Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION of the Indian Express
THE COACH WHO RAN THE EXTRA DISTANCE
NORRIS PRITAM : Aug 08, 2002
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.