Sportstar Podcast: In conversation with coach James Hillier on Indian athletics ecosystem, the development of Jyothi Yarraji and Paris Olympics prospects

Host Nihit Sachdeva interviews James Hillier, the Athletics Director at Reliance Foundation, on India’s track-and-field preparation for Paris Olympics with focus on hurdler Jyothi Yarraji.

Published : Jun 27, 2024 18:17 IST - 33 MINS READ

In this episode of the Sportstar Podcast, host Nihit Sachdeva interviews James Hillier, the Athletics Director at Reliance Foundation, on India’s track-and-field preparation for Paris Olympics with focus on hurdler Jyothi Yarraji.

Here’s the full transcript:

Nihit - Hello and welcome to a new episode of the Sportstar Podcast. This is your host, Nihit Sachdeva, and joining me on this episode is a very special guest. Joining me on this episode is Mr. James Hillier. He is the athletics director at Reliance Foundation. Some of India’s most promising athletes train under his guidance and we might get to see some of them at the Paris Olympics also. Welcome to the show, James. How are you doing?

James - Thank you. Hi, Nihit. Yeah, great to be on the show. Thanks for having me.

Nihit - James, you’ve been with the Reliance Foundation for almost five years now. You’ve previously worked with UK Athletics and before that you weren’t into athletics. You were doing something else. From there, coming to India, how tough has it been for you and your family to adjust to this very different culture?

James - Yeah, it has not been tough. It has been different. Obviously, it is a little bit of a culture shock, particularly for my wife, but my kids are young - they’re three and five now. They’ve grown up in India. For all intents and purposes, they’re Indian and they love being here. Actually, when we take them away, they always want to come back to India and back home. So, they’re very comfortable here.

READ | Jyothi Yarraji, ever ready to push the envelope

It’s different. Obviously, when we started this project back in 2019, I felt like there wasn’t a particularly strong ecosystem of athletics in the country. There were pockets of good success. Neeraj (Chopra) was starting to breakthrough and there were pockets of good things happening but I didn’t feel like there was a huge momentum within the sport. Now, with us and other corporates coming in, and we’ve been able to raise the bar in terms of technical expertise and extra professionalism. Also, bringing the benefit of the experiences that I’ve had in the UK and Europe and I was in the US for a little bit as well into an Indian context has been really valuable. When I reflect on the last five years and I look at where Indian Athletics is now versus where it was five years ago, I think we’ve made huge step forward and I’m proud of the contribution that the Reliance Foundation has made to that improvement.

Nihit - When you started this journey, you must have faced some challenges. Let’s just start with the basic thing. India is a very vast country. What were the challenges you faced while scouting athletes and while coaching Indian athletes in the initial stages of your stint with Reliance Foundation.

James - For me, the foundation of any performance system in any sport is quality athletes and you must never shy away from that. You must never forget that. That must be central to everything you do. When I started, our first project was a partnership with the Odisha government in Bhubaneswar. When I got there, and I was sort of looking around, effectively, there was no athletics happening really.

There was a hostel, so there’s a few kids doing a little bit but there wasn’t any formal athletics training going on. There were certainly no international athletes there or anything like that. It was just a few local kids and stuff. So, for all intents and purposes, there wasn’t really anything there.

So, the challenge at the start was how do we get quality athletes into our program and then, how do we create the credibility of a high-quality program to then attract more people and then just keep that cycle going of good quality athletes coming in and exiting and even better coming in and so on.

As you correctly said, India is such a big country and it’s so diverse in terms of languages and geography. Getting from one part of India to another and getting this flow of information is very difficult. It’s very hard for me coming from Britain, which is a very small country. It’s very easy to get information on athletes, and we have a very good database that we use to track athletes right back from the start of their careers. Nothing like that existed in India. So, I had to trust my judgment in terms of selecting athletes that I felt had potential to improve and that was really the focus in the early years. My first athlete was Amlan Borgohain, who was the 100m national record holderand is still the 200m national record holder. He has improved by almost a second and a half in the 200m and by over half a second in the 100m since he’s been with us.

