There are many for whom excellence is a mere act, a one-time event. But for some like T.C. Yohannan, it becomes a habit, an inherent trait, which propels them to defy all odds, and to dismantle the limitations of the human body as proposed by scientific research. Yohannan is remembered for bring in a whole new dimension to long jump, but this phrase ‘new dimension’ is not adequate to describe the quality of performance that he accomplished.
The life of a legend
T.C. Yohannan hails from the Ezhukone village in the Kottarakara taluk of the Quilon (or Kollam) district in the Indian state of Kerala. As a young lad, his passion towards athletics was tremendous, and there is one fabled story which gives us an insight into the event which planted the first seed of motivation in him, thus leading him towards a path of greatness.
It began with a young Yohannan trying to jump across a canal close to his house in Quilon. Alas, to his dismay, he fell into the canal and soiled his clothes. Although his father was not happy at the sight of his son with begrimed clothes, he decided to put his son to a test. The terms of the bet involved a glass of lemonade that Yohannan would get if he could scale the horizontal distance of the canal. And so he did, motivated by something as trivial as a glass of lemonade. Ever since that moment his passion for jumping only aggravated, and helped raise him to surreal levels of excellence.
Participating in the inter-school sports meet for the Ezhukone Panchayat in Kerala proved to be a revelatory stage in Yohannan’s life, which made him realize his true potential and developed his fascination for jumping. Around the age of 19, he left home to pursue mechanical engineering in Bhilai, in the state of Chhattisgarh. Later under the Bhilai Steel Plant, he continued his endeavours in athletics, representing the company at the Steel Plants Sports Meet in 1969.
That year, he participated in his first national athletics meet, in the long jump and triple jump, but failed to secure a medal. The very next year, in 1970, he secured the silver medal with a considerably improved performance. And in 1971, he set a national mark of 7.60m in Patiala.
He soon became a sensation, scaling the rungs of excellence at top speed. Job offers kept pouring in, and major companies such as Telco (Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company, now known as Tata Motors), Tisco (Tata Steel), and Railways sought to employ the rising star. On his brother’s advice, Yohannan joined Telco in 1970, and attributes it as the primary force behind his success. He states, “That was the best decision I made in my life. Telco transformed my life completely, helping me in every stage of my career. Had I stayed back in Kerala, I don’t think all those wonderful things would have happened.”
At that time, Telco was the cradle of legendary athletes, the breeding ground of champions like V.S. Chauhan, Bahadur Singh Chouhan,and, Suresh Babu. This company of supreme athletes proved conducive to Yohannan, who seemed to be pleased with his decision to join Telco.
However, he wasn’t included in the Indian team for the Munich Olympics in 1972, even though his jump 0f 7.60 approximated Olympic qualifying standards. That probably deprived India of a medal in athletics at the Games.
In 1973, he set a new national record of 7.78m in long jump and in 1974, at the Asian Games in Tehran, he baffled the world with a new Asian record of 8.07m. He instantly gained international recognition as one of the most technically sound long jumpers ever.
Such performances catapulted him into the global limelight, and in 1975, he was invited by the athletics organization in Japan to participate in three invitational meets in the cities of Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kobe. He won gold medals in all three cities. He also struck gold in the Asian Track and Field Meet at Seoul, as well as the seven-nation meet at Manila, Philippines.
The Montreal Olympics of 1976 was one of his last international appearances, as two years later, at the National camp in Patiala, he suffered a major injury which would force him to retire. “There was rain, so they had dug a new sand pit. But it was very loose, my knee just sunk in. I tore my hamstring and was in heavy pain. When they took me to a hospital nearby, there was no doctor that day. My leg was put on traction and by the time the doctor came the next day, my leg had swollen heavily,” he bitterly recalls.
This virtually ended his career; to recuperate from such damage seemed impossible. Although the Telco Company provided him with the best of medical treatment, he was unable to regain a foothold in his jumping career. He was instead given all possible support from the company, and was transferred to Cochin, were he held a respectable position.
30 long years is what it took to overcome the national record that Yohannan had set in 1974. For this, and many other reasons galore, he was awarded the prestigious Arjuna award in 1974 by the government of India, and the Award of Merit by the state of Kerala. The Telco Company conferred him with the coveted “Telco Veer” award. In addition to this, many renowned associations and organizations like the Bombay and Chennai Sports Journalists Association, Lions Club, Sportsweek and the Tata Sports Club of Mumbai have honoured him for his undying quest to excel.
