A fortnight away from BNP Endurathon, a race that tests speed and pluck

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A fortnight away from BNP Endurathon, a race that tests speed and pluck, we are a city producing recreational runners but no athletes. Veterans on fast feet wonder why Mumbai stopped running to win

“This is all I have. Make sure you don’t lose anything,’’ Savio D’Souza says, handing over a small file. It contains old issues of Mid-Day, Sportsweek and The Daily, and a plastic sleeve of photographs stained with age. Once, it was plump with memories of the former marathon champion’s years of running.

Now, 61, D’Souza is a busy coach, training sprinters in a city that has become India’s running capital, ably assisted by the sponsorship spinning 12-year-old Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM).

Savio D’Souza (left) and Shivnath Singh during a race (By arrangement)

At the January event this year, Asian Games medallist O.P. Jaisha clocked 2 hours, 37 minutes and 29 seconds to break the women’s national record. Encouraging, except she wasn’t from Mumbai, says D’Souza with characteristic bluntness. “We have a large body of recreational runners. But where are the athletes? There was a time when Mumbai and Maharashtra produced great track and field athletes. Now, Kerala, Manipur are way ahead.”

Edward ‘Eddie’ Sequeira (front) at a race in Germany. He was a founding member of Tracktrotters club that coached running talent for free (By arrangement)

The paper clippings in D’Souza’s file date back to a time when things were different. A report dated November 24, 1986, discusses D’Souza’s performance at the Pune International Marathon, when he beat Stephen Marwa of Tanzania to second place.

Although, neither Tracktrotters or Juhu Sports Club was affiliated with the University Ground at Marine Lines, the authorities supported athletics. It was the centrepiece of old Mumbai’s athletics infrastructure. Pics courtesy/Shyam G Menon

Before that, Marwa had won two years straight. In 1984, D’Souza finished first in India and third internationally. The next year, at the Singapore International Marathon, he finished 18th, reducing his timing by a wide margin. Later, at the Hong Kong International Marathon, he was placed 13th.

The young man from Colvale in Goa graduated through 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m disciplines before he ran his first marathon. His best timing for the full marathon stands at 2:25. If he had clocked this timing at SCMM 2015, he would’ve stood sixth.

To support distance runners like him, the city spewed a range of opportunities. A November 1983 edition of Sportsweek speaks of the Runathon, a 12-km sprint through Central Mumbai, which D’Souza incidentally won. And then there were the annual Sportsweek Road Races — a series of five competitions that would throw up an overall winner. Some of Mumbai’s private and public sector companies also maintained athletics teams.

Textile giant Mafatlal, the company D’Souza worked for, had a team each for football, cricket and athletics. It wasn’t uncommon either for esteemed Mumbaikars to support athletes. Former athlete Shashi Kumar Nair remembers S.K. Wankhede, former president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India; O.V. Kuruvilla, former chairman of the Central Board of Direct Taxes and R.R. Chari, former Income Tax commissioner visiting Bombay University Sports Pavilion, popularly called University Ground, to cheer on participants.

Two fantastic sports clubs — Track trotters and Juhu Sports Club — committed coaches, an accessible track to train on and roads that would shut down for runners made Mumbai perfect ground for athletes. For Edward Sequeira, who the running community calls Eddie, the Pavilion was the centrepiece of old Mumbai’s athletics infrastructure.

A track and field facility, it welcomed Mumbai athletes from state level to Olympians. Its 400m-oval track, two curves and two straights, made it a standard. But the convergence of enthusiasts was thanks to the clubs. The middle distance runner worked as a mechanical apprentice in Central Railways, which is where he honed his running before taking it up professionally in 1959.

Sequeira, an Arjuna awardee finished eighth in the 5,000m at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and held an Asian record from 1966 in the 1,500 m, which remained unbeaten for close to 35 years. One of the founding members of Tracktrotters, he traced back its origin to the late 1950s when a group of senior athletes trained together at St Xavier’s Gymkhana, Parel.

In 1962, they became the Tracktrotters, a club that charged nothing to coach. Parents came with eager kids who wished to train, and youngsters walked in uninhibited. “Sometimes, we’d test the candidate. That was all [the scrutiny],’’ the 75-year-old Santacruz resident says. After 1969, Tracktrotters shifted its training base to University Ground.

Although neither of the two clubs or their members were affiliated to the University, the authorities supported their passion. Boxes maintained at the ground by the clubs held gear and equipment. Coaches Mervyn Jacobie, Alex Silveira, Philip Silveira, Vasant Kumar, Prithviraj Kapoor and Peter Rodrigues, all mentored free of cost. Often, a friendly competition ensued between the two. Sequeira called it the athletics ecosystem.

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