He is one of India’s most promising middle-distance runners but he may now have to give up athletics to support his family of six. She is an Asian youth gold-winning long-jumper but wants to take a break to help her father, an autorickshaw driver. He is an Asian youth bronze medallist but fears that he will end up selling bananas on a cart in the market.
The COVID shutdown in sports, with no training for months, is beginning to wear down the country’s young athletes, many of whom are from underprivileged families without organisational support.
“Attendance has dropped drastically. We have many talented students who can’t make it to the ground because they don’t have a vehicle or can’t afford bus fare. Many might quit,” warns coach Purshotam who trains some of Delhi’s top junior athletes for free.
Purshotam’s trainees include Meraj Ali, 19, who represented India at the Asian Youth Meet in 2017. Living in a one-room rented home in East Delhi’s Trilokpuri, Ali says his family of six, including two teenage sisters and an elder brother, has been struggling to cope with the economic distress.
With his brother having been laid-off by an app-based cab operator last month and the earnings of his deaf-mute father, a daily wage labourer, not enough to run the kitchen, the 1500m specialist says his racing days might be over.
“My father had to get a kidney removed last December. He needs rest but has to work to feed us. If things don’t improve, I will have to join him and that would be the end of my athletics dream… We have stopped having tea at home, even milk is a luxury we can’t afford,” he says.
In Chennai, long-jumper Thabitha Philip Maheswaran, a double gold-medallist at the 2019 Asian Youth Athletics Championships in Bangkok, is contemplating a “break” to support her family. “We barely scraped by during the lockdown. An NGO supports me but they have cut the allowance drastically due to shortage of funds. My father drives an auto rickshaw and is the sole breadwinner of the family. But he was home during the lockdown and it was difficult to even get three meals a day,” Thabitha says.
Lokesh Kumar, the 2019 U-14 Delhi middle-distance champion, who has to change three buses to reach the training ground, is now worried about putting food on the table. “My father is a rickshaw-puller and my mother works as a domestic help. They don’t get regular work these days. During the lockdown, we didn’t have food so we used to drink warm water and go to bed,” he says.
Bronze medallist at the 2019 Asian Youth Athletics Championships, Ali Ansari, has been forced to take over his father’s fruit cart in Mahipalpur on the edge of Delhi. “My father had no work during the lockdown and business is at an all-time low. I am the eldest son and I have to support my family. I have a feeling that I’ll now end up becoming a kela wala (banana seller),” says the 19-year-old.
Then there’s Harendra Kumar, the 1500m national youth champion last year, who may have to start working in the farms back home in UP. “I don’t know for how long I can live in Delhi,” he says.
Harendra lives with his coach Vipin Kumar, who has been training athletes from an economically weaker background. “My mother called me yesterday and said her knees are hurting from working in the fields. I feel so helpless and sad. I cannot continue like this, without training. One more call from my mother and I will quit,” he says.
Athletes by day, daily wagers by eve
Trilok Kumar,19, has been moon-lighting as an auto-driver to keep fund his athletics dreams. The Delhi state medalist leaves for training at 4:30 am, wearing his kit under the uniform. During the lockdown, with no source of income, he has survived on the free ration distributed by the state government.
“I have to pay rent for the auto whether I ride it or not. I carry my kit along in the auto and whenever I drop someone near a park, I just go in and practice. I don’t want this to be my fate. I don’t want to end up becoming an auto driver for good. I want to train harder and achieve something in sports. It is getting difficult for me to sustain my athletic career,” Trilok says.
Among the hardest hit is Meraj Ali’s training partner, Rahul, the 2018 Delhi 10,000m silver medallist. The 22-year-old lost his father when he was four and has been working night shifts at the Delhi Milk Scheme facility as a crate loader for the last nine years. His work starts at around 11 pm and goes on till 4 am when he completes his quota of filling 1,100 crates with milk packets from a freezing cold storage room.
“I didn’t take up a day job because I have college and training. My body hurts in the morning after all this work but I have to push myself to get up and train after just two hours of sleep. If I don’t work, I can’t pay rent or even manage my bus fare to the training ground. Since the virus outbreak, my duty days have been almost halved and so has my salary. If I can’t reach the ground, how will I continue training?” he asks.