A hard taskmaster

AKHILESH KUMAR

In the two and a half years that he has been with the Indian team, Nikolai Snesarev has brought about a transformation in its middle and long-distance running, writes K. P. Mohan.

There is unanimity among the Indian athletes that he is the toughest taskmaster they have ever come across. And yet, they have respect and regard for Nikolai Snesarev.

In about two and a half years, the Belarus coach has brought about a transformation in India’s middle and long-distance running and race walking.

“He is totally dedicated. Even when his wife came from Belarus, he went to the airport to receive her, but was back quickly on the track,” recalled Sinimole Paulose, one of Snesarev’s prominent trainees.

Sinimole had a double in the recent Asian Indoor Championships where India picked up a remarkable 17 medals, including five gold, thanks mainly to the runners from the Snesarev stable.

Sinimole attributed her remarkable improvement in 800m and 1500m to the work put in by the Belarus coach. From a 4:27 metric miler in 2004, she has moved to 4:10 (2006) and 4:11 (2007), giving her a place in the top-six in Asia for both years.

Snesarev’s wards have won a total of 98 medals at the Asian, Commonwealth and SAF levels. But he knows an Olympic medal is way beyond the reach of the Indian athletes. “Start planning now for 2012 and 2016; you have lost your chance for Beijing,” he said.

“We know he is fully behind us, whatever the problem,” said Chatholi Hamza, who has improved from being a 3:48 runner in 1500m to a sub-3:40 runner.

There is praise for Snesarev from the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) also, with its Secretary, Lalit Bhanot, singling out the Belarusian recently in Bhopal for his efforts in helping improve India’s middle-distance and distance running standards. There was a time in the 1970s when the Indian middle and long-distance runners used to make a tremendous impact in the Asian Games and even attracted attention at the global level. But the standards had plunged through the 1980s and 1990s.

While being proud of his trainees, Snesarev is not all that happy with the conditions in which he and the athletes have had to function. He cannot understand why India can’t plan well in advance, why athletes have to live in pitiable conditions while competing in National-level meets, why they have to travel long distances to reach competition venues, why meets should be held at venues that have age-old, worn-out tracks, why coaching camps should be held in places where pollution levels are high, why athletes have to run around to get their allowances from employers for competing in meets, why incentive awards are given by departments for National-level achievements but not for continental-level success and why governmental authorities are so insensitive to the needs of the athletes.

Snesarev says he had been pressing for training facilities at a high altitude centre ever since he came in 2005, but after having almost clinched a “deal” with the Army hierarchy in Wellington, Nilgiris, last year, the plan fell through.

Now, Kerala has come forward to host his trainees at Munnar which is yet to be developed fully as a high-altitude training centre. This is not exactly the period that Snesarev would have wanted his athletes to be training at high altitude, but he has opted for that place as his wards gear up for the tougher battles ahead, with the first and foremost task being to achieve Olympic standards.

For all his dedication, single-minded approach and his coaching proficiency, Snesarev’s temperament has often landed him and the rest of team management in awkward situations as it happened at the SAI Centre, Bangalore, then last year during the Asian Championships in Amman, where his trainees had limited success, and recently at Munnar where the victim happened to be an athlete.