In the finals of the 20 km event at Rio, Manish Rawat finished 13th, ahead of some of the best racewalkers in the world – including 4 former world champions, 3 Asian champions, 2 European champions and 2 Olympic medallists. This is the inspiring story of this unsung Olympian who made India proud at Rio.
Rio Olympics 2016 gave India new sporting icons in Dipa Karmakar, Sakshi Malik and P.V.Sindhu, but there were also several heartening stories of Indian players that went unnoticed in the race for medals. Few people know that India was represented by a part-time waiter at the racewalking event at the Rio Olympics. Fewer still know that he bested previous Olympic Medal winners in the competition and narrowly missed the bronze medal by less than a minute’s difference.
This is the inspiring story of Manish Singh Rawat who went from selling tea and working in the fields to fulfilling his dream of taking part in the Olympics.
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In 2002, when his father passed away, 10-year-old Rawat saw his mother toil in the fields to make ends meet for the family of four children, including him. Rawat would work with his mother on the farm in the morning before heading to school about seven kms away by foot. In 2006, he took up a part-time job as a waiter at a small eatery near his hometown, Sattar, in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. With two sisters and a young brother at home, Rawat had a hard time sustaining his family on his meagre income as a waiter. Knowing that excelling in athletics could help him get a government job, Rawat decided to pursue racewalking.
Racewalking is a long-distance discipline within the sport of athletics. Although it is a foot race, it is different from running in that one foot must appear to be in contact with the ground at all times (over the course of 20 km, at no point can both your feet be mid-air). This is why, apart from the inherent stamina, technique and fitness required in any long distance race, racewalking also tests mental focus.
Ungainly and painful, racewalking requires an unusual posture that people sometimes find funny. In an interview to Sportskeeda, Rawat said,
“I won’t mind admitting this, but racewalking has a rather funny posture. So people do end up laughing. But the funny posture exists for a reason because the feet have to be planted on the ground. So when I used to run in my village, people used to laugh at me.”
But Rawat refused to be put off by the lack of world class equipment and a stream of naysayers at Badrinath who would make fun of his walking practice. He pursued his Olympic dream with utmost devotion. Training on the hilly terrain in torn shoes, Rawat continued to juggle several jobs to make ends meet for his family and also support his training. From working as a house help and tourist guide to labouring on farms and driving tractors, the Uttarakhand lad did everything. All through his struggle, people continued to make fun of him, not knowing that the young man was on his way to taking part in the greatest sports show on earth.
In 2010, Rawat tried to get a job with the police through the sports quota. He was desperate to improve the financial situation of his family. This job would give him a salary of Rs 10,000 and all his training and participation at events would be sponsored. However, he was rejected. This was financially the most difficult time for him, and Rawat considered quitting the sport in order to fend for his family. It was his coach who convinced Rawat that he was making progress and that he had a future in the sport.
After struggling through more hardships, Manish finally made the cut in the 20 km event after finishing with a time of 1:20:50 at the IAAF Racewalking Challenge in April last year. His 3:57:11 effort at the World Championship in Beijing also earned him a Rio berth for the 50 km racewalking event. For the Rio Olympics, 25-year-old Rawat trained under Russian coach Alexander Artsybashev in the national camp in Ooty with other race walkers.
Having reached the finals of the 20 km event at Rio, Rawat finished 13th, ahead of some of the best racewalkers in the world – including 4 former world champions, 3 Asian champions, 2 European champions and even 2 Olympic medallists. He registered a final timing of 1:21:21, less than a minute behind the bronze medallist.
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This incredible achievement against the best in the world was missed by the mainstream media that was focusing on India’s inability to win a medal. But, the fact that someone like Manish Rawat who had to juggle several part-time jobs a day and make do with extremely inadequate training facilities, finished 13th was a victory in itself. Overlooking the hard work that went into this success and focusing on his failure to win a medal would mean ignoring Rawat’s tremendous talent, which, if correctly nurtured, can count among the world’s finest one day.
Racewalking is a highly ignored performing sport in India, with racewalkers facing more struggles than other sportsmen and women in the country. But, ever since Kerala’s KT Irfan finished 10th in the London Olympics, the country has produced four Asian champions. For the Rio Olympics, as many as nine racewalkers qualified and three had to be dropped because India didn’t have enough spots!
India’s national racewalking team coach, Alexander Artsybashev believes that the sport has great possibilities in the country if the Indian authorities take it more seriously. He also believes that Indian racewalkers can win not one but several medals; having a proper dietician and a sports science centre to help in recovery can help the team’s timing improve a lot.
Top medal-winning countries at the Olympics burn a few million dollars to produce one champion – UK recently declared that it spent 5.5 million pounds on each medal winner. On the other hand, in India, champions in the making fight unenviable battles all the time, just like Rawat who spent what he earned on the road to Rio. And yet, their raw talent and determination to defy all odds to fight their way to the top and surface on the international stage is no less than amazing. It’s time that athletes like Rawat, who will soon start training again to participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the hope of winning a medal, get the backing and respect they deserve.
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