It was the fire in their empty stomachs and racing on bare foot during their younger days that took five Tamil Nadu athletes to the tracks at the Tokyo Olympics.
And one medal is all that they need for their lives to change to a better track.
The five athletes who have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics from the state are Arokia Rajiv, Nagananthan Pandi (Men’s 4×400 relay), and Dhanalakshmi Sekhar, Revathi Veeramani and Subha Venkatesan (Mixed 4×400 relay).
Apart from the sport they are competing in, the other thing that is common among the five athletes is their poverty-stricken childhood and the trials and tribulations they had faced to come up to this level.
Take for instance 23-year-old sprinter Revathi. She saw dry fruits like almond and pista for the first time in her life at the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports in Patiala, where she had gone for training.
“During my school and college days in Madurai in Tamil Nadu, I had heard about dry nuts like almond and pista. But I saw them for the first time at the coaching camp. It was also the first time that I was having unlimited food on a daily basis,” Revathi told IANS.
It was her grandmother Aarammal, a labourer, who took care of the young girls — Revathi and her younger sister Rekha — and later admitted them to a government hostel as she didn’t have the financial means to feed two more mouths.
“During school days, the food provided was of limited quantity and a second helping was possible only when someone was not there,” Revathi mused.
The sumptuous food at the Patiala camp brought the memories of her tough childhood days rushing to her mind.
Similar is the story of Arjuna Awardee Subedar S. Arokia Rajiv.
During his school days, he used to have unlimited meals only after a race when the coach/manager took the boys to a hotel for lunch.
“Otherwise, it was always ‘pazhaya soru’ (rice soaked in water). Idli would be given only during festive days. Lunch would be the midday meals provided in the school. Even in the college hostel canteen, the quantity of food was limited,” Rajiv told IANS.
In 2018, Rajiv was part of the Indian team that won gold in 4x400m mixed relay and silver in the 4x400m men’s relay at the Asian Games in Jakarta.
Rajiv has under his belt the 400m bronze at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, gold at the Asian Grand Prix held in Thailand and Sri Lanka and in several other international events, including silver in World Military Games in 2015.
The new track sensation, S. Dhanalakshmi, who broke P.T. Usha’s record, was also born into a poor family and had lost her father, Sekhar, early in her life.
“In the initial days, it was very tough to make both ends meet. In addition to that, there were expenses to be incurred to participate in meets,” Dhanalakshmi said.
“Amma used to pawn some gold to raise money to meet my sporting expenses,” she said.
P. Naganathan, 25, also known as ‘police express’, was born into a big and poor family and used to work as a construction worker in his native town during weekends and school vacations while studying in 10th standard.
“In a way it has helped me in my sporting career as I was able to gain stamina and power by lifting bricks and other construction materials,” said Naganathan, looking at the positive side.
Twenty-one-year-old Subha Venkatesan was born to a construction worker.
“Those were difficult days for the family. My brother-in-law (elder sister’s husband) used to help by gifting some gear,” Subha recalled about her school days in Tiruchirappalli.
For these athletes, cash was the king then. But there were no cash prizes to be won by winning a race.
When Revathi won her first medal, her grandmother wondered as to its utility as the former had brought utensils as prizes earlier.
“Given our financial condition, Patti (grandmother) was right. And in some races, I was given just a certificate, the value of which Patti wouldn’t know,” Revathi said.
It is true that there are not many running races that offer the winners cash prize.
“There are some events where cash prizes are offered. But it depends on the availability of sponsors. Marathon races get good sponsorship, but not other races,” C. Latha, Secretary, Tamil Nadu Athletic Association, told IANS.
“Award of cash prize will bring in new talents to the racetracks,” Rajiv told IANS.
All the athletes are confident of bringing home the prestigious Olympic medal this time around.
If that happens, the sport will not only get more sponsors, but the medal winners will also get handsome cash prizes from the government besides bagging brand ambassador deals from corporates.
(Venkatachari Jagannathan can be contacted at [email protected])