There is more than one common thread that binds the five Tamil Nadu track-and-field athletes — Arokia Rajiv, P Naganathan, V Revathi, V Subha and S Dhanalakshmi — who have qualified for the Tokyo Games. Their consistent shows at national level events in recent times notwithstanding, all of them come from relatively smaller districts such as Trichy, Madurai and Ramanathapuram. To top that, they have made it to the biggest sporting stage despite hailing from families with modest means. While the track and field athletes from districts in the state have featured in the Olympics, this is the first time that five of them are part of it.
As one makes way into the Rockfort Academy in Trichy’s Ponmalai Railway Ground, coach Manikandan Arumugam can be seen finetuning his students on the track. The facilities may not be world-class but the ground has produced a top-notch athlete like Dhanalakshmi, who caught everyone’s attention with her stupendous show at this year’s Federation Cup in March. Manikandan is among the few private coaches — across Trichy and Madurai — who have been training young athletes for the past many years.
Dhanalakshmi lost her father as a child and her mother worked as a domestic help to run the family. After starting off as a khokho player in her formative years, Dhanalakshmi switched tracks thanks to Manikandan’s insistence. “Hailing from a poor background meant that Dhanalakshmi had to face obstacles at every step. These hurdles made her a battle-hardened individual. Dhanalakshmi’s singleminded focus and never-say-die attitude is something almost every athlete hailing from smaller towns possess,” said Manikandan, who won gold in the men’s 100m category of the Open Nationals back in 2014.
While Manikandan trains about 40 to 50 athletes, coaches at the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDAT) centres in most district headquarters have played a part in tapping new talent. The coaches at these centres not only have the task of spotting fresh talent, but they must also possess the soft skills to convince an athlete of his/her potential. Sprinter Revathi is a case in point. After spotting her at a zonal meet in 2014-15, K Kannan, at SDAT centre in Madurai, had to convince Revathi’s grandmother of her potential.
Kannan feels the schools — which host regular athletics events — are a fertile ground for young talent. “Once a particular student shows promise, coaches guide them to the next level. Athletes from these districts have far less distractions than those from bigger cities such as Chennai. Their focus is only on the goals and that’s why they are able to deliver results,” said Kannan.
That’s not all. Trichy girl Subha, whose father is a construction worker and Naganathan Pandi from Ramanathapuram feel that athletes from districts are also driven by the need to have government jobs. “My father is a farmer at Ramanathapuram and only when I joined the state police as an armed reserve constable on sports quota, did we begin having a stable income. If not for the medals I won at junior levels, I wouldn’t have managed to get this job and our economic condition wouldn’t have improved,” says Naganathan. While Revathi is employed with the Southern Railway in Madurai, Dhanalakshmi and Subha are yet to secure a job.
Arokia Rajiv, who will be into his second Olympics after featuring at Rio in 2016, is the most accomplished of the lot with multiple medals to his name in the last two editions of the Asiad. Rajiv, whose father worked as a driver, feels a precedent has been set with five athletes from the districts in this Olympics. “It will give belief for others from districts to pursue their dreams,” said Rajiv, who is with the Indian Army.
C Latha, secretary at the Tamil Nadu Athletic Association (TNAA), isn’t surprised by the emergence of athletes from the districts. “Over the past few years, TNAA has made it a point to conduct events across agegroups such as U-16 and U-23 and senior categories. The athletes from districts are definitely more driven owing to the circumstances they live in,” she said.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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