Adille Sumariwalla: Getting an Olympic medal in athletics is my one-point agenda

‘We keep climbing one step and slipping three. In 2004, our relay team was 7th in the world. Then we slipped from there. Otherwise, today our 4×400 metres relay team would have been gearing for a medal at the Rio Games.’

Article by Laxmi Negi | Rediff

‘We give them a coach, but if we don’t give them the support facility they will not be able to perform. I always say that it is not just one athlete or coach, but the whole eco system that we need to create around the athlete. Only then you can perform to your fullest.’

‘If we need to compete at the world level, our thinking needs to be at world level. You can’t have akhada thinking.’


IMAGE: Adille Sumariwalla, newly elected member of the IAAF Council, makes a point. Photograph: Reuben NV/

Adille Sumariwalla was India’s sprint champion for 11 consecutive years.

Last month, Sumariwalla, president of the Athletics Association of India, was elected to the International Association of Athletics Federations.

In a field of 39 candidates he bagged 61 votes to snatch one of the nine seats as an individual member from 214 member federations.

The 1980 Moscow Olympian, who was conferred the Arjuna Award in 1985, discusses the complex issues that ail Indian athletics and his plans to deal with them, in this interview with Laxmi Negi/

Has Indian athletics arrived on the global stage?

People recognise that we have the potential of being a global superpower. People understand the potential of India.

They understand that in the world, economically or whatever, we are one of the few countries which has positives.

Taking all that into consideration, with all the people in the country, the youth, people have a lot of hope from India and that is why they feel that, yes, India needs a seat on the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations).

When will India win a Track & Field medal in the Olympics?

There are two things very important: Firstly, it is important to get medals; secondly, the youth that we have.

We need to channelise their energy correctly. It will help in nation-building. That is as important as winning medals.

Yes, getting an Olympic medal for India in athletics is my one-point agenda.

I think about it the whole day, when I get up until the time I go to sleep. I only visualise getting a medal for our country.

If we have a positive frame of mind and have a sports culture, some sportsman’s spirit, some integrity, then I think I am achieving a far larger canvas than winning a medal.

Of course, a medal to me is THE most important goal.

Why don’t our athletes produce consistent performances?

We keep climbing one step and slipping three.

In 2004 our relay team was seventh in the world. Then we slipped from there. Otherwise, today our 4×400 metres relay team would have been gearing for a medal at the Rio Games.

We also need to remember that there are 215 countries participating in athletics.

For example, in boxing, if you go through two rounds you are assured of a bronze medal. I am not belittling boxing, but in athletics, just in the juniors’ under-14 age group 268 kids take part. That sort of competition is involved in athletics.

You have to go through four rounds to reach the final, so it is very difficult.

We have complex issues, including socio-economic, funding issues; there are funds which are not channelised properly.

We have a coach, but don’t have masseurs or physios. The middle and long distance girls run more than 250 kms per week; they need a special type of masseur, a very special type of recovery expert; they need a lot of things to recover and come back to the track on Monday.

We give them a coach, but if we don’t give them the support facility they will not be able to perform. I always say that it is not just one athlete or coach, but the whole eco system that we need to create around the athlete. Only then you can perform to your fullest.

What will it take to achieve that end?

We have inconsistencies because of various reasons. There are changes in government. The government is the main source of funds for the athlete.

Every time a new Director General or new central government comes in, there is a change. They keep changing, the thinking keeps changing and, therefore, the inconsistency.

We put up a plan for four years, they accept the plan, but implementation is a problem.

Nutrition is not difficult in today’s day and age, but, sometimes, food cooked in the camps is not up to the mark. If an athlete doesn’t eat good food, how do you expect him to perform?

When a nutritionist comes in, nobody wants to listen to them because athletes crave for masala food; they don’t like the kind of food the nutritionist recommends.

These issues are deep-rooted in our system.

During the Asian Games I saw how difficult it was for our athletes. They wanted dal, roti, subzi, masala, ghee. Athletes did not want to eat healthy food, like salads, sprouts and pasta.

Finally, they were eating potato chips!

We need to understand that if we need to compete at the world level, our thinking needs to be at world level.

You can’t have akhada thinking; we have to get ourselves to international thinking because everything affects you.

Unless our thought process changes, we will keep getting hammered.

In such a situation, is there any hope for Indian athletes at the coming Olympics?

If you look at the World Championships, I don’t think we did very badly. We had Vikas Gowda (shot put) and Lalita Babar (3000 metres steeplechase) coming in the top eight.

We have athletes doing well, but, again, it is politics which destroys them. Athletes want to take their own coaches and go abroad.

If you want to learn it the correct way you need to forget what you have learnt before. You need your basics and have to develop further.

Our coaches go there and get exposed how bad they are! Then they keep brainwashing the athletes.

Shot putter Inderjeet Singh wanted to take two coaches. Have you ever heard of this? Two coaches?

The issue is that they want to put their husband’s name, their father’s name, because the government gives cash awards to the coaches. Just to make few lakh rupees they want their family members as their coaches.

Can a university level thrower coach a world class athlete?

These are complex issues. Our athletes don’t think well for themselves; they are being misguided by their coaches. They lack the knowledge that every coach is good at a certain point of their lives. Then people move on.

