The over enthusiasm of a section of our media for whipping up meaningless controversies and the indifference of a large number of sport lovers to realities have resulted in two athletes who performed credibly at Rio Olympics failing to get the attention they richly deserved for their otherwise brilliant shows on the concluding day of the Games.
Indian Army soldiers Thonnakkal Gopi and Kheta Ram ran superb races to come 25th and 26th overall, respectively, in the men’s marathon event in a field where there were more than 160 competitors, of whom 20-odd runners failed to finish. What was more impressive was that the duo’s performances were the best ever marathon races run by Indians outside the country.
Finishing the race at 2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds, Gopi had only Japanese Satoru Sasaki among the Asian competitors ahead of him. Sasaki (2:13.57) finished 16th and Kheta Ram who was 26th was only marginally slower to Gopi at 2: 15.26. In the top 100 positions there were 16 Asian athletes overall and there were only four Asians in the first 50 positions. They were from North Korea (Pak Chol, 27th), China (Don Guojin, 29th), Sri Lanka (Anuradha Cooray 34th), and Japan (Suehiro Ishikawa, 36th). The next best was Israeli athlete Maru Tefen who came 71st. The third Indian runner Narendra Singh Rawat was 84th overall, clocking 2:22.52 secs.
Even after it became clear to everyone that Gopi and Kheta Ram completed their race in impressive timings, most of the Indian media seemed to be interested only in woman marathoner O.P. Jaisha. Incidentally Gopi and Jaisha hail from from the same district of Wayanad in Kerala, which was once considered by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) as a region where could be room for spotting long distance runners.
Before emerging at the national level, Gopi was mainly used as a pace setter for other marathoners, until he showed his class at the Standard Chartered Bank Mumbai marathon earlier this year where he finished as the second best among the Indians, after Narendra Singh Rawat. Gopi came 11th overall there. The Keralite ran the race in 2 minutes 16 minutes 15 seconds at the Mumbai event before qualifying for the Olympics.
Soon after his selection for the Rio Games, one of the well-known athletics coaches from Kerala Professor Parakkara Ittiachan Babu had expressed the hope that Gopi could come out well in the race if there was more competition. Babu, who is currently the General Secretary of the Kerala Athletic Association, is one of the very few coaches who had watched Gopi’s progress all along. He is s remarkably confident these days that the regular training in the Army and the frequency of competitions at the Services level could help either the 28 year-old Gopi or Kheta Ram beat the 38-year-old Indian national record in marathon held by the late Shivanath Singh (2:12:12) sooner than later.
Gopi was a student at Mar Athanasious College Kothamangalam some seven years ago before joining the Army to support his family. Babu, who was the physical education director at the college, discovered his talent in long distance races those days and encouraged him consistently. The coach who retired from the college also won the best coach award instituted by the Kerala Sports Council last year.
Incidentally three athletes who represented M.A. College in different periods were in the Indian squad at the Rio Games, the other two being Anilda Thomas (4×400 m relay for women) and Mohamed Anas (4 x400 m relay for men). “Having three ex-students of our college in the team for one Olympics itself seems to be a unique record,” said Babu beaming with pride.
Sadly, the media in Kerala which deliberates extensively on many issues have failed to take note of such an impressive performances of two marathoners even as they continue their time killing debates on trivial issues.