongst people in this regard. I also thrive on the camaraderie that football offers and demands. I grew up in Kolkata and in my 22 years here, believe this city is right up there on the global list of cities that make the phrase ‘football frenzy,’ real.)

BARKLEY 2018

Grant Maughan (This picture was taken at the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High. Photo: Shyam G Menon)

This is an article by invitation. The author Grant Maughan is a seasoned ultramarathon runner and adventure racer.

Many of us in India know Barkley Marathons through that wonderful documentary film: The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. It is an ultramarathon of approximately 100 miles (with a “fun run’’ of 60 miles) happening in late March or early April every year in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee in the US. The race – it has 54,200 feet of accumulated climb – is limited to a 60 hour-period. Only 40 runners get to participate.

The Barkley course was designed by Gary “ Lazarus Lake’’ Cantrell. According to Wikipedia the idea of the race was inspired by the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King Jr, from the nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Ray covered just eight miles (13km) after running 55 hours in the woods. Mocking Ray’s low mileage, Cantrell told himself that he could do at least 100 miles. He named the race thus born, after his longtime neighbor and running companion, Barry Barkley. It is an event with unique traits. For instance, besides running, runners are expected to find a certain number of books placed along the course and remove the page corresponding to his / her bib number as proof of completing a loop. Each loop comes with a new race number and therefore the need for another page from all those books. The race – you have to complete five loops of the course – was first run in 1986. In all these years – 33 as of 2018 – it has been completed 18 times by 15 runners. The 2018 edition saw no finishers.

Among those in the fray in 2018 was Grant Maughan. Hailing from Australia, Grant is a freelance super yacht captain who also keeps a busy schedule as endurance athlete. Veteran of many races and a regular at Badwater, in 2016 he was joint winner with Serbian ultra-runner Jovica Spajic in the 333km-category of La Ultra The High, the ultramarathon held annually in Ladakh. Ten days before the 2018 Barkley, he finished the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350-mile foot race across winter Alaska (pulling a sled). Post Barkley, he heads to Tibet to attempt Everest from that side. At the time of contributing this article, he had his calendar packed till September, all the way to Tor Des Geants with yet another Badwater in between.  

Contrary to popular belief, the infamous Barkley Marathons isn’t that hard…. it’s freaking unbelievably hard! It’s a psychological thriller wrapped in a survivalist’s apocalyptic daydreams.

Having just completed the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350-mile foot race pulling a sled across winter Alaska only 10 days before, I had a simple ambition: turn up at the yellow gate and see if I could make one loop in the allotted time and find all 13 books.

After check-in, the sorry souls who were about to embark were allowed to view the master topographical map and draw the route on their own maps, as well as the general locations of the books that each runner was required to find so as to rip the page out of each that corresponded to their own race bib number. These were to be handed back to Laz, the RD, at the completion of the loop to confirm that you had been to each location. Each runner also received a few pages of navigation notes, which at first, second and third reading appeared to be a cryptic scroll to hidden treasure. They would take considerable time to decipher and apply to finding our way.

Barkley is a thinking event. You can’t zone out too much, like in “normal” races where you just lift your head long enough to spot the next marker or course flagging. You are continually evaluating where you are, because if you don’t know where you are, you can’t get to where you’re going. I have worked at sea for more than 35 years so navigation is a daily occurrence. But doing so in the bush is a different story. At sea, you plot Rhumb Lines or Great Circles to skirt around land, but in the mountain bush it is difficult to see exactly where you are even if you are trying to find a spur that leads to a ridge line high above. You need to actually feel the ground contour and correlate that to your map and compass, then try to analyze if you are on the correct section of the mountain. As soon as you drift off into a reverie, you may miss a critical landmark confirming – or otherwise – that you are on the “loop”.

Virgins at Barkley usually cling to a veteran for at least the first loop to try to learn the navigation so as to make it back in time to start the next loop. I figured this was excellent advice and hung with Aussie veteran Nicki Rehn. It was her fifth start at Barkley, so she had a good feel for the bush and a better nose for the navigation. I can’t imagine having to do the first loop by map and notes alone. The night before I had jotted down compass bearings and distances of most of the legs of the route to find the books. But the time to keep stopping and correlating everything while underway would be all consuming and probably lead to timing out on the loop.

Grant at the Barkley Marathons race venue (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

The majority of the course is off marked trails, and runners find themselves sliding and stumbling down precarious topography, clinging to trees and rocks while trying to find an important watercourse at the bottom to direct them to an equally steep and precarious ascent. Torrential rain assisted in making Frozen Head State Park a quagmire of soap-slippery mud. Climbing up the notorious Rat Jaw was a lesson in frustration of trying to find enough grip per step to make any headway. Coming back down was like sliding down the face of a giant Hawaiian wave of mud. Time on your feet was marginal as one fell, rolled and cartwheeled to lower elevations. Much of the climb and many sections of the loop are mired in brier bushes whose thorns stab holes in grabbing hands and shred clothing to flapping ribbons.

Cantankerous weather gave us sheets of cold rain, windblown summits and fog, making navigation and book finding even more fun. At the final summit of the first loop, with all pages in hand, the fog was so thick I could hardly see my feet, which meant the long slippery descent was literally done by feel. I got back into camp in good spirits but shivering in soaked clothing. It had taken about 12.5 hours to do one loop. The distance is supposedly 20 miles, but most would agree that it’s a bit more than that. To finish 3 loops is called the “Fun Run”. To finish all five loops in 60 hours is almost incomprehensible and, indeed, in 30 years only 15 persons have managed to accomplish that, which will give you a general idea of how “out there” the Barkley Marathons event is. Which is exactly how abnormal and brutal the race director, Laz Lazarus, envisioned it to be.

