RISING PHOENIX

This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the film. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright violation intended.

Many of us would know the name: Pierre de Coubertin.

How many of us have heard of Ludwig Guttmann?

The first is considered the father of the modern Olympic Games. The second is among those responsible for the Paralympic Games. In recent decades, the Paralympic Games have been typically held in the same host city as the Olympics, after the main event has concluded.

As you learn more about it, you realize that there is practically nothing to qualify the Paralympics as less than the Olympics unless your judgement is based on notions of mainstream, normal and majority – all of which nudge imagination towards a sense of physical and mental ideal. If challenge, hard work and determination are what author great stories from the Olympics, then such attributes are equally strong at the Paralympics. In fact, challenge may be more because the athletes overcome tremendous physical and mental hurdles before they are able to perform, leave alone finish on the podium. Yet the story of the Paralympic Games and that of the athletes participating in it, have always lived in the shadow of main and ideal.

This is what makes the 2020 documentary film Rising Phoenix essential viewing for anyone fond of sports. It gives you an inside view of the Paralympic Games – its genesis under the leadership of people like the German born British neurologist, Guttmann and the struggles the organizers and participating athletes endured in their life. It tells you of the step motherly treatment traditionally meted out to the Paralympic Games by society, which saw them as a cosmetic ritual – sort of corporate social responsibility – balancing the perception of the Olympic Games instead of genuinely valuing the drive, energy and commitment of the differently abled athletes. The Soviet Union, host of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, declined to stage the Paralympic Games; it was subsequently held in Arnhem, Netherlands. More recently in the run up to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games were nearly canceled for want of funds. There have been other similar examples of cavalier treatment – instances of the Paralympic Games held to very few spectators in the stadium – as well as islands of endearing support like the 2012 Games staged in London. The Games in London is the largest Paralympics held to date with a record 2.7 million tickets sold. At Rio too, once the Paralympic Games got underway there was tremendous enthusiasm and crowd support; over two million tickets were sold.

While the modern Olympic Games held under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee, began in 1896, the Paralympic Games – as an athletic event for the disabled, coinciding with the Olympic Games – started only in 1948, when British World War II veterans participated in the International Wheelchair Games in London. The Paralympics acquired its distinct stature as an apex championship open to those other than war veterans, only in 1960 (Stoke Mandeville Games, Rome; it is seen as the first Paralympic Games). Its Olympic year editions started being held just after the quadrennial Olympic Games in the same host city or country as the Olympics, in the years following the Rome event and more reliably so by the late 1980s. As per data available on Wikipedia, India has participated in 24 editions of the Summer Olympics to date and won 28 medals in all (it hasn’t won a medal yet in the Winter Olympics, although it took part in 10 editions). It participated in 11 Summer Paralympics (it hasn’t participated in the Winter Paralympics yet) and won 12 medals, including four gold.

Rising Phoenix is available on Netflix. Among the athletes featured in it are Tatyana McFadden (she has participated in both summer and winter Paralympics with the bulk of her medals won in the wheelchair track and field category; she has also won elite marathons in the wheelchair segment), Bebe Vio Beatrice (wheelchair fencing), Jonnie Peacock (running), Ntando Mahlangu (running and long jump), Ryley Batt (wheelchair rugby), Cui Zhe (powerlifting), Ellie Cole (swimming) and Matt Stutzman (archery). Each of them comes alive as a composite of personal story, interview and footage of training for their sport and actual performance at the Paralympics.

Don’t miss this film.

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

AT A GLANCE / SEPTEMBER 2020

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

Caster Semenya case: Swiss apex court supports earlier CAS ruling

South African Olympic champion Caster Semenya, saw her options shrink further as Switzerland’s top court ruled in favor of the regulations that bar her from continued participation in certain race categories for women. The ruling, early September 2020, may have shut the doors on her defending her title in the 800 meters at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

Semenya has a rare genetic condition that significantly elevates her testosterone level. It made her participation in the female category at races, controversial. World Athletics had decided in 2018 that intersex athletes with disorder in sexual development and having both X and Y chromosomes would require lowering their testosterone levels to compete in women’s events ranging from quarter mile to a mile, distances demanding both speed and endurance. Semenya had challenged such reduction requiring intake of medicines. In 2019 after the Switzerland based-Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled in favor of the restrictions, Semenya had approached the Swiss Supreme Court.  Early September, 2020 the Court said that CAS had the right to rule as it did.

In a press release dated September 8, 2020, available on its website, World Athletics said, “ for the last five years World Athletics (formerly IAAF) has fought for and defended equal rights and opportunities for all women and girls in our sport today and in the future. We therefore welcome today’s decision by the Swiss Federal Tribunal (SFT) to uphold our DSD Regulations as a legitimate and proportionate means of protecting the right of all female athletes to participate in our sport on fair and meaningful terms.’’

It added, “ World Athletics fully respects each individual’s personal dignity and supports the social movement to have people accepted in society based on their chosen legal sex and/or gender identity. As the SFT specifically recognised, however, the DSD Regulations are not about challenging an individual’s gender identity, but rather about protecting fair competition for all female athletes. The Swiss Federal Tribunal acknowledged that innate characteristics can distort the fairness of competitions, noted that in sport several categories (such as weight categories) have been created based on biometric data, and confirmed that ‘It is above all up to the sports federations to determine to what extent a particular physical advantage is likely to distort competition and, if necessary, to introduce legally admissible eligibility rules to remedy this state of affairs.’

“ The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) agreed with World Athletics in its 30 April 2019 award and now the SFT has also agreed that ‘In some contexts, such as competitive sport, biological characteristics may, exceptionally and for the purposes of fairness and equal opportunity, trump a person’s legal sex or gender identity’.

