Ilyas Babar

Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION of the Indian Express




NORRIS PRITAM : Aug 08, 2002


(Zola’s note)

DID YOU KNOW that  in the Golden Age of Indian Athletics,

Sriram Singh’s time for the 800 m in the 1976 Montreal Olympics  would have won him a Gold medal in the preceding Olympics in Munich and a Silver medal in the subsequent Olympics in Moscow ?


DID YOU KNOW that before the Olympics he had NEVER run on a  synthetic track…….EVER ?


DID YOU KNOW that  Shivnath Singh ran barefoot in the 1976 Montreal Olympics and finished Eleventh ? His subsequent National Record timing would have got him a Medal in the finals of every Olympics from 1972 to 1980.


These two gentlemen and other such champions were coached by Ilyas Babar



July 16, 1976, was a hot, humid evening. A local athlete and I were sitting with coach Ilyas Babar at a shanty tea-stall in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin basti. Babar sahib, as we used to call him out of respect, was a regular at the shop.


Most of us had spent our evenings there with him, sipping hot tea and savouring some of the best kebabs in town. That day was no different.


But suddenly, Babar sahib turned pensive. We knew he was missing his favourite trainee, Sriram Singh, who had left a few days ago to participate in the 800 metres in the Montreal Olympics.

‘‘What do you think Sriram will do in Montreal,’’ Babar sahib asked us. We mumbled a bit and, not wanting to hurt his feelings, said he would run under one minute and 47 seconds for the national record.


‘‘Are you mad?’’ retorted Babar sahib. ‘‘He will run one minute and 45 seconds and win the gold.’’ It sounded like a joke but we still suggested that he go to Montreal to be with Sriram. He brushed aside our suggestion and we wrapped up the evening with some more kebabs and tea.


The next evening, we met Babar sahib at National Stadium and we requested him again to join Sriram,


Again, he rejected the idea. But on July 18, five days before Sriram was to run his first heat, Babar sahib expressed his desire to go to Montreal—with no passport and money in hand. As our luck would have it, Jagat Mehta was then the Foreign Secretary. And we knew his son Ajay, a 400 metres runner.


We met Mehta early in the morning and ensured that Babar sahib got his passport before the office shut for lunch. He left for Montreal that night. His luggage contained one change and 100 leaves of paan.


July 24 was the D-day when Sriram stood at the start of the 800 metres final with Babar sahib in the stands. He led from the front and clocked an astonishing one minute 45.77 seconds for the seventh spot.


While the whole of India rejoiced at Sriram’s Asian record-setting race, Babar sahib was crestfallen. He was back home in two days. ‘‘Sriram should have won the medal,’’ was all he said. His prediction was based on his own conviction and confidence in Sriram. What could be a bigger tribute to him than the words of Alberto Juantorena, the Cuban gold medallist of the 800 metres? ‘‘I broke the world record because of Singh,’’ was his first comment after the race.


A month before the Montreal Games, Sriram was training in Delhi. The monsoon had set in and there was no dry spot to run on. Babar sahib used the lawns on both sides of Rajpath for endurance running and the grassy stretch of hockey field outside National Stadium for sprints.


In one session Sriram often ran 100 repetitions of 100 metres. Some of his contemporary run-of-the-mill coaches called Babar sahib ‘‘mad’’ and Sriram a victim of ‘‘wrong training’’. But again, a foreign hand put it in right perspective. The great New Zealand long distance coach, Arthur Lydiard, had been following Sriram’s career and justified Babar sahib’s methods. He said in fact, Sriram had the fastest basic speed among the top 800 metres runners in the world then. What he lacked was endurance, and suggested more mileage for him.


In some ways, Babar sahib was like another great distance running coach, Australia’s Percy Cerruti—misunderstood and underestimated. He obtained his diploma from the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in 1961 along with other stalwarts of Indian athletics like Ken Bosen, C M Muthiah, J S Saini and Jagmohan Singh.


A commerce graduate from Osmania University, Babar sahib did a coaching stint in Secunderabad before shifting to Delhi. He joined the Rajputana Rifles Centre where he picked up Sriram. Under his tutelage, several national and Asian champions emerged even before Sriram stepped on the track—B S Barua, Charles Borromeo, Bajrang Ram, Harlal Singh, Dasrath Singh, Ram Narayan Singh…


To beat the Delhi heat in summers, Babar sahib would take his trainees to the sand dunes at Okhla on the bed of the Yamuna river. He would reach there before dawn, sometimes by 3 a.m. After the training sessions, it was time for breakfast for which he almost always paid for every one. At the age of 60, he pedalled along with athletes training for marathon.

