Jolt for Indian Bolt

For five days, Srinivasa Gowda grabbed all the plaudits after he took just 13.62 seconds to cover 143 metres in a Kambala race in Karnataka.

Kambala is an annual series of races in the coastal areas of the Indian state where racers splash 133m or 143m through paddy fields holding a rope attached to two buffaloes, who run ahead.

The runners are pulled along by the buffaloes, who are lashed together.

Gowda's performance in Aikala village, about 30 kilometres from Mangaluru, drew comparisons with eight-time Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt, who holds the world record in the 100m at 9.58 seconds, which the Jamaican set in 2009.

The 28-year-old construction worker from Ashwathapura village, near Mijar in Moodbidri, Karnataka, took just 9.55 seconds to run 100m and netizens were quick to point out that he was faster than Bolt.

In the days following his deed, political leaders tweeted about his potential, Union Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju promised him trials and training at the Sports Authority of India and Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddiyurappa felicitated him with a Rs3 lakh ($5,850) cheque.

But all the praise and expectations of Gowda clinching a gold for India at this year's Tokyo Olympics came to an end on Tuesday when news emanated from Venoor in Dakshina, Karnataka, that another Kambala runner, Nishant Shetty, recorded 13.61 seconds while covering 143 metres during a race at the Soorya-Chandra Jodukare Kambala.

It means the runner from Bajagoli Jogibettu covered 100m in 9.51 seconds.

Besides, two other Kambala runners - Iruvathur Anand and Akkeri Suresh Shetty - timed 9.57 seconds at the same meet, joining the elite club of Kambala racers who have completed the 100m in less than 10 seconds.

"Anyway, Gowda cannot become an Olympic sprinter overnight," said the rural sport's main administrator in Bengaluru.

"Some may think that a Kambala race may be far better than an Olympic race as it happens in a wet field with bare-footed competitors, but Gowda cannot be an Olympic star all of a sudden," Kambala Academy convener and chairman K. Gunapala Kadamba told IANS.

He said Olympic sprints happen on synthetic tracks with participants wearing spiked shoes, whereas Kambala athletes run barefoot alongside buffaloes in a wet field, holding a rope tied to them.

"We have to scientifically judge if Gowda-like Kambala racers are eligible to run with spiked shoes on synthetic tracks," said Kadamba, a Kambala administrator for the past 50 years. "Can an Olympic sprinter run in a wet field barefoot alongside buffaloes?"

Gowda, who trains at the Kambala Academy in Moodbidri, was called for trials by India's Sports Ministry after he set the new record.

But he declined the offer, saying: "My focus is on Kambala. I am used to running with buffaloes in paddy fields. I want to achieve more in Kambala.

"Kambala and track events are different and those who have done well in one cannot replicate in the other. Many who have achieved in track events have tried Kambala and have not been successful. In Kambala we run on heels whereas in track it is on toes."

Kambala, which roughly translates to "paddy-growing mud field" in the local language Tulu, was banned by India's Supreme Court in 2014 on the grounds of cruelty to animals after critics claimed that being made to race down fields while being whipped was causing a lot of stress and injury to the animals. The sport was permitted again in 2017.

"Never in my dreams did I think that I would be so famous. The credit should go to my buffaloes," said Gowda. "I could achieve this only because they cooperated with me."

Kadamba said the invitation from the government is a "great honour" for Kambala, but unfortunately Gowda would not be immediately available for trials.

"The problem is he has Kambala on the next three Saturdays," Kadamba said. "That is a commitment that he cannot go back on under any circumstances. So we are not rejecting the offer. Maybe he can go for trials at a later stage."

It is possible that the Kamabala runners' fantastic timings are being aided by the pull of the running buffaloes - similar to wind-assisted finishes in athletics.

Kadamba said the measurement of the Kambala races' finishing stages are accurate as the organisers employ a laser network system and electronic timing.

However, Ajay Kumar Bhal, SAI's senior director, maintained that "first he (Gowda) needs to be conditioned from a rural kind of running to a more formalised kind of running". The official added: "He still has not worn shoes, he is still far from any kind of spikes. Track running is different, field running is different. Nevertheless, he has shown that he is talented.

"We may have to work on his nutrition, supplements, diet, biomechanics, physiology. The sports science department will work with him and then we will come to know if at all where he is lagging.

"And if he can break records, who else will be happier than us? Whenever he comes, we are ready."

Indo-Asian News Service, AFP

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