For pole vaulters, the journey from their training base to the competition venue is half the battle won. Their ubiquitous poles, between 4 to 5 metres in length and weighing up to 15 kilograms, can make what should be a routine flight or a train journey a harrowing experience for these athletes.
As women’s national record holder VS Surekha says, every journey is a challenge. She sympathises with the plight of a group of young athletes, including the Open Jumps Champion in the pole vault Pavithra, who were asked officials to deboard a train last week for tying their poles on to window bars outside the compartment.
In 2015, when Surekha reached the Delhi airport to take a flight to Wuhan for the Asian Athletics Championships she faced an unexpected hurdle.
The pole would fall off the long conveyor belt at the turns. The officials told her the only way the pole could be taken to the luggage hold of the airport was on the belt. In a fix, Surekha was in tears.
“I started crying and told them I could not compete without the poles. One official asked me if I could sit on the belt. He told me it was safe to do so,” Surekha recalled.
With no other option, Surekha hopped onto the conveyer belt and held onto her pole as it made its way from the first-floor to the basement where cargo was being loaded.
“What else could I do? The belt looped around and I had to hold the pole so it didn’t fall off. I was really scared but I had to do it,” she added.
When men’s national record holder Subramani Siva heard about young athletes travelling to Salem from Thiruvananthapuram being asked to deboard at Kollam station his heart went out to them. The armyman recalls a similar experience but he was luckier.
“I was told to deboard at Warangal with my equipment. Anyway some calls were made from the higher ups in the army and the issue was resolved,” Siva said.
But every time he undertakes the long train journey from Chennai to Patiala for competitions or camps, he is worried.
“I usually tie it on the top corner across the inside of the roof of the train so that the passengers face no hassle. These poles are very expensive and delicate. I can’t sleep properly until my pole reaches the venue without getting damaged,” Siva added.
Travelling within the city for practice is also a painful task. Auto drivers often refuse the trip or charge five times the price, say 2016 South Asian Games (SAG) silver medall Sonu Saini.
When she was travelling to Guwahati for the SAG, the pole was not allowed on the flight. “My friend had to stay back and bring it on the train,” Saini said.
Surekha has experienced her precious ‘luggage’ being delayed during international trips. In 2018 she travelled to Korea for an Open event. She was targeting the Asian Games qualifying mark. “Unfortunately the poles arrived at the venue after my final. I managed a medal though but couldn’t achieve the Asian Games cut. I had to write back to the federation here and they then wrote to the Korean federation who were kind enough to lend me some poles. But the poles were smaller and not stiff enough,” she recalled.
Apart from the hassle during travel, vaulters have to spend a good amount of time explaining what they are carrying to fellow passengers. “‘Aap log kaunse circus me hain?’ (Which circus are you part of?). I have been asked that so many times,” Surekha said.
Fed up with unreasonable fares auto drivers charge, Devraj learnt to carry the pole on his cycle which unfortunately got stolen a few weeks back. (Pic: Andrew Amsan)
Tent house employee?
2019 Delhi state medall Devraj says he is often maken for a construction worker or a tent house employee. “I am tired of answering such questions now. Recently an auto driver asked me if I am carrying this “pipe” to a construction site and I just said ‘yes’. When I am asked questions now, I just take my phone out and show people a pole vaulting video,” Devraj said.
Fed up with unreasonable fares auto drivers charge, Devraj learnt to carry the pole on his cycle which unfortunately got stolen a few weeks back. “It took a lot of practice to get used to the dance I have to maintain on the road. I once rammed into a biker and he gave me an earful,” Devraj added.
Saini, 2017 University Games gold medall, feels lack of awareness about the sport creates issues. “These issues can be sorted if people take vaulting seriously. No one cares about it. I beat several international players for the silver medal in 2016 and no one knows me. If people know about us and know the sport they will treat us better,” he says.
Surekha believes the Indian railways are the lifeline of vaulting in India and says incidents of athletes being asked to deboard are very rare.
“The recent incident happened because the pole was tied to the window. The Indian railways are very supportive and it is the only means of travel most of our athletes have. Without the railways most athletes in the north can think of competing in the south and vice versa,” Surekha, a railways employee, said.
Surekha however admits it’s not easy to travel with poles even on trains. “I have one sad story too. A few years back we were trying to get off, I think in Guwahati, and we had only a few minutes. We were taking the pole out through the window and the train started moving and my pole split in two.”