(Contrast this with the Indian officials in Rio who weren’t even present at the drinks stall to help our athletes)


Babur sahib never went along with the Amateur Athletics Federation of India. At the time of the Asian Games in Bangkok in 1970, Sriram had just emerged as a potential top runner, but wasn’t chosen among the probables for the Asian Games. All pleas to include him in the team were futile because AAFI wanted Sriram to leave Babar sahib and train under NIS coaches. Ultimately, the federation sent in his entry for the 4×400 metres relay. He reached Bangkok much later than the rest of the team members.


But in view of his form, he was made to run in the 800 metres where he won a silver medal. Babar sahib proved his point but paid the price—he wasn’t included in the panel of national coaches.


Babar sahib was out of a job after his contract with the Raj Rif ran out three years ago. But the SAI never thought it fit to appoint him. He made several rounds from Hyderabad to Delhi. Just ten days before his death, he was in Delhi again.


Perhaps, it was a premonition—he visited Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium and met athletes and coaches. He was cheerful despite his poor health and the financial burden.


He left Delhi with the promise of coming back, but never did.




Yuri Borzhakovskiy 1

Vyacheslav Yevstratov took one look at his ward’s eyes and went wild with rage. He felt a hot stab in his abdomen – similar to the anxiety of a  new mother multiplied hundredfold on seeing her  baby in distress


“Get back  and start your warm up !!” he yelled.


One look at ‘Yura’s’ eyes and Vyacheslav knew that his athlete was severely short of sleep – the fatigue toxins would kick in sooner than later and he could kiss goodbye to his medal prospects. The lad had  drifted all around Sydney before realizing it was perilously close to reporting time. He had pretty much shot himself in the foot – the Olympics take place only once in four years and even with a formidable line up in the 800 m final such as Andre Bucher the European champion, Glody Dube and Nils Schuman, Yuriy Borzakovskiy (nickname Yura) was the European 800 m Indoor champion and had the potential to  cause  an upset.


Oh and there was also another chappie in the final line up, the  world record holder, Wilson Kipketer of Denmark who had emigrated from Kenya to Denmark when in college but had never won an Olympic medal having missed the prior Olympics in Atlanta, 1996 as he was not a full Danish citizen and hence debarred by the International Olympic Committee.


After his anger subsided,  Vyacheslav the coach, sighed and resigned himself to planning for the next Olympics in Athens. Yura went through the more than hour long pre-race routine designed by Yevstratov for his middle distance athletes which began with a super slow 3 km jog, a dynamic stretch routine ending with iron crosses on the grass floor, progressive ladder repeats from 100 m to 300 m to ensure the muscles wouldn’t lock fast when making the excruciating transition from static to kinetic energy.


The warm up routine ended with repeating incantations drawn from various faiths across the world while at the starting block so that the athlete would go into a pseudo meditative state just before the starting gun went off.

Glody Dube from Botswana was in lane 1 he had done well for his fledgling country to come this far and exhaled a blast of air to control his nervousness.  In lane 3 was Wilson Kipketer slowly rotating and stretching the muscles around the neck and shoulder blades, eyes fiercely closed in total concentration, wanting to shut out the world till the call to the starting blocks.


In lane 4 was Andre Bucher, the World  800 m champion at the Edmonton games. In lane 2 was Nils Schuman, the German,  who had made the finals of the World Championship prior to  this Olympics and  a major threat but who had never won a big one.


In lane 8 (the outer most lane) was Yuriy Borzakovskiy (Yura)


Would Schuman push Kipketer to an Olympic record ?


Would  Bucher take it out ?

Would Wilson Kipketer , the world record holder, finally… FINALLY win the 800 m Olympic Gold medal ?

The gun went off and after the initial 100 m dash within their respective lanes the athletes jockeyed for positions. At the 200 metre mark  it became clear that no one wanted to dictate the pace – it wasnt going to be a fast race but a tactical one.

Trailing a good 15 m behind the others was Yuriy Borzakovskiy. He always ran a level split race which meant that the time for the 2nd half would be the same as the first half unlike the others who would run a negative split, meaning a faster first half and a more torturous but slower second half trusting the adrenaline to kick in after their hamstrings had kicked out.

“Nobody wants to dictate the pace !  Dear Oh Dear! Are they playing into the hands of the young Russian  !” waxed the commentator.


On hearing this Vyacheslav, inspite of his disappointment, allowed himself a sardonic smile. “Playing into the  hands of the young Russian, my foot” he sniggered to himself.


Yura liked to run well away from the pack not due to tactical reasons but  due to a hangover from his younger days – he wanted to avoid getting jabbed in the ribs or tripped  by violent competitors.


The genesis of this lay in his first inter school 600m contest where he was kicked and fell hard on the track with blood spurting from his nose. He responded  in the next edition of the meet by creating a record for the event at 1m 53 s in the Under  11 year old category.

