Subramani Siva flashed the victory sign and strode towards the podium at the National Institute of Sport, Patiala. He had just set the national record in the men's pole vault event in the Federation Cup by clearing a height of 5.15m. His was the last event of the day, and most of the folks watching the day's proceedings had already left. That's when he got the first bit of bad news.
An official of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) told him that since everyone had left, he wouldn't get his victory ceremony. The 21-year-old was also informed of another thing. The National Anti Doping Agency, tasked with conducting dope tests on athletes, hadn't bothered to show up. "Come to the track at 9am tomorrow to get your dope test done," the 21-year-old was told by the official.
Siva might be forgiven if he felt an awful amount of déjà vu. The Monday of March 5 in 2018 must have felt very similar to the Thursday of June 1 in 2017. On both occasions Shiva was competing in the Federation Cup in Patiala. On both occasions he would set a new national record. (He cleared 5.14m last year.) And on both occasions, his mark was thrown into jeopardy because an official wasn't doing its job.
A national record can only be ratified provided certain criteria are met, one of which is the conducting of a dope test in the same session of competition. Last year, Siva would find that NADA drug testers, having tired of waiting for his event to get over, had retired to sleep in their rooms. The testers would eventually be found, woken up late in the night in order to take urine samples to be processed later.
At least the testers were around last season. This time they hadn't even showed up. "We informed NADA about the competition and they informed us that they would send a team of five, including three men and two women, to collect samples," said an AFI official.
It wasn't the first time India's anti-doping agency had been caught failing to do their job either. Back in 2016, Tejaswin Shankar's then high jump national record came under the scanner because NADA testers had only showed to collect his samples two days after his event got over. One reasoning provided then was that NADA didn't expect records to fall at a junior competition. The absence of the agency from the Federation Cup -- one of the country's premier senior competitions through which athletes are expected to qualify for the Commonwealth Games (CWG) -- is bizarre.
"I might have come with any number of ideas but what happened today was something else." Subramani Siva
The blunder was only one of many that made Siva's effort on the day so remarkable. After clearing 5.15m, Siva set the bar at 5.25m, only to find that he couldn't even see the bar he was expected to clear -- the sun having set over Patiala. "I couldn't see anything. I couldn't see the bar at that height. I didn't know what I was jumping towards," Siva says.
Siva has had his share of obstacles to overcome over the course of his short three-year-long career. The son of daily-wage labourers in the village of Kallanai, near Trichy in Tamil Nadu, Siva was picked out of obscurity completely by chance when he was spotted by pole vaulting coach Dan Wilcox. While Siva would prove to be a natural in the vault, he has had to struggle with finances -- he doesn't draw a salary and lives mostly on the charity of sponsors who fund Wilcox's jumps academy in Chennai. One thing in his control was his jumping and he had set a target of 5.45m -- the CWG qualifying standard set by the AFI. He claims to have jumped 5.40m during practice in Chennai. All that counted for nothing.
According to his coach Dan Wilcox, the fact that the light would fade even as Siva made his toughest jumps was to be expected. "They wanted athletes to jump a height of 5.45m but they set the minimum standard of jumps in the final at 4.30m. My juniors can jump that much," he said. In the high jump event, athletes have three attempts to make a successful jump, then increase the height of the bar by as little as a single centimetre and try again. With his rivals setting the bar as low as they did (the first unsuccessful jump was made at 4.60m), it would take ages for the bar to come anywhere near the CWG qualifying standard.
"You can't start the competition at 4.30m if you are setting a qualifying standard of 5.40m," says Wilcox. Indeed Siva made his first jump at 5.05m, when just one competitor remained in the competition. That would come with its own challenge. Siva's carbon-fibre pole is rated at having a draw of 180 pounds. That is enough to propel the athlete for less than five metres but not nearly enough at competitive heights. "The pole Siva was using was bending too much when he was trying to clear 5.05m. We have been trying to obtain a 190 pound pole but we just can't find one in India," says Wilcox. It would eventually take Siva his third attempt to clear 5.05m. His next attempt was made at 5.15m, which he cleared with his first jump before he made three unsuccessful attempts at 5.25m.
Siva would be philosophical about it all. "I might have come with any number of ideas but what happened today was something else. I will have to keep trying and one day I will clear a very good height too," he said. For Wilcox, the day was a learning experience. "You can't do anything about these things. You have to learn and move on," he says.
One positive did come out of it all though. "Siva has been trying to get a stronger pole for a long time and finally we found a sponsor who promised to get him one if he broke the national record," says Wilcox. "So at least next time when Siva has a better pole, he will be more prepared."