An auxiliary job that saw him help a fellow race walker in his village of Kuniyil, Kerala laid the stepping stones to a race walking career and a shot at Olympic glory at Tokyo 2020 for K.T Irfan.
Irfan, whose full name is Irfan Kolothum Thodi, was born in the village of Kuniyil in Malappuram, Kerala. While his father Mustafa KT was a labourer who collected coconuts, Irfan’s mother Zuleika is a housewife.
As a youngster, K.T Irfan had a fondness for sports like football, hammer throw, javelin throw, and long jump rather than race walking. Coming from the state of Kerala, one could be forgiven for thinking football would be his main sport but little did anyone know that he’d find his calling in race walking - an obscure sport at least to most in his neck of the woods.
Inspiration behind race walking
Only a chance encounter for a then 15-year-old Irfan with his elder brother's best friend Rebas Mosahi sparked an interest in the sport for the future Indian national record holder for a 20km walk at Olympics.
Rebas would practice following his selection for the National School Games in 2005, and K.T Irfan would be his assistant - bringing water bottles and maintaining finish timings on a notepad.
Although he learned a lot from watching Rebas, a close friend and school senior Salman K.P gave Irfan the push to pursue race walking himself. Irfan, who struggled to make the podium in other sports, was soon seen accompanying Salman on early morning practice walks in Kuniyil.
"He (Irfan) was always physically strong. He would run 3000m and 5000m effortlessly. So we thought it was a good idea if he also joined, that way we could practice together," said Salman.
While practising, Irfan was constantly taunted for taking up a sport that had him swivelling his hip in a peculiar manner associated with race walkers. Some mocked him, saying he had only chosen race walking because of his inability to run.
The comments though didn’t dent his enthusiasm for race walking as he went on to participate in a school meet in Palakkad in 2006. He ended up finishing fourth in the state and was later invited to the Sports Authority of India's facility at Kozhikode.
Getting exposure on the national level
However, it was in 2010 when K.T Irfan’s race walking dreams got momentum. He joined the army as a sepoy and trained with Subedar Ramkumar at the Madras Regiment Center. In the ATNK & K area meet in October 2010, K.T Irfan won a gold medal in the 20 km race, clocking 1:33:12.
Coming first soon became a habit as Irfan won gold at the services meet shortly after clocking 1:27:12 seconds. Following impressive displays at the 2011 National Games, Gurudev Singh invited him to join the national camp.
Irfan’s first medal at the national level at the interstate championships came in Bengaluru in June 2011 when he won silver. Later that year, he went one better by winning gold at the Open National Championships.
As his talent started to sparkle and he went from strength to strength, Irfan soon found himself in the limelight after setting a new national record for a 20km meet (1:22.14) at the 2012 Federation Cup. He improved that time by five seconds at the 2012 race walking World Cup in Russia, which helped him qualify for London 2012.
No shoes for London 2012
But although he enjoyed plenty of success, reminders of his humble beginnings were never that far. As he looked forward to competing in his first Olympics, Irfan bemoaned a lack of proper walking shoes.
Race walkers require lightweight shoes, with a flexible midsole. It’s pricing at the time proved to be steep for Irfan, who was short of funds to purchase a pair. Neither the Athletics Federation of India nor the sports ministry managed to do much.
That is when popular actor Mohanlal stepped in, with the Kerala state government also providing funds.
“During that time I was a sepoy in the Army. My salary was only Rs 10,000, the cost of the shoes was Rs 7,000, special walking shoes. So there was no way I was going to afford it before the Games. Thanks to both Mohanlal and the state government I was able to participate with adequate equipment,” Irfan recalled in a chat with Sportskeeda.
K.T Irfan finished 10th in the 20km race at London 2012, with a time of 1:20.21. His time is still a national record in 20km race walking, which Devender Singh equalled at the Asian Race Walking Championships, Japan, in 2016.
Injuries and qualification for Tokyo 2020
His only medals between 2014 and 2019 came in the 2017 Asian race walking championship (bronze) as he struggled to cope with injuries. A couple of stress fractures saw Irfan miss out on a Bronze in the 2014 Asian Games as well as Rio 2016, which he qualified for.
However, 2019 brought good news as K.T Irfan became the first Indian athlete to qualify for Tokyo 2020 after finishing fourth in the 2019 Asian race walking championships in Japan with a time of 1:20.57.
That said, as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill, K.T Irfan found himself in another predicament of sorts after the Summer Games were postponed to July 2021.
“I was all set for the Games. I am still prepared, but COVID-19 came and disturbed the Olympics schedule. But we all have one more year to prepare ourselves,” Irfan told Times of India.
“Keeping myself fit is a challenge. I want to continue my practice and daily routine. I have only one thing on my mind - winning a medal for my country. This postponement hasn't affected my routine,” he added.
Ahead of Tokyo 2020, Irfan has made his intentions to become India’s first Olympic medalist in race walking clear.
“I recorded 01:20:21 in London. The bronze medallist China's Wang Zhen in the London Olympics recorded 1:19:25. The medal was not that far from me. I lacked technique, but this time I have experience and improved my technique. My target is to touch 1:19, and I am sure I will do that,” He told the Times of India.
“I want to be the first Olympic medallist in race walking for my country,” Irfan added.
Regardless of the outcome in Tokyo, K.T. Irfan should be proud of how far he’s come. From a remote village in Kerala, struggling to buy race walking shoes to now being one of India’s medal prospects at Tokyo.
Needless to say, he’s come a long way and is no longer the inexperienced youngster from London 2012. Far from it, Irfan is battle tested, more mature and raring to go in his bid for Olympic glory as he looks to walk into the hearts of the millions of fans that will be cheering him on from home.
Author: William Paul
Featured photo: Instagram / KT Irfan