In an age where one can find a 100 mile ultramarathon on any given weekend, the Barkley stands out as an eccentric tour-des-punishment as quirky as its long-standing race director, and after the release of a number of documentaries about the event there is a steady stream of masochists, male and female, knocking on the door to get invited. That’s if you can work out how to apply…

(The author Grant Maughan is a freelance super yacht captain and ultra-endurance athlete. For more on Grant please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2016/10/13/living-the-interesting-life/ For a detailed account of the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2016/09/16/the-captain-the-teacher-the-warrior-and-the-businessman/)

MUMBAI MARATHON: 15 YEARS OLD AND EVOLVING

Indian elite runners Gopi T (center, blue T-shirt) and Nitendra Singh Rawat at 2018 TMM; they finished first and second respectively in their category (Photo: courtesy Yogesh Yadav)

The 2018 edition of the Mumbai marathon was significant for the change in title sponsorship. The era of association with Standard Chartered Bank ended. In early August 2017, it was officially disclosed that the Tata Group had signed a ten year-deal to be title sponsor of the event.

Both Standard Chartered and Tata have a history of sponsoring marathons. A London headquartered-bank with operations mostly in Asia, Africa and Middle East, Standard Chartered sponsored a string of marathons spanning the above mentioned regions. In March 2017, news reports said the bank’s financial woes had prompted it to pull out of the Mumbai marathon. This January as the 2018 Mumbai marathon was underway there were seasoned runners trading the annual pilgrimage of running it for a shot at the Dubai marathon, which incidentally remains sponsored by Standard Chartered. The two events are separated by less than a week. However Tata is bigger fish in the world of marathons. The prime mover within its fold as regards marathons is IT major, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS); the TCS website has a section devoted to sports sponsorship. Peruse it and you will see the company associated with a clutch of major international foot races. It is title sponsor for the marathons of Mumbai, New York and Amsterdam. It is title sponsor of the world’s largest cross country race in Lidingoloppet, Sweden, the presenting and technology partner for The Australian Running Festival and technology partner for the marathons of Boston, Chicago, London and Singapore.

Thanks to the ascent of city marathons, the number of recreational runners in India has been growing steadily. For the 2018 edition of the Mumbai marathon (the first time it was sponsored by Tata), some 45,000 people registered successfully. Standard Chartered did valuable service supporting the Mumbai marathon through its early years but as one among several foreign banks operating in India, its footprint is modest. Tata is household name in India. The above reasons – Tata’s familiarity with the world of marathons and the name being well known in India – made the title sponsorship deal of August 2017 interesting and couched in possibilities.

2018 TMM (Photo: courtesy Yogesh Yadav)

In the world of sponsorship, marathon falls in the category of participative sport. A big share of sponsorship money in our times flows into spectator sports. Conceptually, they are descendants of the old Roman arena. You have immediate arena and extended arena afforded by broadcast media, mainly television channels and live-streaming on Internet. The cumulative audience here is enormous, running into tens of thousands and in some cases, millions. Cast at the deep end of competition, spectator sports tend to stay distanced from viewer. Like a mountain climb, the few that make it to the summit become the stuff of everyone else’s admiration. You relate to the excitement vicariously. Participative sports attract in a different way. They invite you to participate, experience directly. Unlike in spectator sports where teams and team members are famous and the rest stay anonymous viewers, in participative sport everybody participating has an identity. Once you have registered for a marathon, there is a run-up to actual event, which may be anything from a couple of weeks to couple of months. During this time, there is periodic correspondence between organizer and participant. There is acknowledgement of registration, confirmation of participation, reminders, invitation to pre-race expo and finally the expo, where many of the sponsors known until then as digital images in correspondence, manifest physically. The exercise provides a dimension of interface rarely found in spectator sport; the engagement in participative sport resembles direct marketing, closer perhaps to discreet direct marketing. It even graduates to real involvement for with products like running gear and shoes; the participant has a personal need he tries to satisfy given race approaching. Equally as regards services like registration process, app based-tracking (which allows runner’s progress to be tracked by family and friends), result and timing details wherein technology partners matter, efficiency is quickly felt and appreciated. Repeat registrations make the relationship with event, stickier. While this is the architecture of engagement, sponsors of marathons rarely – probably never – talk of it as a marketing exercise. Corporate backers of running – given health benefits associated with running and the satisfaction participants draw from completing a race – position it as avenue to give back to workforce and community. Gains to brand profile accrue obliquely.

On the street, there were expectations when Tata assumed title sponsorship of the Mumbai marathon. Besides the familiarity Tata has with marathons in US and Europe, their sponsorship of the Mumbai marathon was seen as homecoming. Tata’s headquarters are in Mumbai. For some runners this blog spoke to, the change in title sponsorship wasn’t significant because event implementation is by Procam. In their eyes, the title sponsor was funds provider. Many others though sensed potential for change. But they couldn’t gauge what is realistically possible and not. The feedback we got from a mix of runners and marketers we spoke to on the change in title sponsor for the Mumbai marathon, was that these are early days. The January 2018 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) was mere months after Tata assumed title sponsorship. The 2018 TMM saw a new timed 10 km-race, introduced. Also debuting was the `inspiration medal’ for full marathon finishers. Going ahead, best practices from Tata-backed races overseas, could be infused into TMM, those we spoke to felt.

This image was downloaded from the TMM website. It is being used here for representation purposes only.

