One of the country’s young track and field stars, long jumper M Sreeshankar’s failure to cross 8 metres at the Tokyo Olympics has cost his coach his job. The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has said they had ‘changed’ his coach S Murali, who is also the 22-year-old’s father.

With the AFI scouting for foreign coaches for the next Olympic cycle in events with Indian medal prospects, including the long jump, the father-son association is set to be disbanded. The federation has labelled Murali’s coaching methods as ‘not professional’ and ‘not scientific’, making clear the personal coach will be replaced by a national coach for jumps.

Murali believes he and his son, the national record holder, are being singled out for criticism despite the latter not being the only Indian athlete missing the final at the Tokyo Olympics.

“The AFI’s criticism of Sreeshankar’s training programme not being professional is unjustified and it hurts to hear such things. He jumped 8.26 metres and set a new national record this year. He is the country’s best prospect for a medal (in long jump) at a major competition. I agree he could not perform up to expectations at the Olympics but there are other reasons for that,” Murali told The Indian Express.

“To perform with deteriorating health was a tough challenge for him. When an athlete does not do well, the athlete does not suddenly become a bad athlete from a national record holder. In such times, the least we can expect is support from the federation.”

In black and white

AFI president Adille Sumariwalla said on Monday that coach Murali had given it in writing that he would stop coaching Sreeshankar if he did not cross 8 metres at the Tokyo Games. The written undertaking was given after Sreeshankar appeared for trials in the third week of July just before travelling to the Japanese capital.

Sreeshankar jumped 7.48 metres at the trials, which was below his personal best and national record of 8.26 metres set at the Federation Cup in March. At the Olympics, he finished 24th overall with 7.69 metres and did not progress to the final. Sreeshankar training with his father, a former triple jumper, has been a longstanding issue for the AFI, which wants him to move out of his training base in Palghat, Kerala.

Sumariwalla, when asked about Sreeshankar, said the federation had decided to step in.

“The federation’s stand was very clear even before he went. As far as we were concerned, we were not happy with his training programme and coach… it is not professional, it is not scientific. His coach, that is his father, has given in writing that if he does not perform, he will stop coaching him. If he does not jump over eight metres, he will stop coaching him, and he will listen to us and we will get him another coach, a foreign coach or whatever. So, the first action has already been taken, we have changed his coach,” Sumariwalla said.

It is learnt that in the undertaking, Murali didn’t write that he would stop coaching Sreeshankar but assured the AFI that the long jumper would touch 8 metres. Despite the setback at the Olympics, Murali believes the athlete can fulfil his potential if the AFI works in tandem with the father-son team. Murali is not averse to an experienced coach joining Sreeshankar’s team, but only if there is value addition.

“I feel Sreeshankar and I are being singled out for criticism. We are ready to work with the federation, but the AFI must also understand that appointing a foreign coach for the sake of it may not be in the best interest of the athlete. Collaboration, rather than criticism, is the need of the hour. I have never forced him to work under me since he broke the national record for the first time. He is an intelligent kid and understands a lot about the training principles, techniques and knows his body well. He is not just into long jump but does a good deal of learning about it too. He still has faith in my training programme and we are always open to new ideas and ready to collaborate with experienced coaches,” Murali added.

Undergoing rehab

Sreeshankar is at the Inspire Institute of Sport, Vijayanagar, where he is undergoing a four-week rehabilitation programme. He blames the side-effects of the Covid-19 vaccine for not crossing 8 metres at the Olympics. “I had some health issues after vaccination. Due to bad health and weakness, I developed some muscle imbalance. We were running short of time to correct it also. I will get back to training by the first or second week of October,” Sreeshankar says.

He took the first dose in the first week of May and the second a month later. After getting fully vaccinated, he participated in the Indian Grand Prix, where he jumped 7.74 metres.

Sreeshankar is undergoing three sessions as part of his rehabilitation. The first session, aimed at conditioning, begins at 8:30 am and continues till 11 am. This is followed by two sessions with the physio, the first from 11.30 am and the second beginning at 4:30 pm.

“After vaccination my body was very weak, so when I tried to push myself harder in the training sessions, it didn’t work. I also missed a lot of training sessions because of my health. I was getting tired very fast after taking the first dose of the vaccine. We did blood tests and based on the advice of a doctor, I had regulated my diet and was getting better,” the long jumper says.

However, Sreeshankar suffered ‘gastro issues’ when he was at the camp in Patiala and Bengaluru. “I have sorted out the issues with my stomach now with probiotic treatment. Frequency of the issue is now comparatively very low. My gut health is better now.”

Sreeshankar is now focusing on passing two different kinds of tests. One is fitness-related, the other B.Sc. Mathematics. He has to study two semesters worth of syllabus and appear for an exam in 10 days. “It is about crossing these small hurdles and coming back stronger. I will bounce back soon.”

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