How a daily wager's son became an overnight Olympic sensation
“Prior to the 2012 Olympics, I didn’t have the money to buy proper shoes, the cost was too high for my family,” this particular statement highlighted the state of Race-walking as a sport in India before the London Olympics. However, a prodigal 10th placed finish by Kerala’s Irfan Kolothum Thodi shocked the international fraternity as most didn’t know of the sport’s existence in the country.
Indian athletes treat the Olympics as the Mecca of their particular sport. They participate in various national and international level qualifying tournaments, in order to secure a potential Olympic slot. But, for Irfan, popularly known as ‘KT,’ his first foray into the international competition was against race-walking’s elite.
He said, “I couldn’t even imagine that I was going to the Olympics. It was a dream come true, I had honestly thought that it would make it so early, but I did. Since my Olympic participation, a lot of things have changed on a positive note for Racewalking in India.”
On first glance, the sport might look comedic to the naked eye, but, the sheer skill involved to master this particular genre is second to none. In its most literal sense, it is the competitive act of walking at a furious pace, but with several nuances involved. The athlete must have both feet cemented to the ground at all times, and is not allowed to bend his/her knee. During a race, if the walker is found guilty of either of these violations thrice, he/she will be disqualified.
From being a ‘water-boy’ to the Olympics
Coming from a humble background, Irfan took to racewalking after playing the role of ‘water-boy’ for a school senior. He said, “It was around 2005, that my friend Ribas was selected for the National School Games. He was my elder brother’s best friend, and I used to accompany him, during his walks. It was then that I started liking the sport, I used to give Ribas water and the supplements that he needed, during his walk.”
Within a year of his racewalking initiation, KT was regularly competing with the local walkers in his area. After training in school for a year, he went to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Calicut trails, where he was selected as a ‘day-boarder’. He was inducted into the main setup that very year, being coached under A Bose.
By 2009, he won the Junior Nationals highlighting his technical growth within a short span of time. However, KT’s breakthrough year came in 2010, when he started representing the Indian Army. He said, “A famous racewalker from Kerala, Jalan PS saw me during a local event. He asked me to go and trial for the Army. So I went with him in that week itself and I was selected by the Army. They inducted me in the Madras Regiment, where I trained under Subedar Ramkumar.”
After getting access to better infrastructure and facilities, there was a clear rise in KT’s senior level performances. A gold medal at the National Services meet saw him begin his senior career in style. Strong performances, including an Open Nationals victory and silver at the National Championship, saw him begin training under Indian racewalking Coach Gurdev Singh.
The national meet also saw him successfully break the 1 hour 30 minutes barrier for the first time. He said, “I was training in Ooty, so the weather there was perfect. Plus the Army gave me all the required facilities. This helped me a lot when I was training for the Olympics.”
A meet record at the Federation Cup in 2011 saw him book a spot at the World Cup in Russia. His very first International tournament was a resounding success, after successfully finishing under the Olympic qualifying time of 1 hour 25 minutes.
Didn’t have proper shoes, months prior to the Olympics: K T Irfan
Hailing from the Kuniyal village in the Malappuram district of Kerala, KT’s rise has been exponential, to say the least. The fifth child among seven, his father couldn’t afford the Rs 10,000 worth racewalking shoes, prior to the Olympics. He added, “My father works on the field, and my mother is a housewife. Now, we have land and amenities, but before the Olympics, I had absolutely nothing. So getting the basics such as professional equipment was difficult.”
Local actor Mohanlal came to KT’s rescue, prior the games, by gifting him the required equipment.
Describing his Olympic tryst, KT went into the 20km event with no expectations whatsoever. He said, “Generally people, end their career with the Olympics, but for me it was different as I started my career with it. I had no expectations, but giving my best out there. After the first five km’s, I was among the first five, so then I was focussing on just staying with the pack. At the 10 km mark, I was surprisingly with the first group. At the 15km mark, I was still among the top five. At that point, I thought I could win a medal.”
Unfortunately for KT, he had already committed two fouls and had to play it safe till the end of the race. He added, “I can assure you, if it wasn’t for those two fouls, I would’ve medalled. It was the best day of my career.”
A 10th placed finish didn’t do justice to the heart shown by KT. The 2013 World Champion, Ireland’s Robert Heffernan was a testament to that. He said, “Every time I pushed hard, he pushed harder. He didn’t give up one bit and chased me down through out. His performance surprised all the walkers, as he finished ahead of several experienced and higher ranked participants.”
Life post-Olympic success
A final timing of 1:22.19 continues to be Irfan’s personal best. Life completely changed for the then 22-year old, post his Olympic finish. He added, “The Kerala sports minister visited me at the Games Village and promised me financial support. When I came back home, there was a proper welcome party. Organisations such as Anglian Medal Hunt came forward to support me, and I had better access to finances. People wanted to take my autograph, and I was invited as a Chief Guest to functions.”
With the money, he earned from his Olympic performance, KT bought a piece of farming land, car and house for his family, in order to stabilise their income.
Post his breakthrough Olympic performance, he successfully qualified for the 2013 IAAF World Walking Challenge. With close to two kilometres to go, KT was placed third in the 20km event, but three fouls saw him disqualified from the event. He added, “I can assure you that I did not commit the third foul. It could’ve been politics, but that would have been India’s first major medal. That result really disappointed me.”
Since then, KT has participated in only one tournament that too in 2016. A right ankle stress fracture has seen him out of the sport for close to three years, but a fourth placed finish was enough to ensure him 2016 Rio Olympic qualification.
He added, “I didn’t want to push myself too much as I was coming back from injury. My goal was to qualify for the event, injury free. Now that’s out of the way, I’m free. I will be concentrating on training under Coach Alexandre Artsybashev.”
The Asian and World Championships are both scheduled prior to the Rio Olympics. KT has earmarked those events as a yardstick for his development. His Olympic success in 2012 has also sparked a Racewalking revolution of sorts, with the government spending more on creating more infrastructure.
The plan has also seen immediate results with the number of Indian Rio Olympic qualifiers touching double digits, with only nine being allowed to make the cut as per IOA rules. 2014 Asian Games gold medallists Khusbir Kaur is also being touted as a potential medallist from the Women’s section.
Regardless of KT’s results, this year, his performance in London has boosted India’s chances of winning an Olympic medal in the most unlikeliest of sports.