The secret to his success
According to experts, to achieve a jump of 8 meters, the physical requirements include a body weight of 78 kg, a minimum height of 6ft and a 100m time of 10.40 seconds. This might incite skeptics to question as to how T.C. Yohannan, who was only 5 feet 8 inches tall, with a body weight of 63 kg and a 100m sprint time of 10.90sec, could achieve a jump of 8.07m.
The answer to this riddle lies in the rigorous uncompromising training regime which he adhered to very diligently. He compensated for his lack of height and weight by developing gargantuan levels of explosive strength through training.
This can be validated through his own account where he states, “The trouble with my toe is an extra bone growth due to the tremendous pressure used on the take-off board. I do 400 to 500 jumps before a major competition.”
The explosive power exerted caused cracks to the big toe bone of his take-off foot, and this, along with the callus formation, was a major concern. He was also administered pain killing injections on a timely basis. In fact, it is quite astonishing to know that he was administered two such injections before the long jump finals at Tehran in 1974 where he registered the historic leap of 8.07 metres.
R. Ramesan, national gold medallist in high jump in the year 1974 and a close friend of Yohannan, recalls with amazement, “At the 1974 Asian Games trails in Bangalore, Yohannan registered a jump of 7.65m, and during the course of the competition, he was forced to use four different pairs of spikes. This was the result of the enormous amount of explosive force generated by his take-off leg which would eventually tear the spikes.” He then adds on with a dash of humour, “We tried different spikes made by all the major brands, be it Nike, Adidas, Puma or Tiger, nothing could withstand the force produced by his legs.”
Today we have foreign coaches, better facilities, more incentives and scientific training methods, but none of that seems to be able to reproduce great performances like that of T.C. Yohannan. Surprisingly, a very crude training system was adopted in those days, and yet it was highly effective.
Heavy weight training and polymeric exercises, which help develop maximum explosive strength, were given a lot of importance in this training regime. Yohannan used to do 650lb half-squats, more than a 1000 crunches, and 14 station circuit training with weights. His training method was a holistic one, involving running with middle-distance runners, doing kicking exercises with jumpers and training with sprinters. Other specific exercises also catered to developing strength in the take-off leg, and the leading leg and arm.
R. Ramesan recalls him to be as “tough as a rock with incredible core strength. The frenzy with which Yohannan engaged himself during training is an unforgettable sight.”
Yohannan had a 40m stride length, which was detrimental to his jump. Stride consistency, acceleration and generating speed before take-off are the major factors which aid in achieving great distances in long jump. He mastered this through repeated acceleration runs over various distances.
Yet, the most striking element of Yohannan’s jumping style was his near-perfect hang technique. The photo sequence of his record breaking jump 1974 shows how he would throw his hip forward at the end of the jump, which would give an advantage of at least a foot.
There are two major techniques adopted by long-jumpers – the first is the hitch-kick technique, and the second is the hang technique. With plenty of speed and upward spring during take-off, the hang technique ensures a good landing. In a 1975 interview Yohannan stated, “I prefer the hang technique, though the hitch-kick style is more popular with the leading jumpers. After the take-off, I throw the body straight forward, achieving the maximum possible height. Then I throw the hip forward, and hold on in the air-hands and legs swung back- bewared of the landing.”
He achieved this unique technique by strengthening his abdominal and back muscles, through a wide range of exercises.
Moreover, from a very young age, he was an active participant in all track and field events, be it throws, jumps or sprints. This contributed to his “total fitness”, which is the underlying principle of modern sports.
The lessons to be learnt
In India there is no dearth of talent, but it is the grooming process which is flawed. T.C. Yohannan is an exemplar of this fact. He rose from a small village to attain global popularity. The need to implement sports promotion in schools and in colleges in a more systematic coordinated and effective way is the only solution to discern young talent.
In the sphere of international athletics, the dismal state in which India has forever wallowed is the result of a lack of initiative by the managing powers, seemingly abysmal support from the masses, and the widespread ignorance regarding “total fitness”.
Athletes like Yohannan did not emerge overnight. They established traditions of excellence to inspire and motivate succeeding generations. They are exemplars of infinite patience, perseverance and tremendous will power, and it would be absolutely impossible for the Indian athletes of today to consider achieving anything at all without possessing these essential qualities.
There are very few who are so accomplished in body and mind as T.C. Yohannan. It is high time that the Indian athletics realm started thinking of ways to learn from Yohannan’s example in order to awaken from its deep slumber, so as reinvent itself and restore its old glory.Published 11 Mar 2014, 16:06 IST