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Remembering Ilyas Babar

Mohammad Ilyas Babar, who brought glory to the country at various track and field competitions, was adjudged the best Asian athletic coach. His trainees won several gold medals and one of them Siriram Singh reached the finals in the 400 Metre race at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Sriram did not win any medal but he set a national record that has not been broken even after three decades. Babar, sadly, was not given the honour he deserved. 

Babar died in July this year at 79. He was born at Gulburga and belonged to the first batch of coaches from the National Institute of Sports (NIS), Patiala. Babar was a state champion in the 110 Metre hurdles from 1950 to 1957 and long jump. Babar’s training methods were unique. He never had a written training programme for any athlete. When anyone went to him for a training, he would ask about his health. Then he would start the training of that person.

His training methods were years ahead of those of his contemporaries. He would inject so much confidence in the athletes that they would start believing that they were the best. 

He used to say that a couch should create an atmosphere in which an athlete could give his best. He had commented on the training methods of India that only moulding a metal into a knife was not enough because if it was not given the cutting edge it was useless. His approach made his trainees excel even in adversity. Shivnath decided to run with a tonsured head in the Jallandhar National meet after the death of his father. He won three gold medals in 5,000 Metre, 10,000 Metre and marathon. 

Coaching was a passion for Babar. A month before the Montreal Olympics, Sriram was training in Delhi under him. The monsoon had started, there was no dry space for running. Babar decided to use the lawns at the Rajpath for endurance training and the grassy stretch outside National Stadium for sprints. In one session Sriram would run 100 repetitions of 100 metres. Some of the contemporary coaches called Babar “crazy” and Sriram a victim of “wrong training”. The great New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard had a different opinion about Babar. He said that Sriram had the fastest basic speed among the top 800-metre runners in the world. What Sriram lacked was endurance.

Arthur Lydiard’s words came true in Montreal Olympics. When the 800 Metre race started, Sriram was ahead of all the runners but soon he was overtaken. He came on seventh spot, though he set a national record (one minute 45.77 seconds) which has not been broken even in three decades. Juantorena, a Cuban who won the race, had all the praise for Sriram. Years later, he thanked Sriram for the high speed he set at the beginning of the race that helped him in giving the best performance and setting a world record (one minute 43.50 seconds).

Babar went to Montreal Olympics on his own expense to encourage Sriram so that he could give his best. He had no money. He had to sell his scooter and other household goods and borrow from friends to reach Montreal. 

To escape from the scorching, sultry summers of Delhi he would take his trainees to the sand dunes of the Yamuna at Okhla, South Delhi. Sometimes, he would reach there as early as 3 a.m. Even at 60, he peddled along with athletes training for marathon. After training sessions, they would take breakfast and Babar would pay for it.

His trainees included illustrious Jagmal Singh, BV Satyanarayana, BS Barua, Sriram Singh, Tarlok Singh, Charles Borromeo, Bagicha Singh, Harlal Singh, Ram Narayan Singh and Geeta Zutshi besides others. Two of his trainees got Padma Sri and five got Arjuna awards. Simultaneously he got the Dronacharya Award in 1994.

Babar was like the great Australian coach Percy Cerruti who was misunderstood and underestimated by his own countrymen. Neither the Amateur Athletics Federation of India nor his contemporaries gave Babar the credit that he deserved. Even Dronacharya Award was not a timely recognition. The Dronacharya Award was the only recognition from the nation for which his trainees fetched 17 gold medals at the Asian Games and Asian track and field meets. “The reason was that he never made an effort to be in anyone’s good books. He was soft-spoken, and that was his weakness,” says his friend and author of the book Great Asian Athletes, Mahanand. After the Dronacharya Award, Babar had requested the Rajputana Rifles, where he was a part-time coach, for a raise. Instead of getting a raise, he was sacked.. 

But outsiders were fair to him .The crowning glory came in his life during the Asian Games of 1978. A panel of international judges considered him the best coach in Asia. He was given the “Best Asian Coach Award” and the “Adidas Golden Shoe.”

He never begged for favours. Babar was happy with what God had offered him. He never cared about rewards and considered the gold medals won by his trainees more important than anything else.

¯ M. Mazharul Haque 

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