CHENNAI: It was an unusual Saturday morning for K Elamparithi. His friends and family were calling to wish him on the success of his ward — T Mariyappan. Call-waiting was in over-drive. After an hour, he called back, but the mention of ‘reporter’ sent him into a shell. He was reluctant to speak. “No sir. I don’t want to speak about him now,” he said, ready to disconnect.
However, after some coaxing and cajoling, he obliged. The initial reaction was shocking. When Elamparithi was told he was the one Mariyappan wanted to speak about, apart from his mother, the coach’s voice changed. He started sobbing. When told that Mariyappan had credited him for making him a Paralympic gold medallist, he asked in disbelief: “Did he? Really? I’ve been waiting to speak to Mariyappan. If he has mentioned my name, then I will talk.” Elamparithi slowly revealed why he wasn’t willing to speak. “A lot of people are already taking credit for him, just because he has won gold,” he said dejectedly. “I know, and more importantly Mariyappan knows, I’m his coach. That is enough for me. This is his moment, and only I know what kind of struggles he had to go through to make it this far.”
It was this 36-year-old coach from Salem who made an athlete out of Mariyappan. “Somebody came and took him away for training,” he said remorsefully.
Like all good coaches, Elamparithi too preferred to stay away from limelight. He kept repeating that it was all down to Mariyappan’s hardwork, and it was his moment of glory, and he should enjoy it.
He has been at SDAT Salem for 10 years. The centre doesn’t have a synthetic track, just basic facilities. Mariyappan was 17 when they met. “I saw him when he was 17, and despite being a person with different ability, he had spark. He comes from a humble family, so had to be taken care of, but what I like about him is if someone looks at him with sympathy, he doesn’t like it. He wants to be like anyone else. I’ve seen him play volleyball and cricket with other guys just to show he can do it.”
“At that time, he was leaping around 1.7m, and was close to what was achieved at the London Paralympic Games. Had he gone there, he would have won a medal four years earlier. But even after missing the opportunity to go, he wasn’t ready to give up.”
Did the gold come as a surprise? “I was expecting him to break the world record. He can easily cross 2 metres, but somehow he has not been able to do so. I don’t know how he trained in the last few months, but when he left here for Bengaluru, he was jumping 1.9m. I’m just surprised he didn’t break the world record. Maybe he can do it in Tokyo 2020.”
Interestingly, the coach is not even a permanent employee in Salem. Working mostly on a contract basis, Elamparithi was close to getting a permanent job a couple of years ago. He swears, “Nobody higher up in the SDAT, or the Chief Minister, knows about these things. There are 14 such coaches who are just working on contract basis, despite being eligible for permanent jobs, and I was instructed specifically by higher-ups not to speak to media after Mariyappan’s gold came to light,” he said.
All he wished was for coaches to get some credit, and job security. In a country where coaches and authorities have gotten into petty fights in search of credit for an athlete’s success, Elamparithi comes across as a new breed. On most other days, he can be spotted at the Mahatma Gandhi Stadium in Salem as the athletics coach.