Why Delhi athletes fall behind in the national championship race

In cycling, as in so many other sports, there is no level playing field for enthusiasts from humble backgrounds. Still, they are pedalling hard to catch up with their more fortunate peers

Why Delhi athletes fall behind in the national championship race’

David Beckham (L) and Ronaldo Singh (R)

Ronaldo and David Beckham lined up for what the announcer described as the showstopper of the competition on Sunday, 2 October.

The duo, very close friends, are no footballers but India’s top cyclists who live and train at the capital’s Indira Gandhi Indoor (IGI) Stadium. They were representing their respective states in the track sprint event at the National Games.

While the road race event took place in Ahmedabad, the track events were held in Delhi over four days since the Gujarat capital doesn’t have a track.  

Also read: Run out: SAI academies in Delhi face coach crunch
Ronaldo – full name: Laitongjam Ronaldo Singh — from Manipur and Beckham from Andaman & Nicobar Islands, were named by their football-crazy parents who didn’t live to see their sons achieve glory in a different sport.

“My dad died when I was just one. But he and my maternal uncles were crazy about [ex-England footballer] Beckham and named me thus. In fact, they said if not this name, I wouldn’t get a name at all,” says the 19-year-old Beckham, who lost the best-of-three final sprint by a whisker to the 20-year-old Ronaldo, his close friend. The two were neck-and-neck in the final.

Personal struggles

Beckham lost his mom when he was just 11 and a year later was playing football for FC Goa Junior. Soon after, he returned home to attend his grandmother’s funeral.

“Before going to Goa, I had attended trials for cycling at home (in Andaman & Nicobar Islands) and I wasn’t even sure I would make it. But to my surprise I was selected, and there my journey started,” he recalls.
Ronaldo, who was born in Delhi in 2002, had to move to Manipur in 2008 when his dad, who works with CRPF, was
transferred. He too had attended cycling trials just for fun while he was learning swimming in Imphal. To his surprise, he was selected.

“I didn’t know much about cycling but I just filled in the form and luckily I was selected,” says the Manipuri cyclist, whose dad, a fan of former Brazilian star Ronaldo, died in 2017.

Both cyclists were picked as potential international medallists and included in the National Centre of Excellence (NCOE) established in 2014-15 at the IGI Stadium to produce Indian stars in the sport.

The NCOE has a presence in Imphal, Guwahati, Patiala and Trivandrum too but coming to Delhi has its own benefits, most important of which is the track. IG Indoor Stadium is the only NCOE which has a wooden track that meets international standards. That is why it attracts the best talent in India.

Over the years, the performance of Indian cyclists has improved thanks to the NCOE.

Ronaldo, along with state-mates Rojit Singh and James as well as Andaman’s Esow Elban, became India’s first-ever gold-medallists at the 2019 world junior championships. Like Ronaldo, they too have been staying and training at IGI.

Ronaldo also became the first Indian to win a silver at the Asian Cycling Championship (Elite event) this year. He also won bronze in time trial event and team sprint, with Beckham, at this year’s Asians.

Mayuri Lute, from a village on the outskirts of Nagpur, who won the women’s sprint at the National Games is also an Asian medallist.

She too has been staying and training for over five years now here.

Right track

As many as 55 elite cyclists train at the IGI stadium whereas the other four centres have around 50 each.

“We pick the best cyclists from around the country and house them here. They are given all facilities. Besides, coaching, they are given diet, equipment among other things thanks to government funding,” says Onkar Singh, the secretary of the Asian Cycling Confederation who has also served as the secretary of the Cycling Federation of India (CFI), a post now occupied by his son Maninder Pal Singh.

While elite athletes from across the country make use of the country’s only international-level track, those in Delhi are not able to train properly despite the track coming under the government’s come-and-play scheme.
Under the scheme that is open for the public, you have to register for just Rs 100 annually to use the cycling track like other venues.

“Earlier, the government was charging Rs 1,500 a month from those who wanted to use the velodrome. However, with the come-and-play scheme, the fee has come down drastically,” says Pramod Sharma, president of the Cycling Association of Delhi (CAD).

“Ideally, this should have encouraged many to take up cycling and use a world-class facility at the velodrome. But the impact has been very little. This is because the equipment is very expensive,” adds Sharma.

Among the 55 elite cyclists in the NCOE at IGI, there is none from Delhi.

“There were three, including a girl, but they were removed in 2021 after the CFI decided to whittle some non-performers,” adds Sharma.

No level field

Roshan Kumar is the only cyclist from Delhi participating in the National Games but could not win a medal. He says that following the sport is tough since the equipment is unaffordable for most.

Roshan’s father irons clothes for a living in East Delhi and he says he had to struggle, sell off family assets, to buy a bicycle. “The problem with this sport is that you need two cycles – one for the road and the other for track. I bought one for road for around Rs 3 lakh. That is all I could afford. As for the track one, I am using the one from the university I attended,” he adds.

“We have the track here, we have access to quality coaching but when we participate in competitions, it is the equipment that often lets us down. The come-and-play scheme is great, no doubt. But it is of no benefit because we don’t have the equipment. You can see: The power metre alone in my cycle costs Rs 70,000. There are some talented athletes, who can’t afford, they can’t progress,” he says further.

Most Delhi riders use Indian-made cycles, whereas the champion athletes at National Games are using high-end expensive ones provided by the NCOE through ministry.

The Delhi athletes one talked to bought cycles costing Rs 80,000 to Rs 1,00,000. Raghav bought his for Rs 80,000 while his friend Aryan has already given up on cycling. These are not high-end machines. As Roshan explains, these are “aluminium alloy, whereas the ones for competition are made of carbon fibre”.

The CFI is not mandated to provide equipment to individual associations under which Delhi falls. The only other manner of funding is sponsorship, which the CAD has been unable to manage.

“Delhi government used to provide some funding. Unfortunately, that has stopped and the cyclists are all on their own,” adds Sharma, whose son Kartik is also a cyclist.

CFI has made some used cycles accessible to CAD but they are of old model.

Long commutes

Expenses apart, the sport lacks popularity, partly due to lack of knowledge and partly due to distance. Most of the cyclists who train under Sharma, a former cyclist, come from East Delhi where he stays. Most of them are from humble backgrounds.

Sharma qualified for the Nationals by practicing on doodh-waali (milk delivery) cycles.

“Making it to the velodrome in the allotted time, 1 to 3 pm, is difficult. Some of us have to make do by practicing on the road, which can be a bit risky,” says Arsh Man who lives in Ghaziabad.

“We have 20-25 cyclists within a radius of 2-3 km,” says Sharma who stays in Krishna Nagar and runs a business in Gandhinagar.

The cyclists come from Seelampur (old and new), Gandhinagar, Kanti Nagar, Krishna Nagar, Pandav Nagar, Laxmi Nagar and Akshardham, he says.

“There are 8-10 who come from further off like Nehru Park, Maujpur-Ghonda and Khoda Colony near Noida,” he says.

There have been a few girls but not more than three at a time. Bushra Ali, who is almost out of the competitive sport now, recalls that attending training sessions is a bigger challenge for girls than boys.

“Normally, someone from the family or Sir himself (Pramod Sharma) used to bring me to the velodrome and take me back. So was the case with other girls,” recalls Bushra who too stays in East Delhi.

The solution could be cement tracks like in other areas with a culture of cycling. Athletes could then hone their skills on the IGI track. “At the moment, we are all spending out of our pockets,” says Sharma.

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Khurram Habib
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