The alarm rings, it’s 4 am, a 25-year-old Manish Singh Rawat wakes up to get ready for his shift as a waiter in a small hotel in Badrinath named ‘Krishna’. However, he is up two hours before all his co-workers. And no, he is not striving to become employee of the month, nor does his shift begin before everyone else’s.
A splash of water on the face, shoelaces tied, and he’s off. As he twists his hips and walks around the lanes of this religious town, most people laugh at his funny demeanour; some even record videos to have a laugh with their friends. However, little do they know that this landless agricultural labourer from the small village named Sattar (Chamoli district) in Uttarakhand is all set to become one of India’s most inspiring Rio Olympic heroes.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda in Rio, Manish said, “Sirji, ab wapas gaon jaake kya muh dikhaunga? Bola tha medal leke hi aaoonga, nahi hua. Bas 10 second sir, bas 10 second better karta toh medal ka chance tha. (Sir, what face will I go and show to my village and family? I promised them a medal and I missed out by 10 seconds, after working so hard).
“Aapko pata hai India mein racewalking koi nahi dekhta, yehi chance tha Sir, ab 4 saal aur wait karna padega (You know, no one cares about racewalking back home, if I would win a medal, they would start putting in interest, now that chance is gone).”
The waiter who never gave up
Having covered racewalking extensively for the past two years, I have always been mesmerised by the kind of effort and precision that is required by the sport. Over the course of 20 km, at no point can both your feet be mid-air; if that happens it’s considered ‘running’, and you risk being disqualified. Apart from the inherent stamina, technique and fitness required in any long distance race, walking tests your mental focus like no other sport.
Inda’s national team coach Alexander Artsybashev perfectly described India’s racewalking potential when he said, “I strongly and firmly believe if the Indian authorities are willing to take racewalking more seriously as a sport for a medal, great things are possible. I myself can assure you that we can win not just one medal, but several medals. Just look at Manish; no one even knows him and he is now one of the top 10 racewalkers, that too with minimal facilities. It’s a sort of conundrum for the country. Do they really want to accept the fact there is a chance for a medal or not?”
The 25-year-old Manish finished 13th in the 20km event at Rio, ahead of some of the best racewalkers in the world. 2012 London Games silver medallist Erick Barrondo of Guatemala was one of the participants, and the ‘Pahari’ overtook him quite easily. He registered a final timing of 1:21:21, less than a minute behind the bronze medallist.
To the untrained eye, this might seem like a massive time difference, but while racing or in this case racewalking such long distances, 37 seconds is a time span that can be very much made up. Manish’s astonishing achievement against the world’s finest somehow went under the radar, with mainstream media mainly focussing on India's inability to win a medal.
The exposure to racewalking as a sport in our school system is fairly limited. Most states don’t provide the option, and the ones that do, generally have people who don’t make the cut in other disciplines. However, with a little focus, you can end up unearthing occasional gems from this small pot of walkers. Manish said, “I studied in a government school in my village. There, education was never given much importance. Hence, all of us put our time into the sport.
“I didn't learn of racewalking till I was in class 8 or 9. When I was playing cricket, to reach my school I had to walk 7 km up and 7 km down, so I was used to this. Walking is an integral part of Uttarakhand’s culture, I think that is why we are generally fitter than rest of the country.”
When Manish began racewalking there was no one to accompany him. The entire state had only three walkers who used to regularly compete against each other. Manish added, “I won’t mind admitting this, but racewalking has a rather funny posture. So people do end up laughing. But the funny posture exists for a reason because the feet have to be planted on the ground. So when I used to run in my village people used to laugh at me.
“My father died when I was in class 10. We used to get Rs. 1,500 and had to survive the entire month on that. So (spending time on practice) wasn’t an option. More than school, I spent time working in different places to make ends meet. I was a farmer in a village, a dishwasher, a labour guy in a farm and I even drove tractors. The money I got was used for my family and of course to help me with my training.”