I joke with him. I said, “Listen, man. If I’d have seen you now, you never would have even being accepted into our program because now, we’ve raised the bar so much higher. But in those days, nobody knew who we were. Nobody knew who I was. When I turned up at athletics meetings, people were like, “Who the hell is this guy?”

And I try to talk to people who would look at me in a weird way. Now, everyone knows me here. I’ve got credibility. Now, through the successes we’ve had, a lot of athletes approach me, because they want to join the program. So, it’s sort of completely done a 360 in terms of where we were five years ago and where we are now. There’s a huge amount of satisfaction in developing young athletes, not only as athletes but as human beings. We look at our real success stories - Amlan being one and Jyothi (Yarraji) being one. Tejas (Shirse) is now coming through

Some of our throwers are doing really well. Kishore Jena is hopefully on the verge of making the Olympic team as well. Some of our distance runners are doing really well too. Looking at some of these guys, I’m really proud of not only what we’ve done in terms of developing them athletically, but also, developing their character, bringing them out their shell and making them very confident. That’s equally satisfying when I look back on things.

But as we head forward, there are more challenges ahead. We have got to keep adding quality expectations. Now, there’s an expectation from Reliance Foundation to keep producing results. We’ll never stop challenging ourselves. We’ll never stop pushing to have the best athletes in our program. Our goal, as we move forward, is to get more and more athletes on the Olympic team. Hopefully, we’ll get some on the team this year but in 2028, we want to achieve double figures of athletes on the team in for you. We’re working hard towards this Olympics but we’re also already planning. I’m writing a strategy plan for 2028, 2032 and 2036. We hope 2036 will be an Olympics in India, of course and we hope we have a huge part to play in that process.

Nihit – Public-private partnerships have played an important role in the last few years like your partnership with the Government of Odisha. I just want to delve a little bit more into the scouting network. How do you do it? Do you have a network of local scouts or do you select some meetings where you go and look for new fresh talent? How did you start that process and what’s the process like?

James - It’s a really good question and it’s a question I get asked a lot. I think, people are really desperate for me to give them the answer on the secret to how you find talent. And really the answer is - you’ve got to be open to anything and everything. There’s talent everywhere. I’m a strong believer in that. It’s whether the opportunity is everywhere and what we’re trying to do is create opportunity for talented young athletes to flourish. Ultimately, we want to give them that chance. We want to give them that opportunity to say, “Listen, if you’re good enough and you want it enough, then we will facilitate and help you achieve your goals, dreams and aspirations.”

There’s lots of stuff you can do. Competitions is a great way to find talent. It’s a great way to see how those kids raise their level up in competition. I spotted one of our hurdlers - A. Graceson Jeeva who has won numerous national medals at the junior and senior level - in the warm-up track and he wasn’t hurdling. He was walking around the track.

He couldn’t walk properly and good quality athletes can’t walk properly. So, I looked at him and I just saw how he was walking and he was sort of up on his toes and hitching his hips up. He had long legs and looked physically really good. So, I called him over and asked about his event.

He said, “I do hurdles.” I said fantastic. You know, I’m a predominantly hurdles coach. We’ve got this program and I hadn’t even seen him race and I had already made a decision to give him a trial. I didn’t need to see him race. From just looking at him and how he was walking and how he was moving, I knew that he was a quality athlete.

About Jyothi, I just saw one video of her. In fact, I saw her video before I saw her live. And I thought that this girl could move really, really well and she’s better than what she’s doing at the moment. Obviously, I didn’t know how good she was going to be but I knew she would be better than that because you are just looking for these certain qualities.

My former colleague, back in the UK, scouted an international athlete who was running for a bus. He saw this kid running for the bus and he followed the bus and when the kid got off the bus, he got out of his car and gave him his card. A year later, the guy was running internationally. There’s talent everywhere. You’ve always got to be open to everything really. But good movement is something I look for and good physicality. Athletes that look like athletes and have got the right structure. I’m working with this girl now Rupal Choudhary for 400m. She just looks like a really good athlete. She’s going to be fantastic in the next three or four years.

I’ve been in this sport a long time. So, I guess I just got a good eye for spotting good kids as well. We do have a couple of scouts that go around and help us as well and give us some name. We follow those up. But yeah, you’ve got to be open to everything and you need to look where there’s a culture of athletics and success in athletics.

