Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Why India needs an Indian Idol-esque platform to hunt for talented runners

India is the second most populous country in the world with the worst Olympic record in terms of medals per head. Till we put a stop to considering "running" as a fitness entertainment and start seeing it as a professional sport, nothing will change

Published: May 17, 2022 03:46:58 PM IST
Updated: May 17, 2022 05:30:23 PM IST

India's steeplechase runner Avinash Sable in action. Image: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

India's steeplechase runner Avinash Sable in action. Image: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

It was a gloomy Tuesday morning in central London.

I was in the heart of Mayfair walking up to The London Sporting Club where I was joining two very profound sportsmen from England, who also happen to be managed by my company, and a well-known British sports journalist, for a breakfast interview.

After exchanging some pleasantries and sipping our black coffee, we got down to business. The questions came in one after the other and I seem to have hit them out of the park quite easily…..until this one.

“During my last trip to India it appeared to me that most Indians are dealing with ‘hurry sickness’. I mean they seem to be running all the time (haha!) which makes me wonder how come you guys have not produced any (Usain) Bolts and (Sir Mo) Farahs so far, eh?” (mocked the journalist)

After a momentary pause, I sipped my coffee and reciprocated, “Well mate, aren’t you just happy with our globally renowned cricketers?”

A dull silence followed. I think the journalist understood I didn’t have an answer to his question so he smiled and graciously moved on. But the question was stuck in my head for a very long time.

India is the second most populous country in the world with the worst Olympic record in terms of medals per head. In 2012 we bagged six medals which was one for every 200 million people. None in track and field. In 2016 Rio we bagged two, that’s one for every 600 million. None in track and field. And in 2020 Tokyo Olympics, we bagged seven in total. One out of them was in athletics (track and field) won by Neeraj Chopra and more interestingly it was India’s first medal in athletics in 72 years. Yes, the first.

Let’s face it: India’s performance in track and field has been dismal and the picture is far more grim and grey when it comes to “running". The question asked by the journalist to me at The London Sporting Club is a question we should be asking ourselves.

Why haven’t we produced good runners? How come Kenya, which is a sixth in size, produces them in hordes, despite being much less privileged and scientifically advanced than India? (with all due respect)

If the film Paan Singh Tomar has taught us one thing, it’s the desperate need to recognise and groom home-grown talent. I once heard a government official say it with a grin, “What is the need for producing runners when we have our cricketers who can hit fours and sixes and make others run to get back the ball?”

We suffer from what I call the ‘comfort-zone syndrome’. Cricket works, so all things sports in India become about the bat and ball.

The problem lies in our mentality.

See, the babus sitting in sporting authorities couldn’t care less, but the fact is neither do most of you reading this right now. All you want to know is the score in an ongoing cricket match, because that is where the buck stops. 

I don’t believe that our inability to produce runners is due to the lack of talent available in India. On the contrary, it is the lack of willingness and a vision to find them, train them and get them ready to become globally competitive.

When are we going to learn new names outside of PT Usha and Milkha Singh? How many more decades do we have to wait for the next Dutee Chand to come into the limelight?

Why do we not have a Hima Das sprinting out from every state today? Do you know who Avinash Sable is? Of course you don’t. But FYI, he is a steeplechase runner from India who recently smashed the 30-year-old men's 5000m national record in the US.

Well, till we put a stop to considering “running” as a fitness entertainment and start seeing it as a professional sport, nothing will change.

Yes, Milind Soman may have managed to keep conversations about running alive on Page 3 but that has not helped us identify new talent to represent India. Brands like Airtel, TATA and Standard Chartered may sponsor marathons across the country but that is just one day in a year when we see hashtag (#) running trending on social media in India.

How many brands except Bournvita have invested their dollars towards creating running based ad films? How many of them have used our Indian runners as their brand endorsers? When was the last time you read an article about running or runners in India?

Unless the sports ecosystem joins hands with the media to make running popular, runners popular and give enough prominence to athletics as a career choice, we will never produce enough Olympic medal winners, definitely not in running.

Although I strongly believe we can actually produce more globally competitive runners than any country in the world—because we not only have the population to justify it but also the advanced infrastructure today to get them ready for the big races.

It’s actually not that difficult to find these talents from across the length and breadth of our country. Perhaps, all we may need to do is run a talent hunt like the Indian Idol. I am sure we will find India’s fastest runners in no time! And once we do, we must give them the highest and most sophisticated platform to be trained by the best trainers and coaches from around the world.

At the same time brands and corporations must step in with investments commitments and the media must start writing and talking more about running than they ever did before.

Now that I think about it, maybe my own company can start this hunt in India and create an exclusive IP that churns our runners every season. While we are on it, let me run out and make some quick calls to my team. But hey, whether we do it or someone else does, please lend your support to help them reach the finishing line.

Gaurav Bahirvani is the founder and CEO of One One Six Network Limited, an investor-backed sports and entertainment company based in the UK, with operations in India and the Middle East.

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