The 2-in-1 `inspiration medal,’ one for finisher to keep, the other for potential gifting to someone who mattered in runner’s journey to completing the full marathon (Photo: courtesy Mani Iyer)

At the Nariman Point office of Chlorophyll Innovation Lab, Chitresh Sinha CEO & Head Innovation shared the story behind the `inspiration medal’ introduced in 2018. Different from the standard advertising agency or consultancy, Chlorophyll Innovation Lab is a brand innovations collective that works with brands, evolving technologies, art and social impact to “ bring alive innovation in integrated ways.’’ Procam, organizers of the Mumbai marathon, is one of its clients. According to Chitresh, between 150,000-200,000 people apply for TMM, which is also the single largest platform to raise funds for charity in India. “ Brand value is more at the human level than as return on investment for association with a running event,’’ he said. Studies have shown that people decide to attempt a marathon for factors ranging from the health benefits of running and sense of achievement to the meditative quality of running. “ Why do they wish to repeat it? That is the interesting part – they do so because it changes their life,’’ he said quoting examples of runners who kicked addictions and bad habits, grew closer to their families and found time for their children because their life transformed through training to run. For such reasons, it is not possible to benchmark the dazzling world of spectator sport with participative sport. “ Spectator sport is all about eyeballs. Its real impact on people’s lives is limited,’’ Chitresh said. If you want visibility and have a specific window of time assigned for gaining it, then investing in spectator sports makes sense. With participative sports, you stay invested longer but you reap an enduring bond. Currently India has around 1-1.5 million runners and 800 odd timed races. Chitresh said, Procam wishes to see the overall number of runners (across India) grow to 20 million in the next five years or so. That means the idea of running must spread quietly and convincingly. The social aspect of running was the premise from which Chlorophyll Innovation Lab recommended the `inspiration medal,’ a composite of two medals in one. A typical city based-runner, balancing work and life, is often seen off to training by wife and children. An early breakfast for instance, requires more than one pair of hands in Indian households. An early departure for training is a team effort by family. If you have a medal that is a composite of two separate medals and you can peel one off to gift it to somebody who played a pivotal role in making you a runner, then it helps endear running to more people.

As with many sports events, TMM straddles a fine divide between participation and performance. It takes both to shape an event’s stature. Not all runners we spoke to in Mumbai were enthused by the `inspiration medal.’ Some of them wished that improvements to TMM stay focused on running and runners’ needs, a view that is also partly fueled by Tata’s international presence in marathon events. If you imagine down running’s alley, the possibilities one can speculate, are dime a dozen. Which of the lot is practical enough to implement? That challenges. Consensus among those we spoke to was that improvements to how TMM is arranged and managed plus infusion of technologies relevant to running could be a realistic expectation over the next few years. Anything more, likely takes more than just Tata.

Elite runners at 2018 TMM (Photo: by arrangement)

TMM is recognized as the flagship running event in India. “ A distant second to the Mumbai marathon would be the one in Bengaluru,’’ a leading amateur athlete (name withheld as we promised him anonymity for this conversation) said. “ There is a depth of awareness about the annual marathon in Mumbai that you don’t find in other Indian cities. When I landed in Mumbai to run the 2018 TMM, even my taxi driver knew that the marathon was due. Among major marathons, this is without doubt the best organized race in India. But if you are talking of positioning Mumbai in the same category as Boston and New York because Tata is now involved, then we are a long way off. First those events are far older than TMM. They have evolved that much more. Second, those are cities which view their annual marathon as an important fixture in the annual calendar. Over there, the civic apparatus works in tandem with runners and organizers to make a city’s annual marathon happen successfully. That is running culture – and in that, India is far behind,’’ he said. Major cities overseas get their marathon act together because running is integral to how they imagine lifestyle. Will Tata’s assumption of title sponsorship, make the collective effort to host Mumbai’s annual marathon more convergent towards its goal of a good experience, year after year? Will Mumbai formally identify itself with running and its annual marathon?

Cheering is a critical component of any marathon’s ecosystem and when it comes to city marathons, it is a window to meeting the host. The Boston Marathon, world’s oldest annual marathon, began in 1897. That makes it 121 years old. Indians who have run in Boston speak of it as a memorable experience, cheering playing no small part in it. At 15, TMM is definitely past infant stage. On January 21, 2018, just beyond the Mumbai marathon’s finish line, I met a city based-full marathoner who felt that cheering along the marathon’s route had come down. That is hard to believe given so much said day in and day out about the spirit of Mumbai. It is a fact that while running, runners dwell in a `zone’ in the head; cheering doesn’t register always. Still did this runner notice something many of us didn’t or preferred to overlook in our affection for the city? Can there be initiatives that make spectators and non-runners feel invested in the annual outing? A city that loves its marathon must never stop exploring how the experience can be improved for success can stagnate and novelty can fade.

Fifteen years old and growing, the evolution of the Mumbai marathon will be worth watching.

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

THE DILIGENT AND THE FUN LOVING

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

“ Swimming is my passion. I am happiest in the pool,’’ Pravin Gaikwad, 55, said.

The doctor though is best known as a runner; he is also a triathlete. His parents hail from Devgad in Maharashtra (the same Devgad that is famous for its strain of Alphonso mango). Pravin is the youngest of six children. He was born and brought up in Mumbai. His father worked at Ciba Geigy. His mother was a housewife. The family originally lived in Chembur; then shifted to Ghatkopar. Ghatkopar had a swimming pool and Pravin – then a sixth standard student – began frequenting it. The youngster went as part of group of dozen boys or so but in due course, most others dropped out. Pravin continued.

Those days, swimming pools used to have their own swimming team. When he was in the ninth standard, Pravin was taken into the pool’s team. Training became systematic. In competitions that followed with teams from other swimming pools, he won a prize in the 25 m-butterfly stroke. By the time he was pursuing studies at the tenth and twelfth standard levels, Pravin was winning medals regularly at swimming competitions. At medical college which followed, he became captain of the college swimming team. However when he completed his MBBS and enlisted to do his MD, swimming had to take a back seat for work load was high.