There are hotbeds around the country and trying to focus your energies on these places is a good thing to do as well.

Nihit - Let’s talk a bit more about hurdles because you mentioned that you used to compete in 400m hurdles. Now, there are two very brilliant athletes that we have. Both are national record holders, Jyothi Yarraji in women’s 100m hurdles and Tejas Shirse, who’s recently set a new national record in men’s 110 hurdles. How were they when you began coaching them - technique wise, health wise? How do you see their progress so far?

James – They both have had quite different journeys with me coaching them and within the right Reliance Foundation set up.

For Jyothi, it was very much the last chance. When she joined us, she had had really bad injuries. She was very low on confidence. Everyone had given up on her. No one was really wanting to support her. We brought her in and for her, it was basically a whole rebuild. It’s like your car has been involved in an accident and it’s completely all smashed up and nothing’s working. You need to take it to the garage and basically start again - put a new wing, engine, tyres and all this sort of stuff.

So, it was a full rebuild for Jyothi, not just physically, but mentally. I’m sure you’ve heard the story of our first training session. She didn’t even have the confidence to go over a single hurdle. You had to break it down into manageable chunks and focus on improvement.

Tejas’ was a slightly different journey because he was a pretty precocious junior. He’s still the national record holder for under-20. I always knew he was a talented boy but I felt his attitude wasn’t good and he wasn’t fulfilling his potential. He has always been a nice guy and very polite to me even before I was coaching him.

But I felt like he wanted to go straight from beginner to elite level without doing all the steps along the way and trying to rush everything to get there. When he reached out to me, he said to me, “What’s the problem with me? Where do I need to improve?” I said, “Well, look, you’re weak. You’re just not strong at all. You’ve got to get significantly stronger in the gym. There are obviously some technical issues as well. But the biggest thing you have to sort out is your mind. Your mindset is all wrong. If you carry on with that mindset, you’re not going to achieve a huge amount.”

So, we came on board and it was quite challenging at the start and rightly so. I don’t expect any athlete to trust me until they start seeing results but he didn’t fully trust me at the start. But in his first race, he ran a personal best and after the race, he said to me, “Coach, I trust you now.”

That was really the start of success for him. He has cut almost half a second since joining me and obviously, got the national record, which is a little bit of a monkey off his back because that’s something he always said he targets to do. The good thing with Tejas is he is very, very ambitious and he’s not satisfied with that (national record). He wants to keep pushing. He desperately wants to run the automatic qualifying time for the Olympics. He wants to qualify by right, not by points and he believes he’s good enough to do it. And who am I to say anything and not support him in that in that ambitious target?

Both really good athletes and people with different journeys. But, as with most athletes that join the foundation, they tend to join when they’ve had issues. Athletes don’t tend to move coaches when things are going well. They tend to keep going. They only tend to move when there’s a problem. So, most of the athletes that I’ve got are broken, injured and unloved. Whatever other words that we can find. But then, it’s a rebuild. You have to rebuild them. I don’t think I’ve ever had an athlete that’s come to me fully fit and ready to go. There’s always been an issue or a challenge. But I relish that challenge. I love to develop young, talented athletes. It’s something that fulfills me. It’s something that drives me. Something that gets me up on a Monday morning. Something that makes me feel alive. For me, it’s not a job. It’s just a privilege to work with these fantastic young people and just thanks to the Reliance Foundation for supporting everything that these guys do because without the foundation and Mrs. Ambani’s vision, we wouldn’t be able to give them the opportunities that they’ve got. Without her at the helm, none of this would be happening. So, I feel very lucky to be in this position, yeah.

Nihit - You spoke about Tejas in detail. I wanted to know a bit more about Jyothi because when she broke the 13-second barrier, it was a very big thing for Indian athletics but now, she’s doing it almost on a consistent basis and twice in the last one year, she has been 0.01 second away from getting the automatic qualification mark for Olympics. Recently, she’s changed her technique. For an average sports fan, it might sound a bit risky considering the time left for the Summer Games. What was the thought process behind this? Also, in your opinion, what’s the limit for Jyothi? What sort of timing do you think she can achieve in the coming years?

