On a warm and humid mid-September evening in Chandigarh, Delhi’s 26-year-old international middle distance runner Rahul ran a race of his life at the fifth leg of the Indian Grand Prix (GP) event.
He finished second in the 1500m race, but clocked 3:39.83 seconds to become the fourth fastest ever among Indian runners in the event.
Olympian Jinson Johnson, who finished first in the fifth leg of Indian GP, Ajay Kumar Saroj and Bahadur Prasad are the other three 1500m runners ahead of him.
“I am excited to have reached a good level and clock a good time this season,” said an elated Rahul. “I hope to build from here for the 2024 season.”
Rahul hasn’t visited his parents for the past two years as he had been trying to earn a place in the national team for the Hangzhou Asian Games. Unfortunately, he missed the berth for the continental games!
During a domestic meeting in June in Bhubaneswar, which was the last qualification event for the Asian Games, Rahul lost the race by a whisker — on the finish line — to his more experienced rival Johnson.
“There was one last chance. I tried my best but lost at the tape,” he recalls.
While Johnson and Ajay Kumar Saroj will represent India in the 1500m event at the Hangzhou Asian Games, Rahul is back to his training base in Bengaluru’s Sports Authority of India campus.
“My plan now is to improve my time and inch closer to qualify for the Paris Olympic Games.”
Easier said than done! The World Athletics has tough qualification standards for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. For the 1500m race, the qualification mark is 3:33.50 seconds.
But there is a small window for athletes like Rahul, who have yet to reach that level. He still has a chance to book a berth for the Paris Olympic Games through a world ranking system.
As per guidelines of the world governing body in athletics, each national federation has a maximum quota of three athletes.
Fifty per cent of the athletes will qualify through entry standard within the qualification period from July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024, while the remaining 50% athletes will be eligible to compete based on the world athletics ranking system.
BACK TO COMPETITION
After missing the Asian Games, Rahul hasn’t lost hope. He is focused on improving his time further. Next month, he will get a chance to better his performance during a domestic competition in Jamshedpur. He will also compete in the National Games in Goa scheduled to start at the end of October.
“Before taking a break and preparing for next season I want to further improve my time of 3:39.83 seconds,” he said.
Rahul’s journey into the athletics world reveals that there isn’t a system at the grassroots level to scout talent and it was sheer chance that he came this far.
Rahul wanted to join the army to financially support his father, a small-time farmer in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh. Inadvertently, Rahul’s focus shifted to improving his fitness over a distance of a mile (1600m), which is one of the parameters to select candidates during army recruitment.
Hence, during his school-days he wanted to race 1500m only. A family friend in 2011 suggested Rahul’s parents send him to Delhi for better education.
“When I was in class ninth, I shifted to Delhi,” recalls the middle-distance runner. “The atmosphere in the village wasn’t conducive for studies.”
Living in rented accommodation in Kotla and studying wasn’t that easy. He used to go for practice to Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
The village lad used to spend his weekends at Lal Kila’s (Red Fort) Sunday market to search for old-running shoes and sports kits.
“My parents used to send me Rs 5000 a month. It was tough but I managed,” Rahul said.
A local government school Physical Education teacher — Arvind Dahiya of Vasant Kunj, who died in a road accident three years ago was a big supporter of the promising athlete.
“Dahiya Sir used to give me pocket money and guided me. I can’t forget those days,” he said.
However, things changed in 2012 when he won two gold medals — 800m and 1500m — in the junior national meet. The result enabled him to qualify for the DDA athletics project the same year. Under the project, he was eligible to get a monthly scholarship of Rs 5,000 and travel allowance for domestic competitions.
Coping with Delhi’s environment, culture and hardship made the school-going student mentally more tough.
While several promising juniors generally fail to graduate to the senior level, Rahul made steady progress. In 2016, he competed at the South Asian Games and won a bronze medal in 1500m. The same year, he got a chance to compete at Doha Indoor Asian Championships.
He clocked a personal best of 3:46 seconds. At the end of the 2016 season, his name was shortlisted for the national camp. He got more exposure there.
He was thankful to his well-wishers for their support. Dinesh Rawat, a former international and Rahul’s coach in his formative years gifted him a new pair of spikes in 2012.
“I was practicing in worn-out shoes and Sir (Rawat) arranged shoes for me. I was very thankful to him,” he said.
While the early years in Delhi were tough for Rahul, things have improved financially as he has landed a job via sports quota in the Income Tax Department (Delhi).
On the track, the disappointment of missing Asiad has weighed heavy. Next month’s Open National Athletics Championships in Jamshedpur will be a good chance to redeem himself and showcase his talent.
Rahul also believes he will be able to polish his skills by getting more international exposure. This year he got an opportunity to compete in USA.
“I’m training hard. I believe I can clock 3:38 in my next competition. Good time will certainly improve my confidence,” he added.