Junior athletics was a brutal introduction to life with much jabbing,  shoving and kicking  – no quarter given and no mercy.

Borzakovskiy decided that this was how he was going to handle the grim stuff. He was a good enough 400 m runner,  good enough to represent the country in the 4 X 400 Relay and relied on his tremendous kick towards the end to make up for sandbagging the first half.

Vyacheslav’s thoughts darted  violently back to the race – all the runners descended into the home stretch bunched up together, including Borzakovskiy who had made splendid ground from the 550 m mark.
Ultimately in the last 50 metres, it was Nils Schuman who pipped the world record holder, Wilson Kipketer, to the post and took the gold.


Kipketer looked at the replay on the stadium’s large LCD screen , the humongous agony writ large on his face, unable to accept what had just taken place. For him, it was a missed chance to win the Olympic Holy Grail and he wasn’t getting any younger.
It was a slow race – all the athletes ran slower times in the final than they did in the heats and semi finals.
Kipketer wasn’t the only one who was hurting.

The result left a deep scar on  Yura too and he swore that starting from this day, he would focus all his energies to winning the gold at the next Olympics even if it meant missing out on  the Athletic World Championship held at Edmonton.


And on the NEXT occasion he would make it to the starting gate ON TIME for the warm up.

Early Life
Like the other boys of his age, Yuriy Borzakovskiy,(his first name was derived from the  cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin ( his last name means ‘greyhound’ in Russian)  wanted to become a professional footballer but his talent was soon commandeered by the neighbourhood athletic club, a relationship which he maintains to this day. While in the Olympic team in a spontaneous gesture he once donated his spikes to a junior runner,  a gesture which meant a lot to the greenhorn athlete.

He was good enough to make it to the 4X 400 Relay team but what set him apart was his capacity to run infinite miles, a legacy of the time spent in his native village of Zhukovskiy.

The unlikely combination of distance tolerance and the capacity to withstand the medieval torture called the 400m made him a natural for the 800m.

Going against the Russian stereotype he was not high spirited – more mellow and serious  to the point of being religious – he didn’t touch a drop of alcohol after his coach forbade it.


His idol was Steve Ovett but he was more Sebastian Coe, in that once having bought in completely to his coach’ s training philosophy he remained steadfast in his adherence to it.

While in the  Lviv  State Academy of Physical Culture in the Ukraine he had a poster of  Wilson Kipketer  the then World record holder on the wall by his hostel bed, the man wth whom he was now competing for the 800 m Olympic title.

He’d never started out with the idea of becoming a professional athlete. A welder by profession he soon figured he had other things going for him.


After the Sydney Olympic  misadventure, he won the World  indoor 800 m World Championship title.


Thereafter in the year 2001, he dipped below the 1:43 mark for the 800 m recording a blistering time of 1:42.47 thereby becoming the tenth fastest man over that distance.



The Dave Wottle strategy


Dave Wottle of the U.S.A got married in 1972 and promptly broke his knees.

He scraped through the Olympic trials and barely made it to the U.S Olympic team.

He had two formulas for personal success.


One, wearing his golf cap – to keep his long, untidy hair in place.

Two, hanging back behind the pack and then relying on his tremendous kick in the home stretch to catch up with the leaders.

He used this in the 1972 Munich Olympics, to come from behind and take the Gold and caused an upset, beating  his compatriot and the favourite, Yevgeny Argenev of Russia.

If Argeneve had won, he would have made history, becoming the first athlete from a non-English speaking country to win the  800 m men’s Olympic title.


Steve Ovett, a Borzhokovskiy idol, was highly skeptical of this strategy and made his views public.

“In a ‘1:45’ race, the tactic of hanging back may work. But in a fast race, like a ‘sub 1:44” it can be disastrous and suicidal”, he said.


Yuri Borzhakovskiy was an exponent of the Dave Wottle strategy, a dangerous one.


(Munich, 1972 – Dave Wottle edges out Yevgeny Argenev of Russia to win the Gold)



Athens, 2004


The 2004 Athens Olympics was a do or die for Wilson Kipketer – He was past thirty years of age and fading.

From the earlier edition in the year 2000, apart from Kipketer and Borzakovskiy, only  Djabir Said-Geurni  of Algeria remained,


This time Kipketer  was in Lane 6 and Yura  in Lane 4, a  strong  indication of how far  the latter had  come in the intervening period between Sydney, 2000 and Athens, 2004.


The first 100 m after the gun, Said-Guerni  led the pack, running  on the inside lane and Borzakovskiy ran behind the pack as usual.


As is his wont, Yura, noticing that the pace was slower than normal,  made his move……. this time  just before the finish of the first lap.

He went past Wilfred Bungei of Kenya at the 500 m mark and overtookg Said-Guerni at the 600 m mark.