“ The SFT concluded: “Based on these findings, the CAS decision cannot be challenged. Fairness in sport is a legitimate concern and forms a central principle of sporting competition. It is one of the pillars on which competition is based. The European Court of Human Rights also attaches particular importance to the aspect of fair competition. In addition to this significant public interest, the CAS rightly considered the other relevant interests, namely the private interests of the female athletes running in the ‘women’ category.’’

Semenya has said that she will continue to fight against the restrictions. In a statement from her published in the report by New York Times (dated September 8, 2020) on the latest update to her case, Semenya says, “ I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am. Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history.”  The report in the New York Times pointed out that Semenya’s supporters include the World Medical Association (WMA), which has requested doctors not to implement the World Athletics regulations. WMA has questioned the ethics and potential harm in requiring athletes to take hormone therapy not based on medical need.“  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has also called for the regulations to be revoked. Human Rights Watch has called the regulations “stigmatizing, stereotyping and discriminatory,” saying they amount to “policing of women’s bodies on the basis of arbitrary definitions of femininity and racial stereotypes,” – the report said.

AFI seeks priority for Olympics-bound athletes in vaccination plan

The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has sought priority for Olympics-bound athletes in the government’s COVID-19 vaccination plan.

According to a report from Press Trust of India, published September 16, 2020 in leading dailies, discussions in this regard have already happened. “ We have already discussed this with the government and told them we will need it (vaccine) for our athletes going to the Olympics,” AFI President Adille Sumariwalla was quoted as saying in the report “ We need to make sure once the vaccine comes out, they (Olympic-bound athletes) should be amongst the first batches to get it and the discussion regarding that has already happened,” he added. The AFI chief was speaking at a webinar.

Duplantis vaults past Bubka’s record

Swedish athlete Armand Duplantis has broken Sergey Bubka’s longstanding outdoor world record in the pole vault.

A report dated September 18, 2020, available on the website of World Athletics, said that he cleared 6.15 meters at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Rome, a day earlier.

According to it, in February this year, Duplantis had set world records of 6.17m and 6.18m on the World Indoor Tour. “ But no one had ever jumped higher than 6.14m in an outdoor stadium. Sergey Bubka’s 6.14m monument from 1994 had stood inviolate for 26 years, but it has been under siege from Duplantis this season,’’ the report said, adding, “ before last night, he had taken 13 attempts at 6.15m after cutting a swathe through the world’s best pole vaulters in this short, sharp competition season.’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Boston Marathon organizers postpone registrations for 2021

Boston Athletic Association (BAA), organizers of the Boston Marathon, has announced that registration for the 2021 Boston Marathon will not take place in September.  The registration process has been postponed, BAA said in a statement dated September 3, 2020, available on its website.

Every year, registrations for Boston Marathon open in September of the previous year. According to Tom Grilk, CEO, BAA, COVID-19 has affected mass participation road races in ways that could never have been imagined. “ September is usually a time for the BAA to begin opening registration for April’s Boston Marathon and planning for an already established field size. We know, however, that we cannot open registration until we have a better understanding of where the virus may be in the spring,” he was quoted as saying.

To guide it on the path ahead, BAA has formed a COVID-19 Medical & Event Operations Advisory Group consisting of medical, public safety, and race operations experts, as well as city and state officials.

“ The Medical & Event Operations Advisory Group will recommend strategies that address the health and safety of participants, volunteers, staff, and community members. Recommendations will be developed in accordance with the most current guidelines issued for large-scale events by the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control. The group will develop framework for the B.A.A. that addresses risk factors specific to the Boston Marathon including size and other local and international considerations for the pandemic. Outcomes, including an updated registration timeline for the 125th Boston Marathon, will be shared,’’ the related statement available on the race website said.

“ We seek to determine with some specificity how and when large-scale road running events organized by the B.A.A. may be able to reasonably resume, while also providing input on which operational aspects will change as events are organized and managed,” Dr. Aaron Baggish, Co-Medical Director for the BAA and Boston Marathon, Director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center, and co-chair of the advisory group, was quoted as saying.

Boston Marathon is usually held on Patriots’ Day, which falls on April 19 in 2021.

This year’s, Boston Marathon was cancelled owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be held in virtual format.

World Athletics road running season restarts

World Athletics’ 2020 road running season will recommence this month backed by a strong anti-doping program. However, the race calendar is subject to changes due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a press release dated September 1, 2020, available on the website of the apex body overseeing athletics globally, “ the schedule begins with the Vidovdanska Trka 10km (Bronze Label) on 6 September and still features the Virgin Money London Marathon (Platinum Label) on 4 October, the same day as the venerable Kosice Peace Marathon (Silver Label) in Slovakia, as well as a host of other Gold, Silver and Bronze events in various countries. This schedule does remain subject to change, due to the ongoing uncertainty created by the progress of the Coronavirus pandemic around the world.’’

The calendar for the rest of the year will be supported by a strong anti-doping program. “ Road athletes will be able to register Olympic qualifying entry standards from 1 September to 30 November, but only in preidentified, advertised and authorized races being staged on World Athletics certified courses, with in-competition drug testing on site. The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) has confirmed it will have appropriate anti-doping systems in place for all qualifying races,” the release said.

In late July, World Athletics had agreed to lift the suspension on the Tokyo Olympic qualifying process for the marathon and race walk events from 1 September 2020, due to concerns over the lack of qualifying opportunities that may be available for road athletes before the qualification period finishes on 31 May 2021. The original suspension period, from 6 April to 30 November 2020, was introduced due to the competition and training disruption caused by the global pandemic, and remains in place for all other track and field events. The accrual of points for world rankings and the automatic qualification through Gold label marathons / Platinum Label marathons remains suspended until 30 November 2020.

