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How three foreign judges took health risks to help Indian walkers qualify for Olympics

Three Indians qualified for the Tokyo Olympics at last week's Race Walking Nationals in Ranchi. They should thank three international judges.

Three Indians qualified for the Tokyo Olympics at last week’s Race Walking Nationals in Ranchi. They should thank three international judges, the number needed for an event to be recognised, for taking a health risk by hopping onto multiple flights, trains and undergoing Covid-19 tests to reach Ranchi.

A Slovakian, a Swiss and a Romanian made it to the two-day event after an SOS call from officials of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), who had sleepless nights as they couldn’t find qualified judges to undertake international travel because of the pandemic.

“Lot of judges turned down our request due to COVID-related restrictions in their countries. For this event to be recognised by World Athletics, we needed to have three international judges and that too from different nations. If we had not met those requirements, these athletes would have not earned a berth for Tokyo despite making the cut as per the timings,” the AFI president Adille Sumariwalla said.

The AFI’s luck changed when they reached out to Slovakia’s Martik Skarba, a former walker. He competed for more than a decade before becoming a race-walking judge. Skarba not only agreed to travel, but he also started making calls to convince other judges to travel to India on short notice. His big friends’ circle in the race-walking community helped. “Ninety percent of them refused because of Covid-related restrictions. But I kept on trying. I didn’t want Indian athletes to be robbed of a chance to qualify,” Skarba says.

He got Swiss Frederic Bianchi, who will be the chief judge at Tokyo, and Romanian Dr Alexandru Stefan to pack their bags.

Stefan, a qualified medical doctor, had to first calm his worried wife before he left for Ranchi. A $100 daily allowance, lesser than what judges are paid in Europe, didn’t make it any easier.

“When I told my wife that I need to go to India she wasn’t happy at all. But race walking is my passion and I had to come to India to help the athletes,” Dr Stefan said. It took him 24 hours of travel time to reach the venue. Bianchi had to take a train and three flights to travel from Collombey-Muraz in Switzerland to Jharkhand’s capital city. His Facebook post gives an idea of how taxing the journey was. “We made it!” read the post from Ranchi. “I had to come. I had to undergo multiple tests and it was a long journey but I am pleased I could make it,” Bianchi

Dr Stephan didn’t want to miss an opportunity to reconnect with race walking. After school, he had to choose between track and field or a medical college degree. Dr Stephan, who works at the research wing of Johnson & Johnson, never lost his passion for sport and found time to complete qualification courses for judges. said.

‘Not the best technique’

Sandeep Kumar, Priyanka Goswami and Rahul Kumar are the three who qualified in the 20 kilometre race walk for the Olympics.

Sandeep, who won the gold on Saturday with a new national record, was warned twice during his run. Bianchi feels Indian race walkers need to work harder to refine their technique. Bianchi also officiated in the Under-20 (10 km) race walk on Sunday and wasn’t impressed with India’s young crop.

“The technique of the juniors was terrible. The coaches have to really work hard,” he said.

Dr Stefan says the judges interacted with the participants after the event and briefed them about the areas they can work on. “All of them have the same flaws or strengths,” he said. But as he prepares to travel back home, he has other things on his mind.

“I am not sure if my wife will let me in when I go back,” he said in jest.

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