James - Sprint hurdles is a very interesting event because pretty much everybody effectively takes the same number of steps in the race. Everybody takes three steps in between the hurdles. They’ll take six steps at the end of the race and they’ll take eight steps at the start. Some athletes, stronger ones, particularly male athletes, might take seven steps into the first hurdle. That is becoming more and more popular now. It’s popularized by Aries Meritt who broke the world record in Brussels back in 2012.

Jyothi has got very long legs and she’s very powerful. And she was doing an eight-stride approach. Just getting in too close and I always knew she was getting in too close. But in the early days, she wasn’t really strong enough or confident enough to even really think or have a discussion about moving to seven steps. Not many girls do seven steps if I’m honest with you. Most girls do eight but it was particularly after the Asian Games, actually, when I sat her down and I was doing some analysis as I do after all the competitions. I watched the race many, many times on video and I slowed it down. I did my bio-mechanical analysis, looked at the angles and all this really nerdy stuff. I just felt that she needed to explore going to seven steps. Now, Jyothi is a very strong young lady. So, you know you can’t just go up there and say, “Right, Jyothi, you need to do this today.”

READ | Jyothi Yarraji changes technique as she closes in on Olympic spot

I had to be very strategic with how I approached it with her because I wanted it to be her decision, not mine because athletes are the ones doing it, and it’s very important that athletes feel that they are invested in technical decisions. It’s very important that they feel that it’s them that’s driving it. Otherwise, if it goes wrong, then the coach gets the blame, right? And then, you lose that bond and trust with the athletes

It’s very important that it was her idea. So, I just talked about the benefits of it. I was just drip-feeding it in. We tried it in training a few times and it worked quite well. And then, she lost a bit of confidence in one training session with it. The problem with seven strides is since, effectively, you’re losing one stride, your strides have to be longer and you need to be more accurate with your stride. It is very important that you’re accurate and very aggressive. One day in training, she just lost a bit of confidence. Actually, what happened was she backed off the hurdle doing a seven-stride, and she hurt her hamstring because she was overstretching. Then, we went back to eight steps. We had to deal with this hamstring issue and all the rest of it but I still kept drip-feeding it in. Then, I started showing her the data - I do these timings at each hurdle and all the rest of it. Then, at the start of this year, she came to me. She said, “Coach, I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I really want to try seven. I think it could work.”

I said fantastic. I knew at that point that I got her. The problem with seven strides is you have to change your foot in the blocks. So, she had to change her foot from left foot forward in the blocks to right foot forward in the blocks which is very difficult. It’s like trying to throw a cricket ball with your left hand rather than your right hand. It’s very difficult. So, you have to, sort of, learn a new skill.

I said, “Jyothi, don’t view this as we’re changing your start. View it as we’ve got your eight-stride start. That’s there. We know that works fine. Now, let’s do a different start. We’re not changing, we’re just doing two different starts. And then, pick which one you want to do. This is your body. You feel it. She started to feel the benefit at the second and third hurdles, particularly because she wasn’t losing speed going into the hurdle.

Now, she’s fully invested in it and it’s giving her a huge benefit in the competition and as you rightly said, she’s basically running, under 13 seconds consistently for fun. It’s not even a challenge for her. And a lot of that consistency is coming from these seven strides. She is setting up the race so much better now which is really good. It’s been a good project. We’re still working on it. We’re still trying to perfect it but it is a good process for her.

In terms of her limits, I don’t want to put a number on it because she’s got huge amounts of improvements to come. When she ran 12.78s this season, she hit the last hurdle and she was on for a low 12.6s or maybe even quicker. I just feel she’s got so much more.

The big thing for her now is exposure. She needs to get into better races. She needs to get into Diamond Leagues. She needs to be racing the top girls in the world week in, week out. There was a race last week in Finland and there were girls running 12.68s or 12.72s and these are girls that Jyothi was beating comfortably a month ago. She needs to be in that environment. She needs to be competitive with these top girls more often and I think that’s what we need to try and do next year - get her into some really high-level meetings with the real top girls and then, we’ll see what she’s really capable of. It’s exciting. There’s a lot to come from her over the next few years, for sure.