Last year, the AIU had reached an agreement with the Abbott World Marathon Majors wherein the organization agreed to provide additional funding for intelligence-led anti-doping investigation and testing program, which would allow the AIU to monitor a larger pool of elite road runners. The said program has been expanded this year with contributions from other key stakeholders of the road running community – the organizers of all Label races, athlete representatives and shoe companies. Three major shoe companies – ASICS, Adidas and Nike – have agreed to contribute to the AIU’s Road Running Integrity Programme, the release said.

The ongoing commitment of all these key stakeholders means that more than 300 Platinum and Gold Label athletes will be monitored and tested during the coming season. The AIU expects to be able to create individual intelligence profiles for all of these athletes this year, establishing baseline parameters for each athlete’s biological passport, ahead of target testing in 2021.

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

IAU VIRTUAL RUN HELD AS SCHEDULED

IAU Virtual Run: the runners who participated in Bengaluru – (from left) Pranaya, Santosh, Ashwini, Bindu, Manoj and Velu.

From Manali to Shillong and Thiruvananthapuram, 25 ultrarunners participated in India over two days

The IAU 6-Hour Virtual Global Solidarity Run took place as scheduled.

From India, 24 of the originally listed 26 runners ran on the first day (August 29). One participant ran  on August 30 while another decided not to participate owing to injury.

Running in Surat, Sandeep Kumar logged the maximum distance among Indian ultrarunners with 79.53 km covered as per provisional data. Bengaluru-based Pranaya Mohanty managed 75.45 km during the stipulated period. The event is non-competitive; there is no official ranking based on mileage. Nupur Singh, running in Manali, turned in the highest mileage among women runners. She covered 70.93 km during the six-hour period. Binay Sah, running in Dwarahat, Uttarakhand, completed a distance of 73 km. Sikandar Lamba of the AFI team covered a distance of 69.26 km during the six-hour period.

Sandeep Kumar (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

Sandeep ran on August 30. His choice of Surat, where he lives, to execute the six hour-run proved beneficial as it was familiar training ground. “ I started well. The weather was pleasant and there was no sun. There were headwinds but there were tailwinds too which helped. I ran from hour to hour instead of focusing on the six hour-period,” he said. The previous day at Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru, six runners – Pranaya, Santosh, Ashwini, Bindu, Manoj and Velu – had commenced their run at 5AM. “ The first two hours was great as it was dark and cold. We could maintain a good pace. I could cover a distance of 27 km,” Pranaya said. Subsequently, it was a struggle as it was a pretty warm day in Bengaluru.

“ I avoided taking any gels for this run as I wanted to test my body with Maaza, electrolyte, water, Thums Up, Yoga Bar, banana and candies. My nutrition plan worked well but I got a lesson not to drink electrolytes on an empty stomach,” he said. At the end of five hours, Pranaya had covered 64 km. “My body was giving up but I kept running continuously till the end of the six hours. I was able to cover a total distance of 75.45 km,” Pranaya said.

Nupur Singh running in Manali (Photo: courtesy Nupur)

Manali, where Nupur ran, is in the foothills of the Himalaya. It is a place of ascents and descents. “ Around here wherever you go it’s either uphill or downhill. To run for  six hours, I planned it downhill, ” Nupur said. She commenced her run from Marhi on the way to Rohtang Pass and ran towards Kullu. The run went very well and as planned for the first four  hours; it was evenly paced and controlled. “ I was able to cover 50 km during these hours. The remaining two hours were quite challenging with heat, scorching sun and some rolling hills, ” she said. Given Marhi is at 11,020 feet altitude (source: Wikipedia), the temperature was around four degrees centigrade when she started. It then rose steadily to 36 degrees in Kullu (4196 feet / source: Wikipedia), where she finished. “ Overall it was a beautiful day in the mountains,” Nupur said.

As announced earlier by The Athletics Federation of India (AFI), the runners selected to run for India were: women – Anju Saini, Aparna Choudhary, Ashwini Ganapathi, Bindu Juneja, Darishisha Iangjuh, Deepti Chaudhary, Hemlata, Nupur Singh and Shyamala S; the men’s team includes Abhinav Jha, Amit Kumar, Binay Sah, Geeno Antony, Hemant Singh, Pranaya Mohanty, Sunil Sharma, Suraj Chadha and Tlanding Wahlang.

Darishisha Iangjuh running in Shillong (Photo: courtesy Habari)

A second team representing the AFI was also announced. The members of the team for the AFI 6-Hour Solidarity Run were Ajit Singh Narwal, Badal Teotia, Manoj Kuthupady Bhat, Nishu Kumar, Sandeep Kumar, Santosh Gowda, Sikander Lamba and Velu Perumal.

Out of these runners, Tlanding Wahlang, who was slated to participate, opted not to run due to injury, Sunil Chainani, member of the committee appointed by AFI to oversee the selection of Indian ultra-running teams, said.

On August 29, the selected athletes ran in different parts of the country and abroad. For instance, besides the numbers mentioned in Surat, Bengaluru and Manali, Suraj, Hemant, Anju and Deepti ran in Delhi; Geeno ran in Thiruvananathapuram, Darishisha in Shillong, Ajit in USA, Nishu in Surat, Aparna in Jaipur, Abhinav in Vizag, Badal in Bulandshahr, Amit in Panchkula, Sikander in Gurgaon and Hema in Hisar, Haryana.