Pravin and Arati (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Pravin and Arati; from a SCMM gone by (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

After completing his MD, in 1988, he joined Sterling Hospital in Vashi, Navi Mumbai and moved that side. By now Pravin was married to Arati, a fellow doctor who, incidentally, had also been his student. When the Gaikwads arrived in Vashi, it was the early phase of Navi Mumbai’s growth. Vashi and other suburbs in the region were hardly the well-developed residential areas they are today. For a pool to swim in, they had to go all the way to Belapur, where the local YMCA maintained one. For eight years, Pravin worked at two hospitals in Navi Mumbai. Then in 1996, the pediatrician started his own clinic in Nerul. The Gaikwads moved to Nerul, staying first at an apartment near the local railway station, eventually moving to a proper house in the center of the fast growing township. Meanwhile the commitment to swimming continued. One of the housing societies in Nerul, Sailesh Towers, has a swimming pool. The Gaikwads headed there first. For a brief while in between they shifted to the swimming pool at the D. Y. Patil sports complex nearby; then they returned to the pool at Sailesh Towers. In 2007, Pravin resumed participating in swimming competitions (short distance ones) earning podium finishes for nearly three years.

Sometime in 1998, the Nerul Gymkhana started to organize annual cycle races. The Gaikwads were regular podium finishers in their respective categories with one year being particularly notable for the podium finishers included not only Pravin and Arati but also their children and Arati’s father. “ It was indeed a proud moment for the family,’’ Pravin said. In 2010, Arati’s brother Atul, asked her to participate in an adventure sports race in Pune called Enduro. It was a mix of cycling and hiking. Pravin, Arati and Atul registered as a team in the forty plus age category; their team aptly named Fortified. They were podium finishers at the event in all the years of participation, in 2011, 2012 and 2013 as well.

On the Kharghar Hill road (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

On Parsik Hill; (from left) Asutosh Roy, Pravin, Vijay Kalpati and Arati (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Like Mumbai earlier, Navi Mumbai too is an area blessed with enough nature to make a sports enthusiast happy, yet steadily losing that bounty to the incessant march of townships, roads and traffic. Vashi, Nerul, Belapur – they are all accessed after a sea crossing from the Mumbai side. Once you cross so, you see looming in the neighborhood, like a long wall, the stretch of Parsik Hill running north-south from Mumbra towards Belapur and Kharghar. Simply put, Navi Mumbai has quick access to both the sea and the hills. Not many places are privileged so. On the edge of Belapur, overlooking Kharghar is a wonderfully located road. It snakes its way up from near the Mumbai-Pune highway to villages at the top of the seasonal Pandavkada waterfall. An early morning visit to this ascending road – some five kilometers long one way – would yield a collection of runners, walkers and cyclists. There are other such roads frequented by walkers and runners in Navi Mumbai but this is the prince of it all. Locally, it is called Kharghar Hill Road. In 2011, the Gaikwads were out walking on this road when they met two runners – Surya Buddhavarapu and his wife Sudha, both of them, members of the group: Navi Mumbai Runners (NMR) – who suggested that they get into running. Until then, the Gaikwads had done the occasional run. They hadn’t ` taken up’ running. We use the term ` take up’ deliberately for Pravin is by nature and grooming, a diligent pursuer of what he decides to do. He believes in systematic approach and committed preparation. “ At school, I wasn’t very intelligent or anything so. I was hard working. Studying medicine may have strengthened further the need to work hard and my faith in that approach. I have also read somewhere that if you keep on doing something, then you will be amazed by what you achieve,’’ Pravin said. He speaks with care; there is little impulsiveness and much that seems to hark of thinking through his responses.

Arati in contrast, is a spontaneous person. She likes fun. Born in Maharashtra’s Dhule’s district and living since the age of two in Mumbai, she readily concedes that her approach to life is very different from that of her husband. She prepares and trains but not as devotedly as Pravin. And she isn’t above taking her chances at races, prepared or not, settling often for the satisfaction of completing a race as opposed to chasing a personal best timing or being on some trajectory of improvement.  An element of fun is eminently acceptable. “ I have always been interested in nutrition and fitness,’’ she said. Shortly after the couple moved to Nerul, she bought a bicycle. “ The attitude was that you should be active, both of us were regular walkers’’ she said. At the time she bought the cycle, Nerul was a quiet place with only a bus stop where long distance buses halted, for link to Mumbai. “ We shifted to our current residence 10 years ago. The cycle travelled everywhere with us,’’ she said.

Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads

Pravin (lemon yellow T-shirt); from one of the editions of the Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

In April 2011, Pravin reported for a NMR organized-run on the Kharghar Hill Road. He ran up and down the hill comfortably; he didn’t pause anywhere to drink water. Arati joined in at the next such run, sometime in May. According to the Gaikwads, NMR helped nurture and bring out their potential. Swimmers, they also noticed the difference in running. “ Running provides social context,’’ Pravin said. That was remarkably different from the secluded cocoon of immediate world that is the predicament of swimmer in water. What running provided was relevant for the Gaikwads. Besides, as Pravin pointed out, by then Arati was also running well. At the first formal running event they participated in – it was at the Borivali National Park in August 2011 – both husband and wife ended up on the podium. Slowly a new ecosystem grew. The occasional podium finishes they got encouraged the doctor-couple to run, while in NMR, they had a motivated group of people to train with who were also quite egalitarian in their perspective. To this Pravin added his characteristic twist – always the devoted student, he read up on running and researched the sport on the Internet. This was blended with his tendency to push himself. I always wanted to challenge myself. The human body has considerable reserves – these were among sentences that cropped up regularly in our conversation with him. He credited that approach to his medical training. In the medical profession, one is always learning about what the body was designed to do, what the body has wrecked, how that happened, how the body repairs itself and what the body has in reserve. Pravin graduated from the early short runs to the half marathon and on to the full marathon. His transition was smooth. “ If you are a good swimmer, you don’t fight with water. You glide through it. You can do the same with running,’’ he said. All this was alongside busy days at the clinic. In 2012, the two doctors travelled to Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala so that Arati could do a short course in problems concerning adolescents, at the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College. Now she also works with Pravin at the clinic devoted to children’s health. “ We would as pediatricians love to influence the lives of the adolescents we work with by acting as role models directly or indirectly, by motivating them to inculcate healthy food habits and healthy lifestyle with physical activity playing some role in their lives,’’ Pravin said. In November 2016, the Gaikwads were part of a group of eight doctors who conducted sexual health workshops in Dahanu tribal schools. “ We hope to do many more workshops and empower our adolescents to take the right decisions for a healthy life and a better future,’’ Pravin said.