Nihit – Tejas, Jyothi and Amlan were competing on a consistent basis in Europe in the last few months. How important are these experiences and also, how important are high-performance centers?

James - We create invisible barriers for ourselves all the time. When I first got here and people said no one will ever be able to run under 13 seconds for the hurdles and no one believed that Indians were good hurdlers. I said Indians are phenomenal hurdlers. It is just that nobody’s done it yet. Nobody’s got hold of these hurdlers and coached them properly and got some success out of them.

We have got strong and fast athletes here with good coordination. They just need to be coached properly and within a high-performance center, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to create a culture of shared success. You’re trying to create a culture where all the athletes are striving for excellence at international competitions.

Odisha is a bit more of a development center. It’s a bit more about national success and age-group internationals - Asian Juniors, Asian Youth Championships and stuff like that and we have won medals at all of those competitions and yeah.

If you look at what’s happening in India with hurdles, Jyothi has broken the national record 11 times - indoors and outdoors - but what’s happened is she’s dragged everyone with her. There are now three girls that are under the old record. Three girls have run under 13.30s now and it won’t be long before another girl goes under 13. I’m sure of it and actually, I can’t wait for it to happen because I want someone to push Jyothi as well. We want people to push her.

Now, when you go to Europe, these girls don’t have a choice. You have to run fast and in fact, in Europe now, it’s going crazy, right? The European Championships was won in 12:31 by the French girl. That’s a world lead. That’s unbelievable. You see girls running 12.5s or 12.6s because they have to. They haven’t got a choice, right? If they want to win, if they want to get a medal, they have to run fast, right? So, if we can put athletes in that situation where they have no choice but to run faster, then they will.

Now, Jyothi talks about 12.9s like it’s nothing. It’s not a big deal anymore. If she runs 13.01s, she’s really angry with herself. In the past, at the Federation Cup in in 2022 when she first broke the record albeit it was a wind-assisted time, she ran 13.09s and she was bawling her eyes out.

Now, she’ll be bawling her eyes out because that’s slow, not that it’s fast, right? So, it’s completely flipped on its head. If we can get her with these girls and get her to not think 12.7s is quick anymore, she’s got to think that 12.7s is normal and she has got to run 12.5s. She’s got to be thinking in that area now. I had this conversation with her after the National Games, when she ran 12.79s (wind-assisted). That was her first time under 13 and I had a very long chat with her afterwards. I said, “You’re now entering in a world which might be uncomfortable for you because you’ve now achieved what you felt was never really possible.”

The number that she wrote in her hostel room was 12.8s. That was her dream - to run 12.8s - and she has done it now. I said, “Now, you can’t be satisfied with that. You’ve got to push on. You’ve got to now enter a world where you know you’ve got to be overseas, you’ve got to be competing with Europeans, Americans, Jamaicans, and beat them and be comfortable beating them.” And that’s what she’s doing. She’s learning all the time. She’s still a young athlete. We must not forget that. She’s improving every year and yeah, I just think the future is very bright for her. She’s got the right attitude, that’s for sure.

Nihit - Before we move on to Inter-state Championships and wrap things up with that, I just wanted to touch upon sprints a bit. Amlan, of course, has been somebody who has been consistent over the last few years and he is the national record holder in 200m. There’s one more guy who’s very promising – Animesh Kujur. He’s also a Reliance athlete. He came very close to breaking Amlan’s National Record in 200m at the Fed Cup this year. How do you see the progress of Indian sprinters in the last few years and do you think it is possible for an Indian athlete in the coming yearsto brJa thme 10-second bariers in 100m?

James - Yeah, I do. It’s all about taking slow steps. We’ve got to change the culture. Let’s say, for the men, nationals are normally running around 10.30s or 10.20s sometimes. We have got to change that concept that that’s quick. We need guys pushing each other. Someone’s got to poke their head up and run 10.10s and then, they’ve got to drag all the rest of the athletes with them, just like what Jyothi’s done in the hurdles. Jyothi has effectively created a hurdles revolution in this country without realizing it. We’ve got to do the same in sprints and I feel, in men’s sprints, the strength in depth is good. There are a lot of guys running around 10.3s or low 10.4s but someone’s got to poke their head up and take it to the next level and run 10.1s. Once you get around 10.1s and it’s competitive, you’ve got to run 10.1s to win the Nationals. Then, one fine day, someone’s going to do 10s and then, eventually, someone’s going to get under 10s. It’s most certainly possible but we have to break down these invisible barriers.

