Every sportsperson in the world faces hardship and turmoil of some kind. But in India, several of them also have to overcome financial, infrastructural and societal barriers to fulfill their Olympics dreams.
Athletes such as 2012 London Olympic bronze medalist Mary Kom, who grew up in a mud house and skipped meals to become World Champion, have become part of the country’s sporting folklore. And Bollywood biopics such as Dangal, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Mary Kom have further highlighted the real-life struggles of Indian athletes in vivid detail.
It would be fair to say that rags-to-riches stories are not new to India. But that doesn't make those stories any less inspiring.
As many as 74 Indian athletes have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 so far, and their berths are likely to remain intact even with the postponement of the Games to 2021. But 43% of the qualification spots are yet to be filled, so it is possible there will be more additions to this list once normal proceedings resume.
Each member of India’s Tokyo Olympics contingent has their own story of sacrifice, grit and determination, but some stand out for the way they have defied the odds. From going hungry everyday to not being able to afford equipment, these athletes have some heart-warming stories behind their success.
In this article, Sportskeeda looks at five Indian athletes who overcame poverty to make the Tokyo 2020 Olympics cut:
#1 Bhawna Jat (Race Walking)
The 24-year-old, hailing from the small village of Kabra in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district, became India’s first female race walker to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Unheralded at the time, Jat smashed the national record with a timing of 1:29.54 at the 2019 National Open Race-Walking Championship in Ranchi (the Olympic qualification mark was set at 1:31.00). Such an effort would have seen her register a seventh-placed finish in Rio.
Jat achieved this feat despite never being selected for a senior national or international camp, which is why her competition was caught by surprise. Less than a decade ago, she and her family struggled to even get two meals a day.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda from Jaipur, Jat spoke about the hardships she had to endure while training in her village.
“My father had only two bighas of land in our village. There was a time when we used to eat just one meal a day because the amount we produced on the farm was less. We all lived in a mud hut and I used to train in a small makeshift field near my house at night, so that the village elders wouldn’t come to know. I used to train barefoot then.”
Apart from the financial problems, Jat also had to maneuver past several societal hurdles - including misogyny - before securing her job at Railways. After seeing her train in shorts, the village panchayat barred her from practising on the mud field near her house.
“They didn’t like me wearing shorts and practicing, also the actions made by race walkers seemed quite shameful to them. That is why they asked me to stop practicing and asked me to focus on household chores. But my father and brother had immense faith in my talent and made sure that I found certain time slots to practice when people weren’t around.”
Jat practised at 3 am, before the village woke up, under the watchful eyes of her brother.
During her sub-junior days, her father Shankarlal used to earn around Rs. 2000 a month. That meant she had to borrow spare shoes from competitors to participate in tournaments.
Jat works without pay for Railways right now, having decided to dedicate all her time to training.
“I have to repay around Rs. 2 lakh in loan to private money lenders in my district, as I had taken them as expenses for my training, diet and competition travels. My Tokyo qualification should help me earn some rewards, and if I can win a medal there, then definitely I will be able to pay it back with the required interest. I am training without any income for the past six months.”
Before the 2020 Asian Race-Walking Championship was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Jat registered a timing of 1 hour 28 minutes and 4 seconds in training. That kind of effort would have won her a bronze at Rio 2016.
Regardless of the result in Tokyo, Jat’s qualification amidst severe financial ordeals have already made her a national heroine.
#2 Lovlina Borgohain (Boxing)
Currently the highest-ranked Indian female pugilist, World No. 4 (69 kg) Lovlina Borgohain’s unlikely journey to Tokyo 2020 began in the tiny village of Baro Mukhia, Assam.
Eight years ago, Borgohain was clueless about boxing. She is the daughter of a tea garden worker, and back then money was hard to come by for the Borgohain family.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda from her village during her self-quarantine period, Lovlina spoke about the inner drive that keeps her going.
“I rarely discuss such things because I firmly believe if you want to be successful you don’t look back. There was a time when I couldn’t afford travelling outside my village because bus or train fares were too expensive."