Arati at the Javadhu Ultra (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Arati at the Javadhu Ultra (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Life with a swimmer brought Arati seriously to swimming. She was no stranger to water and swimming. In her childhood her father had packed off his children to the pool at Shivaji Park, Dadar, so that they were acquainted with the basics of swimming. But with no proper coaching at that time, it was at her swimming sessions post-marriage that she genuinely learnt. After Pravin started going out for runs, he used to tell her that she should experience it at least once. “ He knew I would be interested. Upon trying, I found running doable. On my first run, I didn’t stop anywhere,’’ she said. She was able to complete a 21 km-half marathon in two hours, forty five minutes. Although she had the distinct feeling that she would be able to run well, she took a back seat. First of course, was her nature, which was partial to being less systematic; it was more organic and less deliberate or driven. “ I am not very focused,’’ she said. Arati for instance loves her sleep; Pravin being endurance junkie can do with much less. Pravin spends on equipment, researches what bicycles to buy. She doesn’t. Second, as she put it, “ in a family, both people being equally dedicated to running can be a problem!’’ They have two sons. She confessed to being secretly happy with the occasional injuries Pravin picked up through running, for it kept the endurance junkie at home with family. At times her happiness showed. “ He would quip: you seem to be happy with my injury,’’ she said laughing. For most of her races, Arati trained alone. Her first formal half marathon was at SCMM, the result of an event registration gifted by Pravin. After three years spent running half marathons, Arati moved up to the full marathon. “ There is a world of difference between half and full marathon. I want to try running 42 km without formal training, without the tension of going through a systematic programme. I am a different personality, he is a different personality. I cannot be like Pravin,’’ she said. Yet notwithstanding this core disparity in their individual nature and personality, the Gaikwads participated together in several events. In 2013, Mumbai Road Runners (MRR) chose them as the running couple of the year with Pravin and Arati being additionally declared second runner up in individual awards for the male and female categories.

Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads

Pravin; from a half marathon at Durshet (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

It was his endurance cast through long association with water that provided the basic substratum for the runner in Pravin to stand on. His competence in swimming has grown to encompass both the confines of a pool and the openness of the sea. He has been a participant in sea swimming competitions with podium finishes at some. With running also added and cycling known, the triathlon beckoned. Both Pravin and Arati have participated in and completed triathlons in India. In April 2015, the couple participated in the Pune Triathlon with Arati winning in her category in the sprint distance and Pravin finishing second runner up in his category in the Olympic distance. In December that year, they also participated in the Maharashtra State Triathlon in Sindhudurg emerging winners in their respective categories. “ I can do the half Ironman, that shouldn’t be a problem,’’ Pravin reckons, “ a full Ironman will require devoted training; maybe in two to three years’ time.’’ Their passage through these disparate sports, all sharing the common thread of endurance hasn’t been without its moments of anxiety.

In Nerul, not far from the town’s Ayyappa Temple, is the small bicycle shop run by Inderjit Singh Khamba. He worked for many years in the training and development line; then quit his job to begin something on his own. He loves technical stuff. The first business he ventured into was assembling computers. Currently he is fully into selling, building, maintaining and repairing bicycles. Inderjit knew that the bikes he built were only as good as they performed. So he started going for rides on them, acquiring thus a background in cycling. One of the people who dropped by at his shop was Pravin. As their mutual familiarity grew Inderjit asked if Pravin and Arati would be interested in participating in a 180 km-Veloraid, which Inderjit had taken part in twice before. It was a team event. Pravin hadn’t cycled such a long distance before. So they went out for a test ride and with the outcome looking promising, the Gaikwads said yes.

From Veloraid (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

From Veloraid (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

According to Arati, they were a team of six cyclists. The Veloraid was from Yeoor Hills to Tansa Lake and back. During training sessions, they had been on a section of the route before. On the day of Veloraid however, it rained and there was mud on the road. Roughly six to seven kilometers before Tansa, on a downhill section of the route, Arati tried to avoid a pothole and went off the road. “ I was ahead and heard something like the sound of a tree cracking or crashing,’’ Pravin said. Inderjit was behind Arati; he saw the accident happening. According to him, Arati’s perch on her bicycle wasn’t perfect; the handle bar was too close to her body. This meant, the slightest jerk while steering the bike, translated into major variations at wheel level. “ Into the descent, there were a few S-shaped bends on the road. Two things happened. First, Arati gathered speed on the descent. Second, there was an arc-shaped portion on the road’s edge, where the tarmac had totally weathered off. The wheel of her bike entered this portion and didn’t climb back up. Instead, the pothole’s edge guided it off the road,’’ Inderjit said. Arati was hauled up from the hillside, some eight to nine feet below the road. “ I was in a daze. I didn’t know what was happening,’’ she said. While she escaped with minor injuries, her helmet was a statement of what could have been – it was split open down the middle. She had a cut just above the eye, a cut on the chin, bruised elbows and knees and overall body pain from having had to be pulled up. Post-Veloraid, it took her a long while to recover from both the strain to her torso as well as the overall shock, a side effect of which was weight loss. The Gaikwads’ return to cycling has since been careful. On his part, Inderjit, noticing the mismatched positioning of the handle bar on Arati’s cycle, has built Arati a new bicycle. “ I will resume running, cycling and swimming when my body feels ready for it,’’ she said. About 10 days after we met her, Arati was among those who successfully completed the half marathon at the 2017 SCMM. It wasn’t the best of timings but true to her nature, she appeared content and happy.