If we can create this perfect mix of competition and good climate that we have here, we have got a huge advantage. If you look at the US where everything is so competitive all the time, you know the strongest will survive and thrive. We need to create that sort of mentality here. If you have to run a 10.2s to win a medal at Nationals, then you can’t run 10.3s anymore. You have got to run 10.2s. You don’t have a choice. A 10.2s becomes normal.

Amongst the girls, it is a different challenge because you don’t have the strength in depth. We need to get a little bit of a baseline with the girls and we need more female sprinters to push one another and we need to create rivalries. I think that’s really important that we have rivalries. We create good competitions in India. That’s really, really important.

I think, the future is bright. Most certainly, we can get an Indian under 10 seconds and we actually can get an Indian female under 11 seconds also for the 100. We need to keep pushing one another. That’s what we need. We need a cluster effect so. Let’s see what happens over the next few years but hopefully, we can be part of that project as well.

Nihit – Finally, with Neeraj Chopra’s gold at Tokyo Olympics, the athletics got a much needed momentum. At the Asian Games, the kind of performance that Indians put in track and field events was something none of us could have imagined. Recently, the relay teams have been doing really well. When the Asian Games ended, you wrote a column for Sportstar. You said that the realistic target for Paris is to get as many Indian athletes as possible to reach the finals. But if you see the recent months, our Indian athletes have sort of struggled to maybe get even close to the Olympic qualification marks like for. Leave aside somebody like Jyothi, who has been very close and maybe Praveen Chithravel, the triple jumper who had a 17.12m at the start of the season when the qualification mark is 17.22m. Unfortunately, long jumper M. Sreeshankar is not going to be there even though he met the qualification mark because of injury. Do you think that’s the pressure of the Olympic cycle because you have this consistently at the back of your head that you have to reach the qualifying standard to make it to the Olympics. The world rankings is another system to make it to the Olympics. But there, things might not work out your way. So, best thing is to achieve the qualifying standard. How do you see this thing playing out in the last couple of months where Indian athletes have struggled with the Olympics’ automatic qualification still pending for most of them?

James – There are a lot of challenges for us in India that the athletes don’t have in the Western world. The biggest challenge for us is things like visas to get into countries and stuff. It’s incredibly difficult to go to Europe and get a meeting. The cost of it!

We have spent lakhs of rupees on European exposure camps this year. It’s so expensive. It’s so inhibitive. A lot of quality athletes in the country don’t have that opportunity. They can’t get to Europe. They can’t get to these competitions. It’s a huge problem that the standards are insane, right? They are absolutely insane. It is so difficult to hit those standards. The layman doesn’t really realise how hard those standards are. We’re trying to only get half of the athletes qualified within that world ranking. Let’s say there are 40 spots - looking to only get 20 automatically qualified. So, that’s Top 20 in the world, basically. It’s very difficult to hit those standards. Now, the people that hit those standards are basically running in very high-level competitions. It might be their fifth, sixth or seventh such competition of the year and a lot of athletes don’t get those opportunities. The other thing is that Olympics is really only relevant for a very, very small percentage of athletes in this country, right? There’s people here that are going, “Yeah, I’m here to qualify for the Olympics.” Well, you’re not. For 99 per cent of athletes in the country, the Olympics is just something to watch on TV. There has to be a sense of realism. Also, with the ranking points scoring, there has to be a lot of planning. The coaches, the athletes, the support around the athletes, they need to plan. Where’s the best competition? They need to get an agent to get them in the competition. It’s a whole professional situation. You’ve got to be extremely organised now to get yourself qualified for these competitions and you’ve got to take your chances when you get them and if you don’t take your chances, you know you might well miss out. It is very difficult to get people qualified. I don’t think people realise how difficult it is and how hard these standards are. Invariably, it’s not going to be easy. You have to be in really high-level meets in Europe, surrounded by really good world-class athletes, to help you run those times.

