The Fastest Indian

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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From 1996 to 2008, when he retired, Anil Kumar, national record holder for both the 100 and 200 metres, had little competition from anyone in India. And yet no one knows him in this country.

Two incidents in Anil Kumar’s life before he became the fastest Indian gave an indication of things to come. In 1994, having just joined the Indian Army’s Madras Engineering Group (MEG) via the sports quota, he was running in the Army Championships. The usual timings for the 100 metres dash were 10.80-10.90 seconds. In the heats, Anil clocked 10.30 seconds. The race was timed with a handheld stopwatch and the timekeeper thought it was a mistake. He straightaway added one second to make it 11.30. In the semis, his time was again 10.30. “The timekeeper started doubting it,” says Anil’s coach C Murlidharan. “He came up to me and said, ‘Is it possible that this boy can run that fast?’ I told him, ‘You see it in the finals’. It was 10.30 again.” 

The second incident happened in 1996, at a competition in Hyderabad. Anil calls racing in those days a “death struggle”. Usually, good athletes reserve their best for the finals. The heats and semis are run to qualify. “I ran everything like the finals. I ran without calculating. They started getting absurd timings like 9.99, 10.00 [all timings logged on handheld devices, which don’t make it to the record books]. They were confused how this was happening. At the same time, they could see I had a wide lead.” So they did what perplexed people do—they measured the track to see if it really was 100 metres. It was. 

The fastest Indian is 35 now and not even running anymore. He still holds the national 100 metres record of 10.30 seconds. It’s way behind Usain Bolt’s 9.58, but still the best that anyone in this country of one billion plus has run. He has run the 200 metres in 20.73 seconds—another national record—and that was a record Milkha Singh previously owned for 39 long years. From 1996 till the time he hung his running shoes up in 2008, Anil was the national champion in both events without any real competition. And yet, asking “Who is the fastest Indian?” on Kaun Banega Crorepati  would be a Rs 1 crore question, right at the end among the impossible answers. 

“He runs with a pawing action,” says A Balakrishnan, who also coached him. “He lifts his knee and also thrusts his ankle while putting the foot down. This increases his side length by 8-9 cm. All international runners do it. Most Indian sprinters don’t have this action.” When Anil came to MEG in 1994, he was a decathlete; Balakrishnan was the chief coach there. He saw that Anil’s ‘reaction’ [the instinctive speed at which, for example, a sprinter takes off on hearing the gunshot] was exceptional and changed his events to 100 and 200 metres. This was 1994. By the next year, Anil was coming second in national events. 

The whole of 1996, Anil was determined to win because the previous year he had felt humiliated. He had gone for a Services meet and was not picked for the relay team. “The selectors could have given me a lap. They said I didn’t have experience.” What actually rankled was that an acquaintance, another runner from his native district of Alappuzha in Kerala, got a gold representing the Navy. “I told them that next year I will get a medal in an individual event. I got three golds. In the 100, 200 and 400 metres hurdles.” He also picked his first national championship gold that year.

When Anil started competing, India’s 100 metres record was 10.50 seconds. He was national champion but the record had still eluded him. It was held by the US-based sprinter Rajeev Balakrishnan. He often didn’t even come to India for competitions. In 1999, there was an international meet in Madras. “I got a good competitor, a fighter, in Sri Lankan sprinter Chinthaka de Zoysa. It was a good race. He created the Sri Lankan record with 10.29. I did 10.33 and got a silver,” says Anil. That became the India record. But he still wanted to beat Rajeev. He got the opportunity in 2000 at a 100 metres trial in Bangalore for the Olympics and Asian Championships. Anil says, “Rajeev told the media that I was no competition for him. The reporter came to me and asked the same thing. I said, ‘You come tomorrow at 5.30 in the evening for the race’. The gallery was full. The race started and I don’t know what happened after that. Rajeev did it in 10.40 seconds. I had finished in 10.21 seconds, with a lead of 2-2.5 metres. In 100 metres, that is a lead.” The timing didn’t go into the books as the national record because there were no doping tests done that day. It still remains his personal best. 

That year, he also broke Milkha Singh’s record for the 200 metres dash; again with some Sri Lankan athletes to push him on. “It was the time of the Olympics. I had trained in Russia and was in really good form. After I broke the record, there were two other Indians who broke the 39-year-old record. It shows that when there’s more competition, your time improves,” he says. His final national record came in 2005 in Delhi when he ran the 100 metres in 10.30 seconds. 

One of the best movies made about sprint running is Chariots of Fire, based on the real life stories of two British sprinters who aspire to sprinting golds in the 1924 Olympics to beat their personal demons. The 100 metres time they want to break in the movie is that of an American, Charlie Paddock. It is 10.30 seconds, the same time at which Anil ran 80 years later to set the Indian record. By that reckoning, India is three-quarters of a century behind the world in sprint racing. Anil puts it to conditions here. “Carl Lewis came to India and ran here at the peak of his form. He came third with a timing of 10.33. He threw his spikes off and said he will never again run in India.” The story about the spikes is probably apocryphal. But Lewis did run twice in India and his other timing was 10.47. 

India’s most famous athlete PT Usha, who runs an academy to develop sportspeople in India and is also an acquaintance of Anil, blames it not on climate but the absence of a system to spot and groom young talent. “In India, more than inborn sprinters, we have developed sprinters. In so many years of developing sportsmen in my academy, I have managed to create a pool of 800 and 400 metre runners. But I have still not got an exceptional 100/200 metres sprinter. The first step is to find someone, and then there must be a system to train the person for 10 to 12 years.”

She says it’s not an easy task for anyone to dominate a sport as long as Anil has done. “For 10.30 seconds, there needs to be a little talent. Plus, there must be development. Sprinters are sometimes a little lazy. But Anil is someone who has worked hard.” 

The sporting establishment has predictably not rewarded Anil. He has not got an Arjuna Award. He applied for it once in 2002, but there was no one to push his case. He refused to apply again. His request to be trained under coaches in the US was delayed by his employer, the Army, and then spiked. “After the Sydney Olympics, I asked the Army to send me to the US for two years for professional coaching. When there was only three or four months left for the Asian Games, I was told the cash had been sanctioned. The Athletics Federation asked me if I left who would do the relay training. I was told, ‘Training ke liye jao, lekin Asian Games jaane mein mushkil hai phir.’ (Go for training but then you will have to give the Asian Games a miss) I was obviously not going to give up the Asian Games.” 

In 2008, when he decided to retire, the thought of becoming a coach did not cross his mind even for a moment. This is  because he thinks it will be impossible to work the system here. The fastest Indian now runs a nursing college on the outskirts of Bangalore.