The video of Srinivasa Gowda who reportedly ran 100m in 9.55 seconds beating Usain Bolt’s timing of 9.58 seconds became a sensation on social media platforms.
Gowda overall completed 142.5 meters in 13.62 seconds barefoot in a traditional buffalo race (Kambala) held in the paddy fields of Kadri in Karnataka. Of course, Gowda was also accompanied by buffaloes, and to what extent his timing was helped by the animals and how much was he hindered by the muddy water is a question for physics experts to ponder. His viral video was shared by the likes of Shashi Tharoor and Anand Mahindra among others, who already expect an Olympic Gold from him. Sports minister Kiren Rijiju then tweeted that a trial by SAI coaches will be held for the kambala jockey.
The last time Indian celebrities showed so much enthusiasm for athletics was when Hima Das won five Golds in a month in Europe in 2019. That neither her timings nor her competitors could be called world-class did not dampen the fervor of the twitterati.
In Gowda’s case too sports journalists have expressed their skepticism, citing the case of Rameshwar Gurjar from MP who supposedly ran 100m in 11 seconds on a dirt road, but could not repeat the performance at a SAI trial. Then there is the unfortunate story of child marathoner Budhia Singh, who has had to endure many ups and downs in his young life.
So the question remains, why do feats such as Gowda’s generate so much hype while international performances such as those of Annu Rani for instance do not receive much attention? The reason could be that India lacks a sporting culture beyond cricket, which also includes lack of awareness among fans about the intricacies of Olympic sports in general.
For example, would a cricketer’s world record in a rural tennis ball tournament make him this famous overnight? Most Indian fans would take the news with a pinch of salt and not set unrealistic expectations from him. The sports minister also mentioned a ‘lack of knowledge among masses’ in his tweet.
I’ll call Karnataka’s Srinivasa Gowda for trials by top SAI Coaches. There’s lack of knowledge in masses about the standards of Olympics especially in athletics where ultimate human strength & endurance are surpassed. I’ll ensure that no talents in India is left out untested. https://t.co/ohCLQ1YNK0— Kiren Rijiju (@KirenRijiju) February 15, 2020
Gowda’s (and Hima’s) case shows how ardently Indians look forward to having a global superstar of their own. For a country of our size, we do lack a truly international sporting icon. But countries who do well in Olympic sports have decades of experience in sports science and nutrition backing them, besides a sporting culture, funding and genetics (and also doping, but that is a different story). For India, the journey has only begun.
The news has also spurred discussion on the hidden talent in India’s rural areas. It is likely more names will emerge in the future through social media and some could well go on to achieve international fame. The Govt’s Khelo India movement is a good initiative in this regard. The sports ministry’s prompt acknowledgement of Gowda, Rameshwar and the cartwheeling children are also steps in the right direction. However, celebs need to tone down their hyperbole and learn to distinguish between a standardized international competition and an unofficial rural event. So much hype can be damaging for the athletes themselves, as in the Budhia Singh example.
Public attention in non-cricket sports is essentially ephemeral. Whether those who are showering praises today support athletes in their downs remains to be seen. This cycle is even more rapid in the digital age. New viral sensations are made every day and the older ones quickly forgotten. It could be damaging to the morale of a young athlete.
This article is by no means a disparagement of Gowda’s achievements. He beat a 30-year old record at the race and this itself shows his ability and potential. He is scheduled to take part in a SAI trial on Monday. As fans we hope he does well there and undergoes training for international level events. We do hope to hear his name again in the future (and not just as an engineering entrance exam question!). And even if he cannot make it internationally, fans and celebs should still continue encouraging him and other kambala jockeys. That would be the mark of a true sporting nation.