IAU Virtual Run: Geeno Antony running in Thiruvananthapuram (Photo: courtesy Geeno)

The virtual run was anchored globally by the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU). Following selection by their respective federations, on event day, athletes were expected to record their performance on one of the many platforms like Strava and Garmin. Federations or their nominated team manager would need to verify and check their athletes’ performances and then submit the tabulated results to the IAU. Runners were expected to run at any time in one continuous six-hour block over the weekend of August 29-30.

Provisional mileage (in km) covered by the runners

Anju Saini – 55.2; Aparna Choudhary – 49, Ashwini Ganapathi – 54.18, Bindu Juneja – 64.08, Darishisha Iangjuh – 63, Deepti Chaudhary – 54.2, Hemlata – 42.61, Nupur Singh – 70.93, Shyamala S – 52.43, Abhinav Jha – 50.16, Amit Kumar – 44.5, Binay Sah – 73, Geeno Antony – 60.49, Hemant Singh – 56.15, Pranaya Mohanty – 75.45, Sunil Sharma – 68, Suraj Chadha -58.74, – Ajit Singh Narwal – 53, Badal Teotia – 67, Manoj Kuthupady Bhat – 66.66, Nishu Kumar – 44.02, Santosh Gowda – 62.5, Sikandar Lamba – 69.26, Velu Perumal – 65.31, Sandeep Kumar – 79.53.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

CHADWICK BOSEMAN IS NO MORE

Chadwick Boseman. Photo credit: Sam Jones. This image was downloaded from the actor’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

In June 2019, Hollywood actor, Denzel Washington, was awarded the Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute (AFI).

Among those who spoke at the function was Chadwick Boseman, the actor we all remember for portraying the comic book hero, Black Panther.

At the AFI ceremony, Boseman recalled the time Phylicia Rashad, his teacher at Howard University, contacted Washington for assistance in funding the studies of nine theater students who had been accepted to a summer acting program at the British Academy of Dramatic Acting in Oxford. Washington agreed to help.

“ As fate would have it, I was one of the students that he paid for. Imagine receiving the letter that your tuition for that summer was paid for and that your benefactor was none other than the dopest actor on the planet. I have no doubt that there are similar stories at boys and girls clubs and theaters and churches across the country where I know you have also inspired and motivated others. An offering from a sage and a king is more than silver and gold. It is a seed of hope, a bud of faith. There is no Black Panther without Denzel Washington. And not just because of me but my whole cast, that generation stands on your shoulders. The daily battles won, the thousand territories gained, the many sacrifices you made for the culture on film sets through your career, the things you refused to compromise along the way, laid the blueprints for us to follow. And so now, let he who has awarded be awarded, let he who has given be given to. It is an honor to now know you, to learn from you and join in this work with you. May God bless you exceedingly and abundantly more in what’s in store than he ever has before. God bless you,’’ Boseman says in the video available on YouTube. A teary eyed Washington listens.

It’s now time to remember the one who remembered to say the above.

Chadwick Boseman died on August 28, 2020 after a four year-battle with cancer. He was 43.

The last film I saw featuring him was Spike Lee’s Da 5 Blood. Previously I had seen him in Black Panther and some of the films from the Avengers franchise. On Wikipedia, Boseman’s career in films spans 2008 to 2020. It was in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War that he essayed the role of Black Panther for the first time. It was his first film in a five picture-deal with Marvel. The 2018 film Black Panther would later cement his status; the film currently ranks fifth in Wikipedia’s list of the highest grossing superhero movies with over 1.34 billion dollars earned at the global box office.

News reports about Boseman’s demise mentioned that he had been battling cancer for the past four years. According to a brief statement on his passing, available on his Facebook page, movies like Marshall (2017) and Da 5 Blood (2020) were filmed in the period that he underwent surgery and chemotherapy. What I will remember him most for is the struggle and dignity resonant in the words he spoke at the 2019 AFI ceremony. It was easily one of the most graceful and touching speeches of that genre heard at award ceremonies. Among those present was Michael B. Jordan, Boseman’s costar in Black Panther, who essayed a memorable role in the 2019 film Just Mercy. In the AFI video, as Boseman concludes, the audience gives him a standing ovation. Roughly a year and two months later, he would be no more.

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

ARMY SPORTS INSTITUTE CONFERRED TOP AWARD

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Army Sports Institute (ASI) Pune has been awarded the “ Rashtriya Khel Protsahan Puraskar 2020” by the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports, Government of India.

Since its inception, the institute has enabled participation of 20 sportsmen in Olympics; 12 sportsmen have already qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (rescheduled to 2021) with more hoped to qualify. The Institute has won six Youth Olympic Medals, 19 medals in Asian Games and 18 medals in Commonwealth Games, a related press release dated August 23, 2020, issued by the PRO (Defence) said.

According to it, in the last three years, sportsmen trained at ASI have won 450 international and 1118 national medals with a number of firsts and records. In the last three editions of Khelo India, the sportsmen won 125 medals in five disciplines.

Army Sports Institute, Pune (Photo: PRO [Defence])

ASI was raised as part of the Indian Army’s “ Mission Olympics” program on July 1, 2001. “ The aim was to train the vast reservoir of talent in the army in seven selected disciplines -archery, athletics, boxing, diving, fencing, weightlifting and wrestling – with the aim of winning medals at the Olympics. The institute draws its sportsmen from the army as well as from young raw and proven talent in ` Boys Sports Companies’ (8-14 years age),’’ the release said. These sportsmen are supported by a team of foreign and Indian coaches, physical conditioners and specialists in sports medicine, physiology, psychology, bio-mechanics, statistics and nutrition.

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

COACHES SPEAK / ONLINE TRAINING PROVES BENEFICIAL, TAKE THINGS SLOWLY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

With the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 lockdown easing, running outdoors has picked up. But the number of runners is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. The absence of running events and the continued ambiance of uncertainty are prompting many to stay away from road running. Coaches feel it is only a matter of time before the reluctant lot too returns to running.