Pravi and Arati with Arati's brother, Atul. From one of the Enduro races they used to participate in (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Pravin and Arati with Arati’s brother, Atul. From one of the Enduro races they  participated in as a team (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Pravin’s diligent training continues. Those who train with him say that he is very disciplined in his approach. He is strict in training schedules and adherence to proper diet (if he is running at a location away from home, he often brings along food suited to the diet he is observing). While training, if he is supposed to meet a certain target on a particular day, he will make sure he does, Mani Iyer, who has trained and run with Pravin, said. As combination of doctor, keen runner, triathlete and someone who reads to know more, his friends consider him well informed on the subject of running and endurance sport. An approachable person, he is known to offer tips to others on how to improve their performance. At the same time, even during his training hours, he remains available to patients. He is capable of running and discussing a medical case on the phone at once, friends who know him well, said. Pravin’s personal best in the full marathon so far, is 3:38, registered at the 2017 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). He has also done ultramarathons – he did the Javadhu Hills Ultra in Tamil Nadu in 2016 (Pravin was first runner up in his age category, while Arati who ran the shorter 25km-event was first runner up in her age group), the annual Mumbai Ultra and in 2012, a dawn to dusk run in Navi Mumbai organized by NMR. “ I don’t want to run many events. I would look at perhaps a full marathon, an ultra and a triathlon every year,’’ he said. In terms of events overseas, he has his eyes on the Boston Marathon and The Comrades in South Africa. No matter what the event, he would like to prepare diligently for it. On that, he is clear.

Personal Best (Pravin):

10km – November 2016, Navy Run – 43:50

21km – December 2016, VVMM – 1:38

42km – January 2017, SCMM – 3:38

Personal Best (Arati):

21km – February 2014, Thane Hiranandani – 2:02

42km – January 2015, SCMM – 4:48

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)            

VIEW FROM THE 16TH FLOOR

Praveen C. M (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Praveen C. M (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Bengaluru’s Clarence Public School has a reputation locally in sports.

Years ago, a seventh standard student with affection for running, jumping, throwing – in short, all that qualified to be the active school life – found himself on an excursion to Bannerghata, a little over 20 km from the city. By then his interest in sports had already harvested a collection of trophies – “ you know, the small ones indicative of everyone’s school days’’ – displayed at home. The student group was headed to Tulips Resort. En route, they stopped for a rappelling session. Hariprasad, the instructor, went beyond rappelling and showed some primary climbing moves and techniques to the students. Later, at the resort, there was a challenge to climb a eucalyptus tree; the prize was a box of chocolates. Praveen C.M bagged the prize. Intrigued by the boy’s natural talent, Hariprasad made him climb a couple of trees around. That paved the way for Praveen reporting to Yavanika, a state agency dealing with youth services and empowerment. Yavanika managed a 15 m-high plywood climbing wall on its premises, the only such wall in Karnataka state at that time.  “ At a certain point, the wall was eight feet wide. In that width, we had four top ropes; in the portion of the wall below the top roped climbers, others bouldered. And of course, there were the belayers. It was congested but managed well. Looking back, I feel those were the days when climbing actually grew in Bengaluru,’’ Praveen said. We were at a coffee shop on the city’s MG Road. Close by was a branch of Canara Bank. In the days Praveen discovered climbing, his father worked as a head clerk at Canara Bank.

On his second visit to Yavanika, Praveen found a state level climbing competition underway. He said he wanted to try one of the routes. Indulging the school boy’s request, the organizers put him on the climbing route for women. The youngster topped it. Muniraju, who was a good climber then, saw this. He asked Praveen to climb again. Soon thereafter, Praveen began frequenting the wall and climbing with Muniraju. In the first state level competition he attended following this phase, he finished third in his age category. In the next zonal competition he placed second. By 1998, he was at his first national level climbing competition, held at New Delhi on the old wall of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), the apex body for matters related to mountaineering and sport climbing in India. “ I still remember the crux on the climbing route in that competition. It was a move requiring considerable reach; it was at the third or fourth clip. Of the eight minutes available to climb, I spent seven figuring out what to do at this point. Eventually in desperation, I jumped for the next hold but couldn’t make it. It was a move that was tough for short people,’’ Praveen said. He is a well-built climber of modest height.

Praveen, climbing in Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Praveen, climbing in Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

That issue of inadequate reach would survive as fuel to navigate his way through climbing. It triggered two responses – first, in due course, it forced Praveen to be a dynamic climber on sport routes, resorting to lunges and leaps wherever he was challenged for want of reach. Second, it made him notice an often overlooked aspect of climbing – route setting. In India, a country with relentless rat race, the popular instinct of any alpha male is to shape environment according to his convenience. When it came to climbing routes, they were typically designed to showcase the climber who did it. In the outdoors for example, bolting wasn’t an inclusive art that took into account different body sizes and climbing styles. What’s the fun in climbing if it is to merely have rat race endorsed and one’s failures magnified? The route at the national competition intrigued. On the one hand, Praveen was encouraged by the fact that he had reached the third or fourth clip; on the other hand, his progress thereon was challenged by a move, he thought, was rather unfair given his shorter reach. It impressed upon him the importance of route setting as an art. It seemed the heart of sport climbing’s capacity for challenge and enjoyment.