At that point he was on the outer side of the leading pack of runners  with Kipketer firmly in second place behind Mulaudzi of South Africa.

Borzhakovskiy made tremendous ground from the 500 m mark and was strategically placed on the outside lane but not too far out…..just on the periphery to go past the leaders.


At the home stretch, Kipketer was in front, oblivious of Borzhokovskiy’s accelerated  snap and jerk   behind him, his neck baying back and forth like a race horse,  relentlessly closing out the lead between himself, Mulaudzi and Kipketer.


Kipketer had the finish line  in sight and leaned  forward  in anxious anticipation to  grab the Gold.


But Borzakovskliy like Dave Wottle before him in the Munich Olympics,, made up large ground, overtook Mulaudzi of South Africa,  and in one final blast,  neutralized   Kipketer’s finish and  breasted the tape to win  Russia’s first and only  Gold medal  in the men’s 800 m event at the Olympics.

It is ironic that  while Russia’s possible first 800 m (men’s)  Olympic Gold was thwarted by an American, (Dave Wottle, in the 1972 Munich Olympics), a Russian (Borzakovskiy) used the same strategy – a gutsy and  nail biting strategy,  to win Russia’s first 800 m (men’s) Olympic Gold.



Poor Wilson Kipketer……he had the finish line in sight in the home stretch but Borzhokovskiy  caught up with him…………………………and time.


The same year, Yuriy Borzakovskiy  was named Russia’s sportsman of the year.


His last name means ‘Greyhound’ in Russian………………………he sure ran like one.


(Athens 2004 – Yuriy Borzakovskiy  edges out  Kipketer to win the Gold)

Yuri Borzhakovskiy 2


Next Week : The Coach who Ran The Extra Distance





A tribute by my friend and classmate C.S.Hariharan (Junior)

Vietnam Veedu


In 1949 the famed American playwright Arthur Miller created a sensation with his Play ‘Death of a Salesman’.
The play was about the quintessential American dream of making it big and ‘Willi Loman’ the central character had dreamt all his life, that age had caught up with him and his ideas. His children want to pursue their dreams, his office was no longer interested in him and his envy of his neighbour and their family’s success only incensed him even more. The only spark to his existence was his wife, but like all good things in hand he ignores her trying to focus on making it big one day like his brother. He hallucinates and even has a son in his imagination, who is everything he dreamt of being, a highly successful lawyer and well respected one to boot.
His world slowly crumbles as he alternates frequently between his imaginary world and reality that at a point of time he is unable to separate reality from dreams. Ultimately he understands that the only way he can contribute to his family’s success is by allowing them encash his insurance policy.
This story was probably the most powerful statement made in the US especially when the country was trying to rebuild itself after the World War II. The central theme of chasing ones dreams at the cost of the present is so universal that applies to every one of us even today.
The intelligence of any good script writer when he is adapting such a screenplay to a different audience and tastes is difficult beyond words and to adapt such a screenplay to Tamil is even tougher, a language unique and ancient than any other and a culture of joint family system so common till the last decade or so looked down upon families who lived alone or nuclear as the phrase goes .
‘Vietnam Veedu’ was the perfect adaptation and regionalisation of an internationally acclaimed play that many failed to see the similarities between the two. It is to the credit of its script writer Sundaram of UAA playgroup later known as Vietnam Veedu Sundaram that the play was written with the central character as a Palghat Iyer, (clearly highlighting his weakness in his name as) Prestige Padmanabhan, loud brash opinionated but fiercely loyal to the company he works for. The term Vietnam is more a metaphor about the blazing issues at the home front.
While the entrapments of dreams that interlace the Arthur Miller play are deleted, the ambition for self and children, and a similar vein of rebelliousness by his children are clearly brought out too. The Tamil film directed by Sivaji regular P.Mahadevan is no ordinary tear jerker it hits bulls eye on all aspects the lead actor Sivaji as Prestige Padmanabhan is amazingly accurate that all future Palghat Iyer/ mallu speaking tambrahm portrayals of any actor was benchmarked with his character. It took nearly 30 years for Kamal Hassan to highlight a more comedic touch to the Palghat accent in Michael Madana Kama Rajan as Kameshwaran the Palghat cook.
Similarly actress Padmini as Savitri mami is equally on par with Prestige Padmanabhan that it’s a vigorous joust of fencing, with amazing deft touches between the two seasoned actors.
The biggest success of the film was the discovery of Vietnam Veedu Sundaram as the story and screenplay writer, so successful was he, would go on to pen more than Eight other films for Sivaji besides directing Gowaravam. Vietnam Veedu Sundaram continued his success in writing many other successful films and later in a career change switched to acting in various TV soaps, often seen in character roles till date. His sudden death on August 6th 2016 is yet another loss to the Tamil film industry of professionals from the golden era of the 60’s.