We must better support our athletes to go overseas and if we want to be successful as a nation at the Olympics, the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games, we must be more supportive of our athletes. We must be more organised. We must have long-term plans. We must get visas in place before they travel so athletes aren’t hanging on and athletes need structure. They need to know what they’re focusing on and they can’t operate with last-minute changes. Being told one thing and another thing happens and all this is very difficult for athletes to deal with. If you look at Neeraj, you know he’s created his own performance team effectively and he does what he needs to do to be successful.

I say to him all the time, “You’re too famous to be in India because you probably get stopped and you won’t be able to train because there will be too many people getting selfies with him.

So, he’s created a situation. It’s not about being in India or not being in India. It’s about being in the best, the most appropriate place for him to be successful and that’s what we have to do. We have to look at where is the most appropriate place for Jyothi to train? Is it in India? Or is it overseas somewhere? We have to think about that as we move forward.

It’s very, very difficult to get people qualified. I’m optimistic that people will do well, but I’m also realistic that the challenge that we face is huge. We need to dominate Asia first. I think that’s a first step for Indian athletes. Then, we need to broaden out to Commonwealth Games. Fingers and toes crossed that the Commonwealth Games still stays with us because that’s a lovely competition that bridges the gap from Asia to Worlds. And then, we have got to start getting competitive at the global level but it’s very difficult. The standards are so high now. But I’m sure we’re all up for the challenge and yeah, let’s do our best.

Nihit - One final question before we wrap this up. National Inter-State Athletics Championships is the last chance for Indian athletes to meet the automatic qualifying mark. It is a mandatory event for almost every Indian except Neeraj. You rightly pointed out that it is very tough for him to train in India. I personally saw that during the Fed Cup. Every five minutes, somebody would come and ask him for a selfie and he’s so sweet. He would obviously oblige for every single thing. He would never say no. So, it makes sense that he trains, most of the time, outside India. Coming back to Inter-State, I’m sure you will be looking very closely at how Jyothi and Tejas do. Other than those two, who are the Indian athletes you’re going to be looking out for?

James - Some of our Reliance foundation athletes. It’s a very important competition for Kishore Jena. Kishore threw 87.54m last year at the Asian Games and pushed Neeraj close. He’s definitely somebody that’s not been in form this year. There are huge expectations from him and it’s very, very difficult for him because he made a breakthrough last year. This year has been hard for him. So, I’m just hoping that he can perform well. Men’s javelin is obviously so competitive. It would be good to see him doing well. Also, our distance athlete Gulvir Singh, who’s broken the national record in 5000m and 10000m this year. I’m excited to see him perform. He’s in absolutely amazing shape at the moment. He’s just back from the US, he’s been racing and training over there and doing really well.

It’s such a shame that Sreeshankar is injured. I spoke to him the other day, actually. He’s in good spirits. He’s in Qatar now, doing his rehab and stuff. But I would have loved to have seen him here. I like Jeswin. I think he is a raw talent. I think he’s definitely somebody that needs to figure out how to express himself better in competitions but he’s got all the ability, so he needs to find a way to step it up. Praveen’s a good talent. Again, he’s just got to find his consistency. He is just all over the place. He’s up and down. If he can get a little bit more consistent with his performances, that would be good.

400m is a big event for some of the guys. Some of the girls are doing really well. My athlete Rupal (Choudhary) is going in that as well. Hopefully, she can do well. She’s had quite a difficult preparation for this with some personal things, but she’ll be ready to go.

It’s just going to be a nice event and I just want to see some people step up and hopefully, they’ll be a few surprises as well. It’s going to be a good few days, some good competitive stuff and hopefully, some people can drop some good times and distances and let’s try and get as many as we can on the team. That would be great.

Nihit - Definitely. I think that’s a good way to wrap up this episode. Thank you so much for giving your time, James. Lovely speaking to you.

James - My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Nihit. All the best.

Nihit - Thanks for listening to this episode of the Sportstar Podcast. If you liked it, please share it with your friends and family. Do give us a rating on Spotify. We will be back with a new episode next week.

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