Eighty years ago, an avid midfielder of Rohini’s St Xavier’s School junior football team emerged victorious in the 800m race at the 2016 CBSE national track and field meet.That was the beginning of lanky teenager Amoj Jacob’s illustrious journey in athletics.
“I used to play football, but our school physical education teacher — Arvind Kapur — advised me to compete in track races too,” the 25-year-old recalled to Patriot.
“I was in 10th class then. I agreed and got involved in sprinting.” Jacob eventually quit football.
On August 26 at the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Delhi’s international sprinter was a key member of the Indian 4x400m men’s relay team that shattered the Asian record, clocking 2:59.05 seconds in the heats.
Muhammed Anas, Muhammed Ajmal and Rajesh Ramesh were the other members of the quartet. The national team eventually finished fifth in the final with a time of 2:59.92 seconds.
Jacob said that it was a collective effort of the team to reach the final for the first time at the Worlds. Jacob’s next goal is to stay focused to sustain efforts at the Hangzhou Asian Games scheduled to start on September 23 in China. The athletics competition will start on October 3.
“I ran the second relay leg at the Worlds in 44.68 seconds. I’m happy with my performance in Budapest,” he added. “But my future goal is to further improve my individual 400m time.”
At the junior level, Jacob competed in both 400m and 800m but eventually settled for the quarter-mile.
“The middle distance was more taxing and I couldn’t adapt to the training regimen,” he said.
The 25-year-old has a personal best of 45.68 seconds for the individual 400m race, which he clocked in April 2021 in a domestic event. His 2023 season best was 45.91 seconds for the individual 400m race.
“To run hard and fast relay legs, I should be able to run individual quarter-mile races faster. The plan is to balance both relay and individual races,” he explained.
According to Kapur, head of the physical education department and athletics coach at St Xavier’s School, he spotted Jacob during a football practice session in school.
“He (Jacob) was in 10th class and had an economical running action. I was impressed and advised him to do sprinting drills thrice a week. He (Jacob) did sprinting drills at the school’s 200m grassy ground three days in a week, and played football on alternate days,” Kapur said.
The partnership proved fruitful. Jacob won his first big domestic race, a CBSE nationals in 2016. Moreover, he ran each consecutive race faster than the previous.
“He sliced fractions of seconds each time he stepped on the track at the CBSE nationals. While in the heats he clocked 56 seconds, his time in the final race was 52 seconds,” the school teacher said.
Thereafter, athletics was a full-time job, and football took a backseat.
To practice for the national competition, Jacob and other students of St Xavier’s School often went to Chhatrasal Stadium as there was a 400m synthetic track, Kapur said.
“From 2016 onwards, the practice venue was shifted to Chhatrasal Stadium as it was the most convenient place to practice for athletes staying in the north-west part of Delhi,” the athletics coach explained.
Since preparations went on expected lines in the 2016-17 season, Jacob also made a big impression at the 2016 Youth Asian Championships, winning 800m gold.
The big breakthrough came in 2018 when Jacob lined up for the Senior Federation Cup Athletics Meeting in Patiala. He was cynosure of all eyes as he stamped his authority in both 400m and 800m.
Poor air quality in capital a worry
The Delhi international sprinter was candid in saying that the quality of air is not conducive for sports activities in the Capital.
“Pollution is a big issue in Delhi. If you can’t breathe, it will be difficult to practice,” he added. “Good healthy environment will be better for all.”
Jacob has been a member of the national relay squad since 2018. He represented the Indian 4x400m relay team at the 2017 and 2019 Worlds but missed out on the 2022 Eugene World Athletics Championships due to a hamstring niggle.
His formative years of training were in Delhi, and like all other youngsters, he struggled to adapt to poor quality air in the Capital.
“It was tough to practice but I had no choice,” said Jacob. “All stakeholders, including those in sports should join hands to improve the air quality in Delhi.”
Facilities not up to mark
There are 9 to 10 synthetic tracks spread across Delhi. But facilities like a good rehab centre are not within reach of an average athlete.
“Delhi should have excellent facilities under one roof. It should be affordable to players. Unfortunately, it is missing. It is hard to find good physios and rehab centres in the Capital,” Jacob explained.
According to Jacob, competitive sports is all about hard work and recovery. “Practice alone doesn’t make a good player. The recovery part is equally important,” he added.
Kapur echoed similar views. All the stakeholders, including the Delhi government and the national governing body in athletics — the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) — should join hands to strengthen the grassroots programme.
“There should be good pockets of athletics training centres in Delhi to create a big pool of athletes,” Kapur said.
Dropping out of race
The Jacob family followed sports but not seriously. Father played football and often took part in athletics events during his school and college days. Jacob’s younger sister was a junior national level 400m sprinter but she quit sports due to her studies.
“She (my sister) is focusing on her studies these days,” the elder brother said.
According to Kapur, at least 50% of the talented athletes quit competitive sports in their prime due to pressure of academics. “After 10th class, several students aren’t able to add sports to their curriculum as the focus is to pursue science stream,” the school teacher explained.
“Parents want their children to study as there are less options for jobs for undergraduate students.”
Several promising athletes quit sports at junior level due to financial constraints too, said Jacob.
“Sports has become expensive both on and off the field. Accommodation and travelling to competition venues across the country is expensive. Many of my friends who were talented athletes had to quit practice due to financial issues,” he recalled.
Jacob too faced financial hardship in his formative years. However, post Covid-19 pandemic, Delhi’s international runner found a job at Bank of India.
The junior athletes are doing well at the national and international levels. The Indian mixed 4x400m relay team of Priya Mohan, Bharat Sridhar, Kapil and Rupal Chaudhary won silver medal at the 2022 World U20 Athletics Championships in Cali, Colombia, which augurs well for the future of athletics in India.
“I can say we have good bench-strength as some of the juniors are able to clock below 48 seconds for 400m,” Jacob said.
His advice to youngsters is to be patient and stay focused even if they get injured. Young athletes should also have a good, healthy relationship with the coach.
“There shouldn’t be a communication gap,” he added.
According to Jacob, there has been a surge in athletics fan-following on social media, but it will be equally great if people come to watch athletes in action on the ground.
“It will be a big morale booster to Indian athletics,” he added.