Rs. 1,500 a month to live his Olympic dream
The United Kingdom recently declared that it costs them £5.5 million per medal winner; that’s the kind of investment required to develop an Olympic champion. In India, funds are scarce and the limited amount of money is distributed among the entire contingent. For someone like Manish Rawat, to work two part-time jobs a day and then become a top 15 racewalker in the world in itself is a huge success. If we overlook this and focus on his failure to win a medal, then all we are doing is ignoring the potential talent that can be nurtured for the future.
For mavericks like Manish, who don’t boast of a formal education, the only way to earn money is landing a state-level job through the sports quota system. In 2010, a farmer then, Manish gave the police sports quota an attempt, but for some reason, he was not given the chance, despite being a national level medal winner. It was financially the most difficult time for him, and the Kerala-based walker even thought of quitting the sport in order to fend for his family.
He added, “I told my coach that I’m quitting; I couldn’t channel all my resources towards just walking anymore, and I had a family to sustain. Four brothers in Rs 1,500, not possible to run the family, and I needed the job at any cost. I was working as a housemaid as well that year to sustain my walking. I used to also act as a guide for tourists over there, so I used that money as well. But my coach convinced me that I had a future in this sport. I was running only 1:35 then, 15 minutes off what I’m running now. So I’m indebted to him for keeping me on.”
When Manish started his professional career he earned only $25 a month, a far cry from the average $10,200 spent on an academy athlete in the USA. Instead of practising on tracks, he practised in the foothills of the Himalayas; instead of wearing aerodynamic shoes, he wore torn shoes from the local market; and most importantly, instead of giving up, he put the tri-colour ahead of everything else. If someone who has made so many sacrifices for the nation is not a winner, then who is?
A day prior to his Rio event, Manish injured his knee. But instead of complaining he went to his coach and asked him to increase his repetitions so that he could get used to the pain. He added, “If I got what I’m getting now four years back, I would be looking at a medal in Rio; now I have to plan for four years later. I know there is a medal for racewalking in the Olympics, it’s only a matter of time. But people need to realise that we aren’t walking ducks, we are serious high-performance athletes who give our body and soul into this.”
Manish booked a spot in Rio ahead of 300 competitors at the IAAF walking challenge in April. Two days ago in Rio, he defeated four former world champions, three Asian champions, two European champions and two Olympic medallists to finish 13th. For a man to go from a village which doesn’t have proper roads to excel at the Olympics, is a story so incredible it might dwarf everything else you've heard from Rio so far.
Let’s get things straight: many racewalkers are from low-income backgrounds, but their struggle is probably tougher than that of most other Indian athletes – for the simple reason that their sport is not even taken seriously by most. Their need for a job is so strong, that they try to get it at any cost; they don’t know how to do anything else.
Every year, close to 1,600 aspiring sportspersons apply for a job in the Uttarakhand Police sports quota, out of which only 25 are selected. The rest wait for another year to make it in. Once they are hired, they are sponsored for all their events and they get Rs 10,000 as salary – an amount unheard of for the racewalking fraternity.
India’s ignorance was the International Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) gain, who pumped in money and requested the Sports Authority of India (SAI) to help develop racewalkers in the country in 2012. This came after Kerala’s KT Irfan came out of nowhere to finish 10th in London. Since then, the country has produced four Asian champions, and as many as nine racewalkers qualified for Rio. Three had to be dropped because India didn’t have enough spots, which highlights how racewalking has become India’s most successful athletics discipline.
Coach Alexander said, “The IAAF is looking at India as a country with immense potential. We have walkers here who participate in 3-4 events abroad annually, and still manage to perform well at Asian Championships and World Championships. Take Gurmeet for example, he finished ahead of the Chinese and Japanese walkers; one of them won gold in Rio. So there is immense potential, I feel if we have a dietician and a sports science centre which helps in recovery, the timing will definitely increase and a medal is not far away.”
Over the past four years, racewalking in India has been heavily ignored, despite being one of the top performing sports. For a country like India which is starved of a Rio Olympic hero, we need to look no further than Uttarakhand’s Manish Rawat.