On 14 February 2020, the unheralded Bhawna Jat became the first Indian female racewalker to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Hailing from the tiny village of Kabra in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district, the 24-year-old was jubilant and deservedly so, as a massive weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
Once unable to get two square meals a day, Jat had completed a tremendous journey; she had fought off heaps of misogyny and prejudice to reach the pinnacle of the sport. Moreover, her maiden Olympics qualification could mean the potential waiver of a year-long debt owed to the Railways - or at least sponsorship deals to repay it.
However, after the International Olympic Council (IOC) decided to postpone the Tokyo Olympics to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, things aren't looking so bright for Jat anymore.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, she said, “With interest, my total amount to be paid is Rs. 9 lakh. I pay the Railways Rs. 16,000 a month as installment, but they told me after Tokyo 2020 gets over my loan would be waived off. Since it's delayed now, I have to continue paying the installment every month from my salary, which is not high.
"Even if the loan wasn’t waived off, I could’ve gotten some sponsorships because of my performance and participation. (But) now I will have to wait for next year for that to happen. I’m not sure whether I will be able to pay it in time."
Family earned only Rs. 2000 a month
Jat comes from a family that made just Rs. 2000 a month eight years ago. And her national record-breaking time of 1:29.54 came at the expense of not attending work as an Eastern Railways ticket examiner at Howrah station in Kolkata.
Having secured the job in 2017 due to her gold medal-winning performance at the Inter Railways Athletics meet, Jat never even imagined leaving her village, let alone dreaming of Tokyo participation. During her formative years, she was barred from the sport by her village elders - who felt it would bring ‘shame to the village’.
Fortunately, Jat’s father found a way to circumvent those misogynistic taunts. He accompanied Jat to a nearby ground so that she could practise late at night, away from the prying eyes of the Panchayat.
"My father had two small bighas of land, so we made only Rs 2000 – Rs 3000 a month," she said. "It was tough for me to buy shoes at the beginning of my career. It was only later on, when I started participating in national sub-junior championships, that I was able to afford it.
"He (my father) fought against the whole village to get me in this sport. There was a small mud field near our house. The Panchayat elders told me to do household chores, but my father and brother supported me a lot.”
That support eventually paid off, as her Olympic qualification showed everyone what a special athlete she is. But the financial troubles never really left her.
A vicious circle of debt
Jat's desire to compete in the big tournaments meant getting caught in a debt trap right from the beginning. In 2014, she took a loan from her village money lenders to fund her travels for participating in junior category tournaments.
"I had taken a loan from private money lenders in my village so that I could attend various junior championships before," she said. "I paid that off once I got my job with the Railways, so it looks like that entire cycle will repeat itself."
Jat's preparations for the 2020 National Race-Walking Championships in Ranchi forced her to skip work for three months. Since that was unpaid leave and her family still needed support, Jat took out a loan of Rs. 7.5 lakh from Eastern Railways to maintain an uninterrupted flow of income. Together with interest, the debt now requires repayment to the tune of Rs. 9 lakh.
Jat's efforts eventually helped her make the Tokyo cut, and to her relief the Railways decided to compensate her with salary of three months as a token of their appreciation. However, they have refused to waive off the loan until the completion of Tokyo 2021, so Jat is back to square one.
A champion in the making
Jat's performance in Ranchi got her selected for the ongoing National camp in Bengaluru, under the watchful guidance of coach Alexander Arstybashev. She was also set to make her first international camp in Minsk (Belarus), but that was cancelled by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Jat’s national record timing would’ve secured her a seventh-place finish at the Rio Olympics. Her personal coach Gurumukh Sihag says she has registered a 1:28.4 time in training, which would have seen her win bronze in Rio.
By all accounts, Jat is a legitimate medal contender at the Olympics. It's a crying shame then that she is still struggling to get out of her debt trap.