National Games 2022: From waiter to gold medallist - racewalker Ram Baboo defies odds to smash national record

Ram pushed past the finish line in 2:36:34 seconds, smashing the old national record of Haryana’s Juned Khan (2:40:16) by 3.7 minutes. 

Ram Baboo gestutres after winning the gold medal in the men’s 35km race walk.

Ram Baboo gestutres after winning the gold medal in the men’s 35km race walk. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Ram pushed past the finish line in 2:36:34 seconds, smashing the old national record of Haryana’s Juned Khan (2:40:16) by 3.7 minutes. 

 

As he entered the final lap of the men’s 35km racewalk event at the National Games, Ram Baboo could hear the shouts of encouragement from the spectators, coaches and volunteers at the IIT Gandhinagar athletic track in Gujarat.  

Chal chal Ram, ek lap aur hai bas (lets go Ram, just one more lap),” one of them shouted.  

Although he had led the race from the start, the hot and humid conditions on Tuesday morning had by then sapped the energy of the long-distance athlete, slowing him down. 

However, buoyed by the cheers, Ram pushed past the finish line in 2:36:34 seconds, smashing the old national record of Haryana’s Juned Khan (2:40:16) by 3.7 minutes. 

“As a sportsperson, you get so much respect. It feels nice when people encourage you,” says the 23-year-old. 

From Waiter to Racewalker  

Ram’s path to the gold medal has been riddled with difficulties, disrespect and taunts. “Ey chhotu, table saaf kar, (Hey boy clean the table)” he remembers the barbs. 

In early 2018 he had left his home in Bahura village in the impoverished Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh to pursue his dream of being a long-distance runner. 

He travelled to Benares, the nearest city with an athletics stadium. He took a job as a waiter to pay for his stay and training.  

“People used to be disrespectful all the time. I used to feel guilty and hurt. Sometimes, I’d work till midnight and even on a Sunday. After that I used to train from 4 am to 8 am and then get back to work,” he says.

 The pay was meagre and there was little time to rest. “My diet didn’t match my training. I had frequent injuries. I had no money or time for recovery. But the worst part was that people didn’t respect me. They didn’t see me as a person,” he recalls. 

But Ram was not deterred and continued chasing his dream.  

“My father is a manual labourer. We don’t have any land. Our home got electricity a year back and my mother still walks four kilometres to fetch drinking water,” he says. 

Mother an Inspiration 

His ambition comes from his mother. “Although my parents are poor, my mother had a dream. She would say ‘people are born, they live their life, and they die without making any impact or being noticed.’ My mother’s dream was that people know who I am.  Kuch karo ki Aapki pehchan bani rahe. (Do something so you are recognised)” he says. 

The long-distance runner was blessed with great stamina since he was young. “ Agar naam kamana hai kuch karna hoga (If you have to make a name, you have to find something to do). At that time, I used to play football in school. The other children would be tired, but I would run from one end of the field to the other,” he says. 

The Role of Budhia Singh 

A film -- “Born to Run: Budhia Singh”, biopic on a four-year-old distance runner – gave him purpose. 

However, the knee injury kept troubling the athlete “The injury wasn’t healing because I didn’t have money for a good diet. But at that time a coach told me to shift to race walk because it was a less stressful sport for my knees,” he says. 

He left his job as a waiter and started stitching jute bags used by courier agencies. He would eventually leave that as well. Ram travelled to Bhopal where he knew there was a strong group of Indian race walkers at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre. 

 “When I first did 2km at a 5.00 minute/km timing I was very happy. At that time, I was thinking how great it would be if I could do 20km at this pace. Now I’m able to do 4.25-4.27 minutes per kilometre which is a very good pace,” he says. 

Ram Baboo in action during the National Games in Gujarat.

Ram Baboo in action during the National Games in Gujarat. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

At Bhopal, he met former Olympian Basant Bahadur Rana. Rana saw there was talent in the youngster. He supported him, paying for his kit, diet and sometimes his travel. Later Ram would be supported by another coach in Bengaluru, Kannan Sundarrajan, who raised money for him through a crowdfunding campaign. 

Despite the few well-wishers, things were never comfortable. The nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus in early 2020 dealt another blow. “After that, the Bhopal camp shut down. I had to go home to Sonbhadra and couldn’t train,” he says. 

At home, Ram worked to support his family. In between race-walking videos on his phone that he uses to chart his progress and correct technical errors there are videos of him digging ditches in the sun.  

“I worked in MNREGA digging ponds with my father. My parents had a card so I would work on that. During the lockdown, I couldn’t train so that was the work I did. We had to make a road or dig ponds. We worked for two months. They didn’t pay us daily. They calculate how much earth we removed and then pay us based on that. I made around Rs. 200-300 a day,” he says. 

Even after he returned to Bhopal, it was still hard to train as outsiders weren’t allowed to enter the SAI campus. “Coach used to send me the training on WhatsApp. During the lockdown, I had to train on the road outside the campus. I didn’t have facilities for gym, swimming or massages after training,” he shrugs. 

Despite the odds, Ram managed to win a silver medal in the men’s 50km event at the Racewalking championships in Ranchi in 2021.  

A few months later he won gold with a new National Record (NR) in the men’s 35km event at the Open Nationals. He has performed regularly since, winning a silver in the 35km event at the Racewalking Championships in 2022 and competed in the Racewalking World Cup the same year. 

Lack of Sponsorship  

Despite his medals, Ram is yet to find enough sponsors. “The UP government has announced prize money for the results at the Race Walking Nationals and the National Championships. They have announced the prize money in the newspapers as well, but I am yet to get the money. They have said they will give Rs. 6 lakh to the winner of the National Games,” he says. 

He’s still looking for a job that will ease his financial struggles. “I applied for a job in the Army last year. There’s a change in the duration of recruitment and the person in charge of recruitment says I must submit a new application under the  Agniveer,” he says. 

If life has been hard, the athlete uses his experiences as motivation. “The hardest moment of my life was when I was a waiter. I was very unwell at that time, but I was still working because I needed the money. It taught me what human life is all about. During the race if I am struggling, I motivate myself by remembering where I started and where I am now. If you don’t push yourself, you won’t have any  pehchan (recognition), he says.  

He’s also positive about his present and his future. “I’m currently training as a civilian at the Army Sports Institute in Pune. They take care of my stay and boarding. I don’t have to pay anything. That is a huge help,” he says.  

He’s looking forward to the upcoming races.  

“I had come here to break the national record with the gold medal and do my personal best. The track was a little tough because it was cemented, and I wasn’t able to give my best. I will try my best to improve on this at the Open Nationals (beginning October 15),” he says. 

“I want to qualify for the Olympics and Asian games. To achieve success, you must believe in yourself.  Jis level ka sapna dekhte ho, us level ki mehnat karni chahiye tumhe. (If your dream is big you must train with that amount of dedication). There is a cost to every ambition. Either you pay the cost in money or in hard work,” he says. 

The Olympics in Paris and the Asian games in Hangzhou will be a long way away from Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh but Ram is confident he can do it.  

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