Soon after his first national competition, Praveen joined the group of climbers being trained by Keerthi Pais. The group was called `Manav.’ It was a tightly knit group, perhaps too tightly knit to be easily accepting of newcomers. “ It took me almost a year to be trusted and counted,’’ Praveen said. But the persistence was worth it for the climbers Keerthi trained, turned out to be good. It was also an interesting time in India’s sport climbing map. The north zone was dominant; their climbers were ahead of the field. Keerthi was set to tilt the balance. “ The first medal for Manav – this one within the state – was won by Geetha,’’ Praveen said. Slowly, the group made its presence felt at the nationals through such climbers like Karthik, Archana and Vatsala. Keerthi’s group trained with commitment. Praveen recalled his life from that phase; those were the years of transitioning from Clarence Public School to Bengaluru’s National College. He stayed 18 km away from the climbing wall used for training. Those days, the city’s nascent metro rumbling overhead every few minutes near where we sat on MG Road, was not even a plan on the horizon. Buses to town from where he stayed were not many; certainly none very early in the morning. He left home at 4 AM and waited on the main road nearby for a lift. Sometimes the travel was managed in one vehicle all through to town. At other times, it was a series of lifts availed. The objective – report at the wall by 5.30 AM for the morning training session. Once training was finished, he went to college straight from the wall. College over, he returned to the climbing wall. The evening training session lasted till around 7 PM. He reached home by 9 PM. “ Buses plying on the route home would be packed with people. After a day of climbing at the wall, I would again be hanging on to something, except it was on the footboard of a bus. The routine was such that I didn’t know night and day,’’ Praveen said. He trained almost every day at the wall.

Praveen (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Praveen (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

In 2000, Praveen secured top honors in the junior category at the national climbing competition held in Darjeeling. With Keerthi’s wards beginning to perform well, it was now increasingly evident that the center of gravity in competitive sport climbing was shifting to Bengaluru in south India. Sport climbing was small in the country but its aficionados had a rather even geographic spread. In 2003, Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club, Girivihar, organized an open sport climbing competition – the first time it did so. The small annual event would grow to be a much loved one, held without break thereafter for over a decade. It became the seed for the 2016 IFSC World Cup held in Navi Mumbai. The geographic distribution and prevailing status of sport climbing in India was clear in the turnout of the competition’s initial years; climbers came from Delhi; Bikaner, Darjeeling, India’s north eastern states, Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune, Davengere and Bengaluru with Bengaluru as rising powerhouse.

Around the time Praveen won his first medal in the junior category at the national climbing competition, speed climbing made its debut. In 2001, at a competition (not the national one) held in Delhi, Praveen won in both lead and speed climbing disciplines. From roughly the next year onward he proceeded to become a regular fixture among toppers at the national climbing championship. According to him, he placed first for 16 years in one discipline or the other, including in one or two years, first place across all three disciplines – lead climbing, speed climbing and bouldering. Praveen said he does not view these disciplines as disparate and instead sees them as interlinked and synergic. Helping this embrace of all three disciplines, was the solution he had evolved to compensate for his physical size in climbing – his affection for dynamic moves. In his years in competition climbing, Praveen has represented India at international climbing competitions in several places; among them – Malaysia, China, Macau, Korea, Indonesia and France. His most recent appearance at the national climbing championship was in 2015, where he placed second in bouldering, fourth in lead climbing and qualified for the final in speed but didn’t take part. The names you hear as he recollects his years as a competition climber spans the who’s who of Indian sport climbing – Mohit, Karthik, Pranesh, Prashant, Norbu, Ganesh, Ravinder, Archana, Vatsala, Shanti Rani, Dasini, Kala, Vaibhav, Mangesh, Sandeep, Aziz, Tuhin, Somnath; all names that strike a chord with anyone who has known the sport in India for a while. He has also noticed how the larger environment in which the sport nestles, has changed.

At work, setting up a route on natural rock (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

At work, setting up a bolted sport climbing route on natural rock (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Recalling the time when potential candidates for an Indian team headed to compete in Macau were shortlisted and training was underway, he said, “ if I finished climbing a route, I would think of how I can make you do that route. Each person used to think of helping the other build competence. Such bonding is much less at present. The team spirit has faded although we have strong individual climbers,’’ he said. Distractions have also multiplied. With everyone competing to attract sponsorship, social media has become important. The emphasis is on advertising oneself, not climbing. In the process, you have more and more attitudes and impressions / illusions of self to deal with. “ I never had a sponsor. As part of a national team, yes you got the support of whoever sponsored the team. But as an individual climber, I never had a sponsor; there was nobody for the long haul,’’ Praveen said.

There were also other trends, which Praveen touched upon as he reflected on the nearly two decades he has been in climbing, 16 years of that as regular topper at the national climbing championship. In Indian competition climbing, he said, both authorities and athletes have gone wrong in equal measure. “ When you go abroad to compete in an international competition, you are initially overwhelmed by what all you have heard about foreign climbers. You may also be a bit rattled by first impressions. But on closer look and after climbing with them at a competition, you come back realizing that you can bridge the gap. You also set for yourself what must be addressed to bridge the gap,’’ he said, adding, “ a big problem is – in India, we don’t invest long term. We support sports from event to event or we support an individual for one event expecting the world from him or her. When we don’t get that performance immediately, we say the person has failed; we discard that person and take someone else. That is not how it should be. Support must be sustained and long term. The result of this erratic approach is that by the time we manage to get back to an international competition, the overseas climbers have progressed by leaps and bounds from where they were when you first met them. They have a continuous calendar for competing and systematic training to back it up. We don’t.

In Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

From Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

“ The other thing is we don’t strive to make a good impression. Making a good impression is important for an athlete’s self-confidence. If let’s say, your home federation is so indifferent that they send you to an international competition in ill-fitting dress or don’t adequately back you up in paperwork, support and facilities, you automatically come across to event organizer and other competitors as disowned by your own people. Why would anyone else then give you a damn? That should not be the case. In one of the international competitions organized years ago, I remember, each overseas competitor had a chauffeur driven car for the ride from Delhi to the venue, some 380 km away. The Indian team went to the local bus terminus in Delhi, boarded a regular state transport bus, ate at dhabas along the way and reached the venue. I am not demanding special treatment; all I am saying is – if you don’t respect your athletes, none of them will respect you in return. Rather sadly, in the competition climbing set up in India, the ones who count the most are the judges. It must be appreciated that the people who create a competition are the athletes and the route setters. One climbs; the other challenges the climber with climbing routes. That is the basic competition climbing ecosystem. Judges intervene, when you have a tough decision or choice to make. Theirs is perspective meant to provide clarity in crunch situations. When imagining sport, it should be the sport and its ecosystem first, only after that, how to decide outcome. Please remember – if athletes are not there, none of the others will be there.’’

According to Praveen, athletes too have their share of emergent faults. The old dedication in training has become less. The bonding between athletes is less. Earlier, climbing was in focus. It was the only thing that mattered. Now, climbing as sport struggles to preserve its priority for athlete, in the growing matrix of smartphones; social media, fame and head-strong attitudes. Success goes to the head too quickly these days. Praveen is among those who felt disappointed by how the Indian team fared at the 2016 IFSC World Cup in Navi Mumbai. He believes that the attitude of some of the athletes and the impact that had on training, played a role in the outcome. An angle often discussed by rock climbers and sport climbers is whether the IMF with its greater familiarity of mountaineering, has what it takes to empathize sufficiently with sport climbing. Praveen said that in all these years, he came across only one senior official at IMF, who grasped the nuances of competition climbing and understood what support the athletes were looking for. Yet for all its flaws Praveen believes it is still the IMF that is best placed to manage sport climbing matters. Internationally, sport climbing moved out from the erstwhile umbrella body for all types of climbing (the UIAA) and formed its own distinct federation (the International Federation of Sport Climbing – IFSC). In India, there have been suggestions to mimic this move domestically. “ The problem in anyone trying so here is that, as yet, I have no reason to conclude anyone else has a better agenda than the IMF or will be different,’’ Praveen said.

On the subject of a vigorous domestic calendar for competition climbing, he welcomed more competitions including those driven by prize money. A series of local competitions (instead of one zonal competition), strong zonal teams and all of it feeding into a national championship or a rolling series of national competitions felt wonderful to his imagination. I asked if hypothetically, leagues – on the lines of what is happening in other sports with teams composed mostly of local athletes and a few foreign athletes to improve standards, made sense. He was supportive of the idea of a league but not as supportive of foreign athletes because the gap in climbing competence between here and overseas is at present, significant. Too glaring a gap and support for domestic athletes may wither. “ What makes greater sense for me is spending the money you have for these fancy competitions, on excellent training overseas. That way you bring up the quality of local talent and reduce the gap in competence before featuring any league with foreign climbers alongside. I have a dream in sport climbing. One in which, India has a good sport climbing team that athletes wish to get into and to do so, they compete in the sport. Once they are in the team, they should feel they are part of it and that they are set to perform well. I say this because I experienced the pain. Aside from the ecosystem Keerthi created which I was fortunate to be part of, I didn’t have a dedicated coach or a sponsor despite being on the podium at the national level for 16 years,’’ Praveen said.

In Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

From Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Some time back, Praveen decided to address the old questions he had grappled with about climbing routes. He went to do a route setter’s course in Kazakhstan but on arrival there, found that the course had been cancelled. However he helped out with the Asian youth championship in climbing, which Kazakhstan was hosting. The competition’s route setter was impressed and invited him to join the route setting team for a competition in Korea. Following this stint, he did his international route setter’s course in Iran. For the two stints of work he had to mandatorily put in thereafter as aspirant route setter, he worked with a competition in Indonesia and later in May 2016, as part of the route setting team for the IFSC World Cup in Navi Mumbai. Some years ago, he also floated a company – Sportclimbing India. As of now it builds climbing walls; it is also distributor for Flat Holds, a Swiss manufacturer of climbing holds and Discovery, the Korea-based manufacturer of climbing walls. Additionally, he is training a team of climbers from Badami, Hubli, Davangere and Chitradurga. According to him, they are good, strong climbers who should soon be securing podium finishes. He is training them at his own expense.

Now 31 years old, Praveen hopes that at some point his climbing wall / holds business and the team he is grooming, become synergic; that a mutually complementing ecosystem in climbing, forms. Asked why he did not explore a regular job in some other more predictable, stable field, Praveen said, “ I was so much into climbing that I didn’t know anything else. I didn’t have a back-up plan.’’ There have also been forays into other branches of climbing. In 2015, Praveen had embarked on an expedition to climb Mt Everest. He was on the mountain when the devastating earthquake of that season struck Nepal killing thousands, including damage and casualties at Everest Base Camp. The expedition had to be aborted. The seed for this digression from sport climbing into a mountaineering expedition came from a little known trip in 2012. According to Praveen, that year, a 10 member-team composed of eight army personnel and two civilians and led by a civilian – Keerthi Pais – had recorded the first ascent of a rocky peak called Zambala on Ladakh’s Siachen Glacier. “ I was the only one who climbed all through. It is now a bolted climbing route at altitude,’’ Praveen said.

Sixteen floors up, Praveen’s tryst with climbing continues.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Details of competitions are as recollected by the interviewee. All the photos used in this article are taken by Jyothy Karat. They were provided for use with this story, by Praveen.)