Joybeer Datta Gupta loves cricket and football but not more than sprinting.
The Class IX student at La Martiniere for Boys trains in 100 metres at the Sports Authority of India’s Salt Lake facility and dreams of becoming a sprint champion like his idol Usain Bolt.
His first step towards the goal? The state under-16 athletics meet next year, where his best of 11.7 seconds in training could earn him a podium finish since the state record in the age group is 11.2.
Manoj Naskar, 16, would rather have posters of Yohan Blake and Mike Powell on his bedroom wall than of Virat Kohli or Lionel Messi. The Dhakuria boy’s love of athletics — he is a sprinter and long jumper — is not limited to following the Olympics and the World Athletics Championships on television.
Twice a week, after school, Manoj trains at Sarobar Athletic Centre within Rabindra Sarobar Stadium to pursue his dream of becoming India’s best long jumper.
Junior athletics is no longer the preserve of youngsters from the districts looking for a passport to government and railway jobs. More and more urban children aspire to be athletes. So what if their schools still do not have starting blocks and long jump pits and the handful of athletics coaching clubs in the city are hamstrung by infrastructure problems?
“After we launched the scheme Come and Play to encourage teenagers to take up athletics a couple of years back, we have been getting a very good response from kids in the city. We have about 120 children in the age group of 10-17 and around 50 per cent of them are from the city,” said Kalyan Chaudhuri, Joybeer’s trainer at SAI’s Salt Lake centre.
Under the scheme, aspiring junior athletes without any experience can train at the centre for a nominal monthly fee after clearing a screening test.
Sarobar Athletic Centre and Athletic Training Centre, the prominent ones among four such coaching units at Rabindra Sarobar Stadium, are also teeming with talented youngsters. The only other reputable training centre in the vicinity of the city is Athletic Coaching Camp in Sodepur, run by Dronacharya awardee Kuntal Roy since 1969.
“About 15 boys and girls come from Calcutta to train with us thrice a week. Boys and girls from the city are doing well in the state athletics competitions,” said Roy, whose centre has produced Olympians Susmita Singha Roy, Soma Biswas and Sanjay Kumar Rai.
The enthusiasm for athletics is in contrast to the scene five years ago.
Mrityunjoy Chatterjee, secretary-cum-chief coach at Athletic Training Centre, trains 80 children aged between 5 and 12, most of them from the city. “This is a good sign because participation of urban kids in athletics had nose-dived a few years ago,” he said.
Many other coaches see in the increased participation of city kids in athletics a trend that augurs well for sport. “Sometimes rural boys and girls fail to pursue athletics seriously because of financial constraints. This isn’t a problem for talented urban kids from relatively better-off families,” Chatterjee said.
According to Kunal Mutsuddi, vice-president of Sarobar Athletic Centre, the newfound interest of urban kids in athletics has widened the talent pool. “Children between five and 14 come to us for the love of running and jumping. Those between 18 and 21 mostly come to train for state and national-level meets, where a good performance can get you a job,” he said.
For Chanchal Ghosh, a Class VII student at Julien Day School, landing a government job via athletics is not a priority. He joined Athletic Training Centre a couple of months ago because sprinting makes him happier than when he is playing football.
But will the brave new world of athletics be able to sustain the passion?
Dhiman Nandi of Class V at Patha Bhavan is among the 35-plus city kids at Sarobar Athletic Centre in the age group of five to 12. His parents do not mind him training to become a competition long jumper as long as it does not extend beyond two hours a day, twice a week.
“The pressure of studies will always be there. But that doesn’t mean we will neglect our children’s fitness. I have been taking my son to Sarobar Athletic Centre for two to three years to keep him in shape. The structured training here has made him stronger physically as well as mentally,” said Soma Chatterjee, mother of Romit, a Class IV student at Delhi Public School-Ruby Park.
Both Sarobar Athletic Centre and Athletic Training Centre are run with donations from members and former athletes. The government may have allowed them to operate from Rabindra Sarobar Stadium, but the cinder track doesn’t help anyone’s cause.
So even as the number of urban kids training in athletics increases, what keeps their interest alive is passion rather than the promise of big rewards.
A for athletics
At: The Debanjan Sen Foundation Inter-School Athletics Meet, in association with TTIS
When: December 9 to 14, from 1.30pm
Where: La Martiniere for Boys
Who: Around 450 students from 18 schools, including La Martiniere for Boys, The Heritage School, St. James’ School, Modern High School for Girls, Don Bosco Park Circus, Sushila Birla Girls’ High School and St. Xavier’s Collegiate School
Age groups: U-13, U-16 and U-19 boys and girls
Events: 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1600m, 4x100m relay, 4x200m relay, 110m hurdles, long jump, high jump, shot-put and discus throw
Will Bengal produce a world-class athlete soon? Why/why not? Tell firstname.lastname@example.org