The decision of coaching outfits to offer training online incorporating various workouts that aid general fitness has helped runners immensely. Most of the trainees are in fairly good shape. As they return to the outdoors, they are able to ease well into running primarily because of the extended home workouts popularized by online sessions.

Once running events make their appearance, runners are expected to be back on the road pursuing their passion, coaches said.

Daniel Vaz (Photo: courtesy Daniel)

Right through the lockdown, Mumbai-based coach, Daniel Vaz, evolved fitness plans that incorporated a mix of strength and endurance workouts, which he shared regularly through social media platforms.

“ I included a jump-rope workout,” he said. The aim of the jump-rope workout was to bring the sessions closer to running as it activates the Achilles tendon and also engages the cardiovascular system. He had an online following for his workout plans that exceeded his own circle of trainees.

His curated workouts helped runners retain their fitness; it also improved their strength. When they resumed running after a gap, the struggle was manageable. Daniel said that he nevertheless asked runners to exercise caution in terms of mileage and pace. According to him, they should begin with only 60 percent of the ‘run-time’ that they were doing before the lockdown. “ I speak about time because it is not right to recommend mileage,” he said. Focussing on time-based running helps a slow build-up of mileage and pace, he said.

“ Runners who are in touch with me have been told that this is the best time to work on the Maffetone method of training and run at low, comfortable heart rate. In my group I advise them on how to go about this kind of training,” Daniel said. Some who resumed running and gave up, have reverted to home workouts. Some others have decided to stay indoors amidst the continuing risk of pandemic. A number of virtual runs have come up. Not all runners are opting for this option, Daniel said.

Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Photo: courtesy Dnyaneshwar)

Amid the lockdown induced absence of running, most of the runners training under Dnyaneshwar Tidke at Life Pacers, diligently followed a training plan created by him. The result is that the overall fitness has gone up although endurance levels have dipped through depleted running.

After the initial round of relaxation in nationwide lockdown, Navi Mumbai, where Life Pacers is based, went through a second dose of stringent lockdown forcing runners to retreat indoors for another fortnight. Once restrictions eased, Dnyaneshwar asked them to assess their fitness levels before resuming outdoor activity. “ The prudent approach would be to build up mileage very slowly. In the continued absence of any running events on the horizon, runners can take their time to ramp up training mileage,” Dnyaneshwar said. Improving endurance fitness primarily entails slow and easy running.

Some of his wards brought to his attention the tiredness they felt during initial running sessions. “ It takes a lot of effort to come back to running. Therefore, the progress should be slow,” he emphasized. In the absence of races, the current period should be utilized to build endurance and work on weak areas. “ For those who have access to hills or trails this is the time to run and explore routes,” he said.

Ashok Nath (Photo: courtesy Ashok)

Most runners training under Ashok Nath have resumed their running in a slow and sustained manner. What is unique in this phase is the dimension of gender sensitivity Ashok has brought in. He has decided to rework the training plan of his women trainees to align with their menstrual cycle.

Often, training programmes drawn up by coaches are not differentiated on the basis of gender. Women have traditionally followed a training program that applies to both men and women alike. During the menses period, which may last between three and seven days, the training should be light. This is followed by a follicular phase which lasts for 10 days. “ As oestrogen hormone is high during this period, hard training is possible,” Ashok said.

A woman’s body experiences changes through these phases – menses, follicular phase, ovulation, luteal phase and pre-menstrual syndrome. During the luteal phase, the progesterone hormone shoots up and it can be difficult to do workouts. Ashok has been redesigning his training for women athletes to bring it in sync with this cycle.

Overall, his athletes are in the process of building up the foundation for endurance incorporating long runs along with speed and tempo. Many of Ashok’s trainees have had access to running in some form or the other, through much of the lockdown. The lockdown period also helped runners to enhance their quota of strength training and core workout and improve flexibility.

He also devised training plans that helped runners to focus on issues otherwise shelved in preference of running such as functional strength and joint conditioning.

Samson Sequeira (Photo: courtesy Samson)

Some of Samson Sequeira’s trainees have returned to running. However several others have chosen to stay off the road because of the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

“ For most of the runners training under me, it is primarily fitness oriented running. I have started with mileage progression only for full marathon runners and those interested in the Comrades Marathon,” Samson said. Given the long absence of running that happened, upon resumption of training, some have been complaining of joint issues and muscular imbalance. “ Those who did indoor workouts diligently are in good shape. But some of those who resorted to running indoors have ended up with ITB and plantar issues,” he said.

According to him, cardio conditioning has to be built up slowly. As the lockdown norms ease, runners are slowly emerging from confined existence to road running. About 25-30 per cent of Samson’s trainees have returned to running. Others are likely to join when the running season picks up. “ Those choosing to run for fitness have come back. But those who look at running as racing will probably return only when running events start happening,’’ Samson said.

Praful Uchil (Photo: courtesy Praful)

Among marathon training outfits in Mumbai, Striders is one of the biggest. Their trainees have been venturing out for road running but the numbers are yet small, Praful Uchil, said.

“ Of our trainees, only about 20 percent have commenced running. But the number of runners venturing out is slowly increasing,” Praful, founder and director at Striders, said. Through the lockdown period – it started around March 20 – Striders organised online workout sessions to help its trainees focus on fitness while staying indoors. “ Runners are advised to run for half hour to 45 minutes when they commence running. Now some of our runners have ramped up to one and a half hours of running,” Praful said.

As traffic on the roads is low compared to normal times, it is comfortable to run during the early morning hours. “ But there is still uncertainty about going all out into road running. One does not know how the pandemic will pan out,” Praful said. The online sessions have helped runners stay fit. They are able to run with ease despite the break of over three months, Praful said.

