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India at Olympic Marathons

Analysis of India at Olympic Marathons

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Indiarunning
15 Jun, 24 | 5:36 AM6 min read
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An Overview

Despite being a nation of over a billion people, our record in Olympic marathons remains sparse compared to powerhouses like Kenya and Ethiopia and even to several other sports within India itself. This overview highlights India's marathon history, the challenges faced, and the way forward.

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The Journey So Far

Marathon running was included in the Olympics in 1896, the year modern Olympics began. India's marathon history began at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, when Phadeppa Chaugle finished 19th with a time of 2:50:45. The years following saw sparse highlights, with a notable peak in 1976 when Shivnath Singh secured 11th place at the Montreal Olympics. However, between 1924 and 1976, India's performance remained largely unremarkable. The period from 1984 to 2008 saw no Indian representation in the Olympic marathon, indicating a significant gap in participation and performance.

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The 2016 Rio Olympics marked a special moment when five Indian athletes—T. Gopi, Nitendra Rawat, Kheta Ram, O P Jaisha, and Kavita Tungar—qualified for the marathon. T. Gopi finished 25th, the best performance by an Indian since 1976. However, no Indian athletes qualified for the full marathon at the Tokyo 2020 and the upcoming Paris 2024 Olympics.


Performance Analysis

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A comparative analysis of finishing times over the past century reveals a significant gap between Indian marathoners and marathon winners at the Olympics. In 1920, Indian athletes took nearly three hours to complete the race, while winners finished in just over two and a half hours. The 1970s saw a stabilization and narrowing of this gap, culminating in Shivnath Singh’s near-medal performance in 1976. Shivnath finished in 2:16:22 in 1976, which was only marginally improved 40 years later at the Rio Olympics where T. Gopi finished the marathon in 2:15:25.

After 1980, India did not qualify for the Olympic marathon for seven consecutive events, a gap that lasted until Ram Singh Yadav’s participation in 2012. The 2016 Olympics marked a resurgence, with three runners qualifying and performing better than the average finish times in the men's marathon. Indian women made it to the Olympics only in 2016 (Kavita Tungar and O P Jaisha), but their finish times were not even in the top 50.

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Key Challenges

India, a country of over 140 crores, is still far from being in the first pack of fast marathoners. The sport has grown much more at a recreational level compared to professional running. Marathon running requires efforts at all levels: family, infrastructure, coaching, nutrition, and avenues to train and participate at faster paces.

How do you expect a runner to improve when they continue to train with runners slower than them? Information and awareness of sports nutrition is negligible at the elite level, and they await sponsorship of nutrition supplements from various companies whose products may not even be comparable to the global competitors. Another issue that needs addressing is our approach to long-distance running. We traditionally take up running to get a job; post that, athletes tend to lose interest in the sport.

The prize money available to Indian runners in Indian running events is meager, whereas international runners take away significantly more money from the same running events. The incentives to do better are marginal.

Cultural attitudes further compound these issues. In India, sports are often deemed less important than academics, steering children away from athletics from a young age. The overwhelming focus on cricket also drains resources and attention from other sports. Unlike countries like Kenya, which nurture marathon talent from a young age through dedicated national programs, India lacks a coordinated strategy for developing long-distance runners.


The way ahead

If we could run as fast as today 60 years ago, if our personal best was made more than 50 years ago, if the delta between winners and Indian runners continues to increase, we need to look beyond the runners. We need to investigate, identify, and execute clear actions in the next decade or so to get better at running marathons, the mother of all sports. In our opinion, we should look at the following approach-

1. Promotion Of Running At Mass Level: When Frank Shorter won the marathon gold medal in 1972, it brought a running revolution in the US. Neeraj Chopra brought dreams to every Indian kid to be like him. There is a need for all of us to come together to bring running to every household. It is the simplest sport and, when done well, has the potential to bring us laurels. Large private institutions need to come together, pledge, and practice running for all.

2. Uniform Prize Money For Indian Runners: The races in India should work towards setting standard prize money for Indian runners in a special category set only for runners of India.

3. Sponsored Training And Participation In International Races: Indian runners need to get used to running in world major marathons and all other large running events. They need to have access to pacers who can run faster than them and train in places where there are far more faster runners.

4. Promotion Of Faster Races In India: A number of cities in India boast great road conditions, favorable weather for running, and lower pollution. There may be a government undertaking to produce high-pace marathons in the country.

From the population of 140 crore Indians, we can produce one runner faster than the fastest for sure.-