Sunday, May 04, 2008

Old is gold!

Veteran athlete, Rajam Gopi, winner of 80 national medals, wants to get better, while she goes about her job as a sweeper in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

On an April evening, as the rain falls in torrents, accompanied by gusts of wind and flashes of lightning, M.N. Rajam Gopi, 50, stares wistfully at the puddles forming on the synthetic track at the Maharaja’s College ground at Kochi.

“I feel restless if I don’t do my daily runs,” she says. Standing next to her is training partner, T.C. Sasi, 50, a 1500m runner. Both are wearing tracksuits and sneakers.

In the gallery filled with noisy teenagers who are kicking a plastic bottle cap to each other, and chattering youths in orange and black football jerseys, none of them is aware that Rajam is a champion veteran athlete.

So far, Rajam has won 80 medals -- 40 gold, 25 silver and 15 bronze medals in various national and international meets. At the recent Guwahati National championships, she won the gold in the 5 km walk, the 5000m and the 300m hurdles.

A 100 and 200m sprinter, she can also do cross-country running and marathons -- she came first in the women’s section in the recent Metlife Marathon at Kochi.

Rajam had excelled in athletics right from her school days. “I would always come first in the sprint races,” she says. However, her teachers in the government school would cast her aside and name the wealthier girls as the winner. “It hurt me a lot,” she says.

Rajam stopped studying in Class 9 and by fifteen, she was married. In the course of the next twenty years, she had two children, Anil Kumar, 33, an auto-rickshaw driver, and Deepa, 28, who is married and has a child.

“During those years, I had a great desire to return to athletics, but I never got a chance,” she says. Her husband, Gopi, who is a porter at the state transport bus stand, had no idea about sports. “But one day I insisted that he should accompany me so that I could take part in my first veterans’ meet in Kottayam,” she says.

This was 15 years ago and she performed well: she won gold medals in the 100m, 200m, and the walking event in the 35-39 age group.

Thereafter, there has been no stopping her. Apart from national championships medals, she has won gold at the Asian Championships in Bangalore in 2000 and 2006.“Rajam, who is extremely hard-working and dedicated, can easily shine at the international level,” says her Thrissur-based coach, A. Ramachandran.

But Rajam’s biggest problem is the lack of funds. “I was selected to take part in eight Asian Games, but I had no money or sponsors” she says.

But in September, 2007, luck initially smiled on her when she managed to collect Rs 1.5 lakh as sponsorship money to take part in the World Masters Athletics Championships at Riccione, Italy.

Some of her sponsors included management mentor Madhav Menon and the then city Collector Mohammed Hanish, who chipped in with Rs 20,000.

However, a rebel national association submitted a letter to the Italian embassy stating that there was a case going on in the Karnataka High Court against the national association, and hence, the visas should not be issued.

“So, we did not get the visas,” says Dr Sabu P. Samuel, the secretary of the Kerala State Veterans Athletic Association. Says Rajam: “It was a big disappointment.”

But she is undeterred. Every morning, she trains for half an hour at the college ground, then from 8.30 a.m. to 1 p.m., she works as a sweeper in two travel agencies, and by 3 p.m., she starts work in a lab. She works till 5 p.m., comes to Maharaja’s College ground and trains for two hours.

So why is she working so hard? “When you run, all the problems in the world vanish and you feel so happy,” she says.

What also makes her happy is the camaraderie. “When I go for national meets with the other team members, we feel so joyful,” she says. More than 100 veteran athletes from Kerala traveled together to take part in the national championships. “We had to change three trains to reach Guwahati, but it was fun,” she says.

Meanwhile, her immediate focus is a cross-country race in Mysore in May. But she has to pay from her own pocket for travel and other expenses. “Unfortunately, the Veterans’ Association does not have any money,” says Samuel. Rajam has applied for funds from the state government, but has not received a response.

But when an activity becomes a passion, you do it, irrespective of all the obstacles.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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