Vijay Alva (Photo: courtesy Vijay)

Online sessions have really contributed to fitness. “ Runners have never been more fit,’’ Vijay Alva, coach, said. His training outfit, Vijay Alva’s Fitness Academy, designed and broadcast a home-based training program for its marathon runners. “ This training plan included a mix of cross functional, strength and cardiovascular workout. It has helped runners stay fit,” Vijay said.

Currently, his runners are not doing anything more than 10 kilometers. “ But they are able to run quite comfortably. Nobody is complaining of aches and injuries,” he said. The extended home-based workouts have proved to be beneficial for runners as they have learnt to concentrate on exercises other than just running, Vijay said.

A former national marathon champion, Savio D’Souza has his feet firmly on the ground when it comes to a primer for running in days of lockdown relaxed. He advises that runners take it easy and slow these days, for there are no events on the horizon. The important thing is to be fit, which itself is adequate work because the majority of runners would have experienced a drop in baseline fitness from the months of strict lockdown. “ Remember, you cannot store fitness,’’ he said. It is still not very long since lockdown commenced easing, including time allotted for daily exercise. “ I prefer playing it safe,’’ he said.

Savio D’Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The coach explained the situation with reference to his own trainees. “ Most of them have started coming out, which more than running, is what they wished for. Seeing others from the group after a long time made them feel good. For the first few weeks we encouraged them to do brisk walking. We wanted them to de-stress and feel mentally relaxed. Then we started a routine of walk-jog. Now we do 9-10 kilometers – sometimes less – of slow, easy running. Same time last year, people may have been doing weekend runs of up to 30 kilometers but there is no pressing need for that right now,’’ he said. Asked what the most heard complaints by way of pains and aches were, Savio said that his approach had been to avoid pushing anyone such that they feel those aches and pains in the first place. “ This is not the time to push. You don’t have to. What’s the hurry? There are no events. Instead you should slowly, without risking injury, improve your baseline fitness. When events are finalized they are bound to announce it with sufficient notice because we are all coming from lockdown and relaxed lockdown with no serious training done. Right now, with my group, I believe we may soon reach that point where we should be able to get ready for an event with two months lead time. If we can preserve that fitness doing whatever we are doing, then as and when the need arises, we can revive the old training and countdown to events,’’ he said.

He quantified that sweet spot for his group – the substratum that can be worked on later – as 50 per cent of the journey to good form plus some more. It would be sensible to linger around in that zone till clarity about the overall pandemic situation and races therein, improve. For the same reason, he wasn’t a fan of the virtual runs announced in the June-July period. He felt that was too close to the period when lockdown started relaxing and people were just beginning to train afresh. Juxtaposed on the Indian lockdown calendar, those runs risked injury for want of enough moving around already done.  “ Virtual runs in September-October or later are alright because people have put in some amount of movement and running. I couldn’t agree with the earlier ones,’’ Savio said.

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

WILLIAMS

This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the racing team and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

“ In the end, if you are a racer, you are a racer. It’s a bug. It gets to you.’’ – Frank Williams

It was one of those coincidences.

The day I finished watching the 2017 documentary film Williams on Netflix, news broke that the Formula One racing team – it was in talks to rope in an investor – had been acquired by an American investment firm: Dorilton Capital.

Reports said, the name of the team based in Grove, UK, will continue unchanged. That should make anyone admiring passion and independence, happy, for Williams is one of the great stories of Formula One; great not just by performance but the determination it showed to keep going despite the odds. Given it was languishing in the lower half of the points table these past few years one may call the acquisition news of August 21, 2020 as expected. That would be a cold way of looking at things. What genuinely matters is the retention of the Williams name. If you take it off, a whole angle disappears from Formula One; that of the independent teams, founded and surviving not on the strength of capital, but interest in the sport.

A good documentary film is like that book you purchase despite everything gone online. There is something of a lasting value to it. The film Williams falls in that category. It tells the story of the Formula One racing team bearing that name and in the process gifts you insight into the sport, a man who became an institution in it, the people around him and how that life in racing left its mark on all of them. Motor racing is an expensive sport. Frank Williams wasn’t born into wealth or high society. He was attracted to cars from a very young age and instead of pursuing higher education, struck out on his own, including dabbling in auto parts and performance cars. Much of his earnings, dovetailed into Frank’s single minded focus on racing. His was a case of passion building a journey step by step, till following a stint as racer himself Frank eventually builds a Formula One team; the one carrying his name.

The film – like all films working within the limit of its length – is tad sketchy on the travails Frank faced in the initial years and for sure they would have engaged, for he is an outsider in a capital intensive sport ruthlessly partial to performance. It goes on from there to cover the first set of race victories that the team enjoys, including in between the early success (with Pierce Courage as driver) and the later poor showing and subsequent divestment to a Canadian investor. By the time the season that saw the investor come aboard, concludes, Frank is shut out from his own factory. It sinks him into a depression of sorts, release from which occurs only with a return to pursuing his dream of racing by starting a new team with Patrick Head. A few years into the championship victories that come the team’s way, Frank Williams suffers an accident. It leaves him a quadriplegic.

To adequately comprehend what this loss of mobility meant, one must note – Frank’s other great interest was running. He was into running marathons. Frank fights his way back to being by the race track and watching his team at work, from a wheel chair. The team he co-founded would win nine constructors’ championships and seven drivers’ championships at Formula One, as of August 2020. It is a journey entailing tonnes of human experience ranging from Frank’s early struggles to keep the team going, the drivers who race for him, the great drivers who lost their lives doing so, the scars it leaves on the team principal and eventually, his own accident off the track. Yet for all this drama, Frank Williams is a person totally lost to racing and his mission of managing a Formula One team. He lives and breathes that life.