"I remember travelling to the sub junior nationals in Kolkata, sleeping beside a train compartment toilet with my father. When I look back at those times, I take it as motivation to only get better. Karna hai mujhe (I have to get it done).”
During the first two years of her career across various sub-junior categories, Borgohain traveled to several tournaments without proper boxing attire.
“I’m going to be honest with you, my father couldn’t afford boxing attire during that time," she said. "I used to ask other competitors whose bouts were over for their kit. One day a girl insulted me by calling poor and illiterate because I had requested for her attire. I felt really insulted, I remember going back home and crying to my father. But he consoled me. I would like to thank Sports Authority of India (SAI) who gave me my first boxing kit, will never forget that day.”
Borgohain procured her first pair of gloves at the end of 2013; before that she used to participate in tournaments using regional SAI centre or hostel gloves. She had to return these as they were used by several sparring partners during training sessions.
Despite having no early training in boxing, she was selected for the sub-junior state level camp by Sports Authority of India (SAI) Coach Padum Boro.
“I was selected because of my fitness and height," she said. During my initial days, since I used to do kickboxing, my legs used to lift automatically, resulting in a violation. Hence my coaches really pushed me hard. My father convinced me by talking about Shiva Thapa and Mary Kom.
"Travel was a big problem as I didn’t have enough money for tickets. But slowly I started learning from my coaches, but I didn’t get any big result till 2017,” she added.
It was in late 2017 that Borgohain’s fortunes turned, thanks to the introduction of the 69kg category at the Olympics. Before that she had been forced to compete in the 75kg category despite being under 70, due to the absence of her desired weight class.
Fighting in the 69kg category showed instant results, as she won a bronze medal at the 2017 Asian Championship in Vietnam. She later registered back-to-back World Championship podium finishes, in 2018 and 2019.
All her initial career struggles finally paid off at the Olympic qualifier in Amman, where she defeated Uzbekistan’s Maftunakhon Melieva to secure a ticket to Tokyo.
“I just went back, called my father and started crying,” she said.
#3 Deepika Kumari (Archery)
A search for food and shelter eventually culminated in the World No. 1 ranking, and that too at just 18 years of age. Deepika Kumari’s journey from absolute poverty to global stardom is another potential Bollywood biopic waiting to be immortalized.
Based in the Ratu Chati village of Jharkhand, the Kumari family struggled to make ends meet a few years ago as they earned just Rs. 700 a month - far below the poverty line. With a severe shortage of money and food at home, Deepika took up archery at the Kharsawan training centre to reduce the burden on her family.
She practised with makeshift bamboo bows, and used mangoes as targets. But she somehow managed to qualify for the training centre’s academy project, and in the process obtained free food and lodging.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, Deepika reflected on the path that helped her take up the sport.
“I only took up archery in the beginning because I came to know that the training academy gave freed food and stay. My family was really struggling, we ate once a day, and I felt that I needed to reduce the burden on my family as there were so many mouths to feed. The academy rejected me at first, but I told them give me three months and I’ll prove myself.”
Deepika started participating in various sub-junior competitions, where the prize money was Rs. 500. For a family that earned Rs. 700 a month, winning Rs. 500 was almost like doubling the income.
Participating in these tournaments also helped spread word of her talent to the national coaches. She was eventually spotted by Tata Academy junior team coach Dharmendra, and that changed everything.
Deepika spoke about how she the first week in the academy was like a dream come true for her.
“After I began training at the JRD Tata Sports Complex in Jamshedpur, it was almost like a dream. I had never stayed in a hostel with toilets before for women. I had never seen such facilities. After the first week, I just prayed to God that I stay here forever.”
This was also the first time Deepika was introduced to recurve bows and arrows, as opposed to the traditional ones made of wood. She slowly acclimatized herself to the new equipment, and success in national junior tournaments led to international participation.
Deepika was the first-ever Indian sub-junior archer to become a senior national champion. The ace archer turned the clock back to when she boarded her first-ever flight.
“I still remember the first time I sat on a plane. I pinched myself, am I actually sitting on a plane?”
