Sprint, the glory of Tamil Nadu

Augustine Yesudas broke the under-20 boys’ National record at the 25th National Inter-Zone athletics championship in Kochi.-THULASI KAKKAT

There were quite a few sprinters from Tamil Nadu who felt special that evening in Kochi. Apart from Augustine, there were four others from the southern State who had sparkling gold medals dangling around their neck. By Stan Rayan.

As Augustine Yesudas raced down the track, making his decisive move after the halfway mark, the rest of the field could just watch in awe.

There is a great deal of raw power, a touch of aggression and a dash of glamour associated with the 100m, the race to decide the fastest athlete.

“It makes you feel very special,” said Augustine, from Chennai’s Loyola College, after emerging the fastest young man and breaking the under-20 boys’ national record at the 25th National Inter-Zone Athletics Championship in Kochi.

There were quite a few sprinters from Tamil Nadu who felt special that evening in Kochi. Apart from Augustine, there were four others from the southern State — S. Archana, M.S. Arun, R. Naveen and S. Lithiya — who had sparkling gold medals dangling around their neck.

In fact, Tamil Nadu won five of the championship’s eight golds in the 100m, two of them with national records.

What’s so special about Tamil Nadu? Why are the State’s athletes running as if their backs are on fire?

“Athletes from southern States are natural sprinters,” said S. Gnanasekharan, who coaches the 18-year-old Augustine at the Karl Marx Sports Club in Chennai’s ICF Ground. “Their muscle development helps sprinting. And there are a lot of specialised academies for sprints in Tamil Nadu.”

“South Indians are naturally explosive, their food, the climate… these things produce good sprinters,” said Mohammed Riaz, the chief coach at Chennai’s Royal Sports Club which is known for its sprinters. “In fact, three (Sathya Suresh, Al-Ameen and Prakash) of the four members of the Tamil Nadu 4x100m relay team which won the gold at the recent National Open in Ranchi are from my centre. Our team surprised strong sides like the Railways and Services.”

Anna University’s S. Archana, the fastest under-20 girl at the Inter-Zone National, is also coached by Riaz.

CLEAN STARS?

While the State certainly has sprinting talent aplenty, there is also a feeling in some quarters that some of its stars may not be clean.

Two of Tamil Nadu’s top sprinters, Sathya Suresh and Sharadha Narayana, were suspended for two years for doping violation and returned to the circuit recently.

Sathya was a member of the Indian men’s 4x100 relay team which won a historic bronze — the country’s first in the sprint relay — at the 2010 Commonwealth Games while Sharadha is a former national women’s champion.

Sathya is also the best sprinter to emerge from Riaz’s Royal Club.

“These things happened in the Indian camp or somewhere else,” explained Riaz. “The thing is, Sathya and Sharadha never pointed out the culprits and they became the victims. The 400m girls showed who the culprits were and ‘escaped’, even though they also got two years. Our athletes also got two years.”

DOPING SCANDAL

Riaz was referring to the doping scandal which hit Indian athletics a couple of years ago. A scandal which saw the country’s top female sprinters — almost the entire 4x400m relay team which won the gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi and the Asian Games in Guangzhou — being suspended for two years. The women’s sprint coach, Ukrainian Yuri Ogorodnik, was also forced to go home.

Archana... the fastest under-20 girl is also from Tamil Nadu.-K. MURALI KUMAR

Riaz admitted that it’s tough to convince people that the State’s sprinters are clean. He also said that it was not easy to contain the menace.

“Our athletes may be introduced to drugs through some bad elements in national camps,” he said. “Doping is bad but we cannot always travel with the boys. We cannot monitor what they are eating, what they are doing.”

But he felt that with anti-doping measures getting stricter, the sport is a much better place now than ever before.

“Those days it was not very strict now it is very strict,” said Riaz. “Satya has been giving dope tests once every month or once every 15 days at national camps.”

With the last Commonwealth Games bringing bronze medals in the men’s and women’s 4x100m relays, the Athletics Federation of India has now decided to focus on the sprint relays too since there are many international events lined up next year, including the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (Scotland) and the Asian Games in Incheon (Korea).

TOUGH TRACKS

But with black athletes dominating the short sprints internationally and India far away from the lead pack at the Asian level, very few Tamil Nadu sprinters dream beyond the SAF Games when it comes to the individual 100m.

“Of course, blacks are dominating sprints at the international level but we can at least try to compete with countries like China and Japan and focus on brining our time down to 10 flat,” said Riaz.

“We used to do well at the Asian level a few decades ago. The Chinese and Japanese are now running 10 flat at the Olympics or very close to that, … we can work towards beating them. The medal is not important now, we have to think of reaching the 10-flat barrier.”

COACHES’ HANDICAP

Coaches are also handicapped when it comes to training sprinters.

“The coaches here have not seen below-10s runners,” explained Riaz. “Only those who have seen below-10 runners will know the level of their input, their work, how to make their muscles grow and what repetitions one has to do to develop the higher speed.

“Here, the coaches have only seen 10.2, 10.3 at the most. It’s like going for higher studies when you look at faster men.”

Academics, and seats in engineering and medical colleges, is one of the big reasons why young boys and girls turn to athletics in Tamil Nadu.

“Almost 80 per cent of the youngsters who come in now have the engineering college seat as their goal,” revealed Riaz. “They have just short-term goals.”