The lives of intense people in intense sports, has often been the subject of riveting books in the biographical space. Less heard of, but as important – if not more important – have been the accounts of those who inhabited the surrounding ecosystem, without who, very likely the main protagonist wouldn’t have accomplished as much as he / she did. Among great stories told in mountaineering, has been the the sport as beheld by mountaineers’ spouses. They are as much affected by the risk associated with the sport; they are also among those enduring an utterly changed life when accident strikes leaving climber maimed or dead. What renders solidity to the documentary Williams is the inclusion of the memoirs of Virginia Berry, Frank’s late wife and the presence in the film of his daughter Claire Williams, who becomes deputy team principal. Virginia helps with resources in Frank’s struggling days; she is the one who takes care of him after his accident. Her memoirs – it runs like a spine for the narrative – serves as useful material to highlight the human story behind an obsession with racing; the toll it takes on a family.

I watched Williams after viewing Formula 1: Drive to Survive and A life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story (in that order) – all on Netflix. It was a trinity that helped put the sport often rendered remote and extreme by its glossy marketing, in perspective. Just one observation: as an independent team that built its own cars, cut a reputation for itself at Formula One, had its share of struggles raising resources and even became a publicly listed company, the story of Williams exceeds the dimension of a documentary film. It should be a mini-series.

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

A LIFE OF SPEED: THE JUAN MANUEL FANGIO STORY

This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the film and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

“ Trying to be the best in everything? I agree with that. But never believe you are the best.” – Fangio

There is sport as we know it today and there is sport as it used to be. It sounds clichéd. I know. But an overview of the contrast is essential grounding as otherwise we would be building castles in the air. Somewhere in the first quarter of the 2020 Netflix documentary A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story, former Formula One world champion Mika Hakkinen describes his experience of driving the car Fangio raced in, “ it is amazing, the effort it takes to drive the car.’’

Fangio’s heydays on the circuit were in the 1950s. The Argentine driver was Formula One world champion five times, a record subsequently beaten by Michael Schumacher. He raced with four teams – Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Mercedes Benz. But it is the state of racing he endured that amazes above all else. Fangio’s early promise was in football. After completing his military service, he opened a garage and in 1936, commenced a career in racing, driving a Ford that he had rebuilt. That last bit is a defining characteristic of Fangio’s approach to the sport.

A modern Formula One race is for instance a demonstration of how a team works like an orchestra, perfectly conducted. While the young drivers push their cars to dizzying speed, what matters equally is the efficiency of support crew during pit stops. If you watch a pit stop in slow motion, it is a lesson; both in terms of the coordination displayed right then and the thought, preparation and rehearsing that may have gone into it. Fangio’s formative years were in South America’s touring road races. As some of the early footage in the documentary shows, racers at such events drove carrying spare parts and extra cans of gasoline. There was no support crew, no teams of mechanics on call to address a breakdown. The typical driver was a combination of driving and maintenance skills.

This backdrop, from which Fangio came, contrasts the imagery of modern day circuit racing, where every ingredient is handled as distinct silo with specialists for the purpose. Indeed a distinction mentioned in the documentary about Fangio is his ability to race at Formula One, comprehending the limits of his car and try preserving it to the end. He knew how to sense the thin line separating an engine pushed to the limit from potential breakdown. The above quality made Fangio the sort that worked collaboratively with his team. You see in the documentary the early form of the pit stop. In those days of Formula One, a crew of mechanics dedicated to each car wasn’t available. When signing up with the final team of his Formula One career, a clause Fangio wrangles is that his car would have a dedicated mechanic.

Further, one of the hallmarks of modern day motor racing is the high level of driver safety afforded by advancements in technology. I watched the documentary on Fangio after savoring the Netflix series on Formula One’s 2018 and 2019 seasons. The latter had spectacular accidents with cars flying due to the force of impact. In all those accidents – except one – the driver concerned emerged unscathed. Such advancements in technology were not there in Fangio’s days. Accident fatality rate was high. It was humbling to listen to racing greats like Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost recall in the documentary, the number of fellow drivers killed. Having said that, it also appears to have been a gentleman’s age compared to the cut throat competition of today. At one of the races, Fangio’s car develops a flaw that cannot be rectified. He finishes the race and wins it in a car that a team mate gladly surrendered for his use.

Fangio’s story is also different from a couple of other angles.  The current line-up of drivers in Formula One is young. Fangio was middle aged by the time he got to Formula One. Here’s what Wikipedia’s page on Fangio says: Fangio was the oldest driver in many of his Formula One races, having started his Grand Prix career in his late 30s. During his career, drivers raced with almost no protective equipment on circuits with no safety features. Formula One cars in the 1950s were very fast, extremely physically demanding to drive; races were much longer than today and demanded incredible physical stamina. Tyres were cross-ply, and far less forgiving; treads often stripped in a race, and spark plugs fouled.    There were, of course, no electronic aids or computer intervention. At the end of a GP, drivers often suffered blistered hands, caused by heavy steering and gear changing.  Fangio was born in 1911. His first time at the World Championship of Drivers was at the 1950 British Grand prix; he was 39 years old then. His last time on the circuit was at the 1958 French Grand Prix; aged 47. His success with a variety of teams also stands out. Few drivers have repeated that since.