In 2009, she would become the Cadet World Champion, signalling the beginning of an unprecedented era for Indian archery.
Deepika would go on to secure 23 World Cup, six Asian Championship, two World Championship, one Asian Games and two Commonwealth Games medals over a decade. However, that success didn't translate into Olympics glory - neither in London, nor in Rio.
The 25-year-old secured a Tokyo Olympics quota for India by winning the Asian qualifier tournament in Bangkok. Regardless of the result in Tokyo, Deepika’s rise from abject poverty to international dominance is worthy of a golden page in the history books.
#4 KT Irfan (Race Walking)
Born in the remote village of Kuniyil in Kerala’s Malappuram district, KT Irfan was the first Indian athlete to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. He registered a fourth-placed finish at the 2019 Asian Race-walking Championship in Japan to seal his berth.
The fifth of seven brothers, KT couldn't even afford shoes ahead of the London 2012 Games. But popular Malayalam actor Mohanlal came to the rescue, and donated an undisclosed amount for his campaign.
The new shoes and enhanced training helped KT set the men’s 20km national record of 1:20.21 at the London Olympics - a record that still stands eight years later.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda from Bengaluru, KT acknowledged actor Mohanlal's help and the state government's assistance in his preparations for the Games.
“During that time I was a sepoy in the Army. My salary was only Rs 10,000, the cost of the shoes was Rs 7,000, special walking shoes. So there was no way I was going to afford it before the Games. Thanks to both Mohanlal and the state government I was able to participate with adequate equipment.”
Born into a poor family, KT would practise barefoot in his school. The 30-year-old claims that his brother played a massive role in helping him further his athletic career.
“My father was a landless labourer, so it was very tough for me to take up the sport in the beginning. One of my brothers got a job in Dubai and he really helped me with funds and achieving my Olympic dream. I am grateful to him.”
With the help of more grants from the Kerala state government, KT has now been able to buy his father a piece of land and a house in his village. Thanks to the influx of consistent prize money, he now leads a comfortable life back home.
A low point of KT’s career was the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, where he along with triple jumper Rakesh Babu were found with multiple needles in their room. As per the CWG's no-needle policy, this was a violation of the code of conduct.
Upon questioning, the duo came up with inconclusive answers, prompting the authorities to send them back home.
The race-walking veteran will be heading to his second Olympics in Tokyo, after missing out on the Rio edition. He won bronze at the Asian Racewalking Championship 2017 held in Japan, and will be keen to make more history in the country next year.
#5 Velluva Koroth Vismaya (4 x 400 mixed relay)
The 22-year-old shot into the limelight at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, when she beat the continent’s top women’s 400m runner Salwa Eid Naser. In the final leg of the 4x400 women’s relay, Vismaya emerged quicker than Naser to help India continue its longest running win streak.
That result greatly enhanced Vismaya's status in India and specially in Kerala, where she has now become a household name. But surprisingly, Vismaya considers athletics as nothing but an avenue to complete her education.
The daughter of a construction labourer, Vismaya had to set her priorities very early in life.
“Education has always been my top priority. I come from a poor family and it's very important for me to focus on uplifting the status of my family. We faced lot of hardships in the beginning, so I want to focus on my studies more than athletics.”
Before the 2018 Asian Games, Vismaya had only run in school and college tournaments. And her college running was mainly a stepping stone towards earning her BSc in Mathematics degree.
An A-grade student, Vismaya began running in class 11 at the age of 17, which was quite late for a future Asian Games gold medalist.
She was spotted by former US Collegiate coach Galina Bukharina, who backed Vismaya for Jakarta despite her poor timings in the qualifiers. The Kannur-based sprinter won an Asian Games gold with just four months of senior practice, an unheard-of feat in the sport.
The Indian 4x400m mixed relay team of Muhammed Anas, VK Vismaya, Jisna Matthew and Nirmal Noah qualified for Tokyo 2020 by finishing in the top 8 of the 2019 World Athletics Championship held in Qatar. Vismaya will be keen to do her bit and help the team put up a good show next year.Published 25 Mar 2020, 01:47 IST