On May 7, when Avinash Sable broke the Indian record in the men’s 5000m, amongst the most satisfied was the man whose national mark had just been eclipsed. For Bahadur Prasad Singh, it had ended a three-decade-long wait for someone to improve on his national record.
“All these years, I wanted someone to go faster than me. It is not good for athletics in a country if a record stands for 30 years,” he had said then.
While Bahadur wasn’t very happy that it took so long for his record to be broken, it was also a testament to the heights the now 57-year-old had achieved in his playing years.
For much of the 1990s, Bahadur was the predominant middle and long-distance runner in India. Apart from his 5000m record that had stood for 30 years, Bahadur’s 1500m national record of 3.38.00 set in 1995 stood for 23 years before it was broken by Jinson Johnson at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
It is to honour that level of dominance that Bahadur Prasad, who would also win two gold medals at the Asian Championships, a bronze at the 1998 Asian Games and took part in two Olympic Games, was honoured with the Hero Unsung champion honour at the first-ever Sportstar North Sports Conclave held in Lucknow on Thursday.
Bahadur’s dominance was bellied by the fact that he only entered formal athletes relatively late in life and had a medical condition – he was flat-footed – that should have ruled him out of any sort of success.
Bahadur who grew up in the village of Billauwa, in Uttar Pradesh’s Mau wasn’t always a runner.
“I hadn’t heard a lot of sports or athletics At that time it was called block Rally and district rally. We had the 100m, long jump and high jump. I wouldn’t take part but I’d watch for sure. The only running I did was when I used to take our family’s bulls out to graze in the fields. After that I’d have to run from the fields to the school which was a kilometre away,” he once said in an interview.
Post those early days, Bahadur only took up running seriously after joining the state police. “I was a policeman in the general category. I entered sports so that I can escape duty. Once you get a promotion, you don’t have to work as hard as a sipahi. That was my goal,” he said.
Despite such modest goals, he would prove to be a natural. In 1988, he won a state trial to select the Uttar Pradesh team for the National Games. Despite controversially not being included at first, he persisted and was allowed to permit in Thiruvananthapuram at the last minute.
“At that time no one knew who I was. There were all these athletes wearing India jerseys and I only had a banian with UP written on it. But I still managed to win. After that people realised I also had a lot of ability,” he said.
Those numbers would only increase in the following year when he would win gold in the 1500m, beating Qatar’s Muhammad Suleiman who would go on to win bronze at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
While Bahadur would remain a high-level runner, he wouldn’t be able to build on that blazing start, something he blames on his late start to the game.
“I started my running at 20 years old. Athletes start hitting their peak at 20. But I had to push myself a lot more because I knew time was running out on my athletics career. So I ended up getting a lot of injuries as well,” he says.
Bahadur would end up retiring after winning a bronze medal in the 1998 Asian Games. The records set in his career lasted nearly three decades, a testament to the talent he possessed. While there are those who feel Singh could have achieved even more had he received the facilities that are made available to Indian athletes today, Bahadur himself is satisfied with his career.
“I’m a village boy who had never played juniors, sub juniors. I directly played nationals, broke records and competed at the Olympics. If you had told me that I would achieve all this, I wouldn’t believe it,” he said.