How can a school coach help you turn into a world champion?

Sometimes they don’t even know how to spell Olympics!

We are trying our best to educate our athletes. In India we keep getting very emotional about the way we think.

When you are into sport, you have to be thoroughly rude and selfish. If you are not thoroughly ruthless, you are never going to win.

Why did Milkha Singh and P T Usha do so well? Thoroughly ruthless and thoroughly selfish!

Look at Usain Bolt. He is a thoroughly ruthless guy. Unless you are that ruthless, you cannot win at that level.

Most of the time I become the villain because I don’t give into emotional dramas. I am down to earth, ruthless, in my approach.

After the (2010) Commonwealth Games, if we didn’t have that debacle (the 2010 Commonwealth Games scam) I was confident about winning a medal at the Rio Olympics.

It could have even been London (Olympics), but at Rio we could have definitely won. But after that debacle athletics took a huge beating. Also, what happened to us internally, after (Suresh) Kalmadi (then chairman of the Organising Committee of the 2010 Commonwealth Games) and Lalit Bhanot (former Indian Olympic Association secretary-general) left, I took charge immediately.

It took us a very long time to get us out from that situation. Because of Bhanot and Kalmadi, athletics was a bad word at that point of time. The media got after us, no sponsors wanted to touch us.

I had lot of trouble getting us out of the deepest setback.

Having said that, the government spent Rs 385 crore (Rs 3.85 billion) before the Delhi Commonwealth Games to train our athletes. The moment that (the Games) got over, the funding stopped.

Now that showed very clearly that if we put in the right amount of money, we could win the right amount of medals.

From 101 medals at the Delhi Commonwealth Games, why did we come down to 64 medals in (the next Games) Glasgow CWG? Because money became one-third!

The tempo had to continue. Had we sustained that effort for the Olympics we could have got medals. But we had a dip and again we started struggling.

After the Commonwealth Games there were no camps, no coaches, as their contracts expired and they were sent back.

No federation… the top two people (Kalmadi and Bhanot) of the federation were in jail. We were running amok. All the thugs took over, to try and grab what they could.

How do you tackle the menace of doping?

Before I became president, we were testing 100 samples; now we are testing 1,000 samples. A lot more people are getting caught. People say that India is the dope capital, but we are tracking them down and it is a good thing that a lot of people are getting caught.

The media is making it look negative; actually, it is a positive. We are not letting people get away.

Look at the places where doping is happening. It generally doesn’t happen at the camps. Only a stupid guy will try doing that because they keep getting tested very regularly. The biggest problem areas are the junior meets, where the coaches are encouraging it.

The second place is at trials for jobs. The Railways, Services, Police, Customs, Income Tax. The athletes have the maal (drugs), perform and get selected for the job.

Once their job is secured, they have to participate in Inter-Railway or Inter-Services tournaments. These athletes feel the need to deliver at such meets and, hence, again take the maal to enhance their performances.

To tackle this, I send NADA (the National Anti-Doping Agency) to such meets and get those athletes tested.

It is not that our main athletes are tainted. There might be one or two slip-outs, but we are tough on them.

Age cheating too keeps haunting athletics.

It is a HUGE problem. We are battling it hard, but we are not winning. Even SAI (the Sports Authority of India) is trying hard. As per the new rule, you need to get the government medical officer’s approval. It is not practical because even a junior team of Mumbai consists of 300 athletes. How will one officer test so many athletes?

What we are trying to do is talk to TCS (Tata Consultancy Services) and create a unique identity with biometrics.

For example, an athlete comes in as Anil Kumar Singh; the next time the same person participates as AK Singh and next time as Anil Kumar. The same guy changes his date of birth. So we are focusing on the lowest age group as much as possible.

We are also trying to connect with Aadhar. UIDAI (the Unique Identification Authority of India) is willing to work with us. With that, with just one touch of a finger, we get the athlete’s history. A lot of research will go into this tedious task.

For this you need a huge amount of money, which the federation doesn’t have. If I have to choose between sending an athlete for training abroad or investing in research, I will have to prioritise, as money is so scarce.

When will an Indian athlete break the 10 seconds barrier in the 100 metres?

If an athlete with a superior physique comes in we can do it tomorrow; that is not a problem! But we lack superior physique.

If I was not 5 ft 7 inches, but four inches taller, I could have done it very easily. I was consistent at 10.40 with this height; with longer strides, I could have done it!

But we are not getting athletes who are 6 feet tall with frequency. The ones with frequency are much shorter.

Usain Bolt is 6 feet 5 inches tall; he is so broad. If I stand behind him, you won’t be able to see me. He doesn’t look so broad on television because of his height.

Tyson Gay is 6 feet and has huge shoulders, but he looks like a dwarf in front of Bolt. Where do we have athletes like these?

So, in certain events, we won’t be able to do well till we get athletes with superior prowess. But in certain events, like middle and long distance, we can do well.

We can do well in throws; we have some big throwers from North India. Vikas Gowda, Inderjeet Singh and Om Prakash are all above six feet tall; these athletes can throw. But with physique you also need brains to win.

These guys have the physique to win, but what about intelligence? You need a combination of both to win.