There is a point in the film on Fangio, when Juan Manuel Fangio II (Fangio’s nephew and a former auto racing champion himself) says, “ if you want to be efficient in today’s cars you need precision. If you wanted to be efficient in the cars from the 50s, you needed art. Now like I always say, if you add precision to the art from the 50s, the result is a world champion. If you add art to today’s precision, the result is also a world champion. So what we need to do is to add to each period what that period was missing.’’ A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story is available on Netflix. It is an engaging documentary to watch before or after the Netflix series on the 2018 and 2019 Formula One seasons. It doesn’t matter whether your understanding sprouts up from the seed or downward from the tree branches; what is important is that it has roots.

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

FORMULA 1: DRIVE TO SURVIVE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For a long time I was cold to Formula One. So why am I writing a review about a documentary series on the event? That’s because the said series has been crafted superbly and walks a thin line, which in retrospect I find, explains why I was unmoved by the sport and why I believe, I have begun to understand it.

If there is one word I would use to describe the 2019 Netflix series Formula One: Drive to Survive, it is: pressure. That attribute fills every ounce of the sport. For me, it worked as key unlocking a puzzle. My tryst with Formula One was as visits to the home of a gainfully employed friend, who, aside from time spent with family and friends, breathed the corporate life. Every time I was at his house watching a TV screen showing cars going round and round on a circuit, I would wonder: what’s so great about this?

A freelance journalist with feet in wider reality (and not owning a car to boot), I found the sport to be a rich man’s game; one that cost big money to host and wherein, the equivalent of a backpack damaged while hiking or a shoe worn out by running, was a smashed up car. When that happened, they just threw away the broken parts, found new ones and continued driving or, they wrote off cars and rolled in new ones. It appeared sheer materialistic excess. Perhaps I was being needlessly judgemental; committing that classic human error of looking for meaning where there is none. Anyways, something wasn’t connecting. All the while, my friend’s eyes stayed glued to the telecast.

Watching the Netflix series and stumbling upon pressure as the missing link eluding me, I felt the puzzle explained. The whole paradigm of high performance cars, quick driver reflexes, million dollar investments and large companies for players is accompanied by both prospects of tremendous possibility and, accountability. The result is a pressure cooker environment in sport that isn’t any different from the regular corporate ambiance. There is a hill (a points table) to climb every season and the urge, clearly, is to reach the top. The racing team may have the driver for poster boy and popular star. But given there are two drivers in each team and they must prove their mettle to stay indispensable, the mutual competition and insecurity can eat their innards. The real power is the team principal and the power behind the power is brand and financier; none of this – rules and variables influencing rules – lost on those accepting corporate logic. Very often, the fate of otherwise talented drivers is decided by this brew. I think I now understand why Formula One attracted my friend and others like him. Besides being intense sport, it probably endorses the professional space they inhabit.

I also understood the specific visceral pulls working within that larger attraction, the biggest of which is the raw act of driving at very high speed. At such speeds the stimuli we normally process for making decisions, appear and disappear like a flash. Given there are 20 drivers in all at the teams, there are 19 others (call them projectiles) besides you, processing stuff at manic pace on a given circuit. Things can go wrong in seconds. It is intense. The kinetic presence of other drivers around you, their capacity for individual madness, the challenges of each course and the fact that your skilled driving notwithstanding, your car is only as good as its support by other team members – all this, authors a dynamic environment, one that is pretty much like a car engine; a symphony of several components, a sum total of parts. It is innovation, coordination and discipline. It parallels corporate in attributes and instinct. It is said of some sports that it is meant for adrenaline junkies. I would say this one is for the pressure junkies. Being in a Formula One cockpit – be it driver’s seat (where the action is) or that of the team principal (where strategy is) – is a test of how much pressure you can take.

The beauty of this Netflix documentary series about the 2018 and 2019 Formula One seasons is how it has captured and delivered the thin line defining the sport, accurately. It has little flab in narration this side or that of the line it is treading. It stays taut; drives home that pressure. This is an eminently watchable series. However expect no great investigation of the sport or effort to contextualize it beyond racing circuit. This is a collaboration between Netflix and Formula One. It makes you feel that it hits hard but actually plays by the rules; which the way the series has turned out, isn’t bad at all.

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

RECORD HEAT IN DEATH VALLEY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Thanks to the famous Badwater Ultramarathon, Death Valley is known to running communities worldwide.

Among the hottest places on the planet, it is a desert valley in eastern California, in the northern Mojave Desert. The Badwater Basin in Death Valley is the point of lowest elevation in North America; it is 282 feet below sea level. Death Valley is roughly 136 kilometers east-south east of Mt Whitney, which at 14,505 feet is the point of highest elevation in the contiguous United States (the US excluding Alaska, Hawaii and other offshore territories). The Badwater Ultramarathon commences in Badwater Basin and proceeds to Whitney Portal, the trail head for Mt Whitney at 8360 feet. Several runners from India have participated in the 217 kilometer-ultramarathon, considered one of the toughest events in its genre.

On August 17, 2020, the BBC reported that temperature in Death Valley hit a scorching 54.4 degrees centigrade. Subject to verification, this may be the highest reliably recorded temperature on Earth. It has happened amid a heat wave on the US west coast. There is mention on the Internet of a still higher temperature – 56.6 degrees centigrade – recorded in Death Valley in 1913. The BBC report says, some experts consider that to be unreliable data.

Death Valley is the dry desert it is because it lay in the rain shadow region of four major mountain ranges. This forces moisture laden air coming in the from the Pacific, to shed its water content as rain or snow on the western slopes of the ranges. By the time these air masses reach Death Valley there is little moisture left to grace the region as precipitation. Other factors also contribute to the dryness. They include the valley’s surface experiencing intense solar heating, the area trapping warm air, warm air from nearby regions moving in and the phenomenon of warm foehn winds. According to Wikipedia, the period from 1931-1934 was the driest on record with only 16 millimeters of rain received.

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