KRISHNAGIRI: Outside a school in the scenic village of Mekalachinnampalli in Krishnagiri, half-an-hour's deviation from the highway that connects Bengaluru to Chennai, a watchman stood and shook his head in confusion. He had just been asked about someone, who in another world would have been the school's most famous alumnus. But on a sleepy Saturday afternoon outside the Kamaraj Govt Higher Secondary School, no one remembered Krishnan Ganapathy.
“I know what the Olympics is!” says a voice from amongst the small crowd of boys who have gathered to see what the fuss is about. Ramamurthy, the watchman, is still unimpressed. “Is it a national or international-level competition?”
In the nearby village of Kone Goundanur, a lot of people know Ganapathy, but for a different reason. “He is the first person from the village to go outside India,” Arun Kumar, one of Ganapathy's friends, says, the sense of admiration in his voice none too subtle. “Somebody has made it as far north as Goa, but Ganapathy is the first outside India.”
But bring up the upcoming Rio Olympics or the fact that Ganapathy will represent the country in the 20km race walk event and not too many will be impressed. “A lot of people in the village have tried to discourage him,” says Arun.
“They ask him 'why do you waste time with sports at an age when you should be earning money?'.”
Ganapathy's family is not poor, at least by the standards in Kone Goundanur. Cattle graze freely outside the family home while green-clad fields around are large enough to be partitioned for different crops. But it is when the outside world, that he has only seen on his grainy television, makes an unwelcome intrusion, that Krishnan — Ganapathy is the second of his three sons — feels a sudden sense of poverty. “Our entire family lives comfortably on a budget of `5000
a month,” says Krishnan. “So when he suddenly says he needs `2 lakh to prepare for the Olympics, I don't know how to give him that.”
Krishnan could not be more supportive of his son's sporting aspirations, but his voice is laced with sadness when he speaks economics. “Money is one thing Ganapathy has never brought home,” he says.
“He sometimes calls and asks for money for training and equipment. We sent him 25 or 30 thousand. His elder brother Thirupathy, who is also in the army, supports him a lot too. But for the Olympics, he needed a lot more money for equipment and food. So we had to take out a loan of around `3 lakh.”
The sadness though morphs into pride when Krishnan and his wife Madhu hold up the handful of medals that their son has brought home from around the world. Pride coated with a bit of frustration. “He has never received any financial assistance from the state government, despite winning all this,” says Krishnan. “The army helps him however they can. But for the large part, my son has been left to fend for himself.”
The first thing one notices when approaching Ganapathy's house is a small, mud-walled ramshackled structure in front of it. That was the house that his parents built, Krishnan says, the home where he grew up. Behind that is a little larger, yet inadequate dwelling — the one that Krishnan built, back when he used to earn `3 a month. Casting a shadow on both his grandfather's and father's efforts is the house that Ganapathy's brother built three years ago with his jawan's income, where the family currently lives. Krishnan knows Ganapathy is probably not going to build anything larger behind it. And while he does not fully understand it yet, he is aware, on some vague level, of the necessity of Ganapathy's sacrifice.
In a world where many aspiring athletes start training before they can walk, Ganapathy stands out as a nostalgic exception, a reminder of those days when athletes were born, not manufactured. “I used to play volleyball for my school,” the 27-year-old says. “But I had never taken part in an athletics event before I joined the army.”
Yet, less than six years after he started training as a racewalker at the ripe old age of 21, Ganapathy is going to the Olympics. And to understand why, one needs to go back to the rarely disturbed roads and honey-laden forests of Kone Goundanur.
For the first five years of his academic life, Ganapathy studied in a small school at his native village constructed by the British (so they say). Ganapathy and his brother Thirupathy were one of the first to harbour ambitions beyond those three rooms and that meant travelling to nearby Mekalachinnampalli. His new school was 9km away from home, but there were no bus service connecting the two villages at the time. “I had to stay in a hostel because of this,” says Ganapathy. “Every weekend, I would come home. The road through which I had to travel
was near the forest, hence not the safest. So instead of walking, I cycled, 9km up and down.” His parents still have that rusty cycle in their backyard — a souvenir from simpler times.
When he was back home, Ganapathy's pastimes resembled a training montage out of the Rocky films. “He has climbed all these,” Krishnan says, his arms outstretched, pointing at the hills casting a shadow on him. “He used to go into the forest all the time and collect wild honey. I still remember how he used to love climbing trees.”
Just growing up in Kone Goundanur, nestled 2000 ft above sea level, was high-altitude training enough. All the cycling, hill-climbing and honey-collecting gave him the kind of fitness that few training regimens could duplicate.
Till recently, Ganapathy's brother Thirupathy was the most famous man in Kone Goundanur. After all, he was the first person from the village ever to join the army. But all that changed when a local news channel turned up to cover the recently-held Open Nationals in Chennai. “We used to find it funny when Ganapathy used to come home and practice race walking,” says Arun. “We never knew that this was a sport. We only believed him when he showed us videos of it. But to the rest of the villagers, it still looks ridiculous.”
Then a local news channel ran a report featuring Ganapathy on their airwaves. “A clip of that report is now on pretty much every mobile in Kone Goundanur,” says Arun.
Back in front of that school in Mekalachinnampalli, Ganapathy finally has some much-needed recognition. A student from the same village has heard of his exploits. Ramamurthy, the watchman, demands to see a picture and when he does, his lips slowly contort into a smile. “I remember this kid. He grew up here only.” Meanwhile, the principal of the school, called up on phone by a worried onlooker, has decided that Ganapathy will be the topic of discussion at the morning assembly the next day. “This is why you should study,” Ramamurthy preaches to the crowd around him. “Studies cause all this. Try to be like him.” Krishnagiri's invisible Olympian just became a shade more visible.
Event: 20km Racewalking
Born: Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu
2016 National Championships - Silver
2016 Asian Championships - 5th
2016 World Cup - 22nd