In the run-up to the National Games earlier this month, Shivpal Singh’s preparations were far from ideal. His job with the Indian Air Force had required him to be at the Naliya Air Force Station near Bhuj, Gujarat, for a month before the event. With no facilities for javelin, Singh had to make do with running and some gym work.
Three days before his event, he arrived in Goa and took on a few sessions at the GMC Athletic Stadium in Bambolim. Well aware of his inadequate training, there wasn’t much in terms of expectations as he geared up for the competition. “When your preparation isn’t up to the mark, there’s no question of having a target in mind. I just wanted to put in my best and throw well,” Singh, 28, says.
However, by the fourth attempt, the oldest competitor in the final had done enough to clinch gold with a throw of 81.17 metres. He also pipped D.P. Manu and Kishore Jena, who’ve both had memorable seasons after bagging silver medals at the Asian Athletics Championships and the Asian Games, respectively, earlier this year. At the National Games, Manu finished second while Jena was third. “It’s always a joy to win gold, but I wasn’t really competing against the others. I simply wanted to make the most of being able to throw again this year,” Singh says.
The last few years have been tough on the athlete from Uttar Pradesh. He failed to qualify for the final of the Tokyo Olympics, where Neeraj Chopra went on to win gold. His best throw, an underwhelming distance of 76.40 metres was far from his personal best (86.23 metres in 2019), and good enough only for 27th position.
Then, an out of competition dope test returned positive for metandienone, and he was subsequently banned for four years in October 2021. An appeal followed and his innocence pleaded, but it wasn’t until January this year that his name was cleared and he could compete again.
Right through those months, Singh kept away from the javelin. Everywhere he went, people would ask him the same questions related to the failed dope test; it was no different over phone calls. He often thought of getting away from it by putting in a few hours of training. But at the stadium too, all eyes would be on him. The humiliation forced him to return home, unable to face the community at large.
“I went into depression at the time. And I felt far worse because the ban was for no fault of mine. One day, there were people who wanted to take photos with me and the next moment, they simply chose to ignore me and walk away,” he says. A sponsor who was willing to come on board too backed out. Even once the ban was lifted, they refused to support Singh.
“It’s fine if you aren’t in the limelight or don’t perform as an athlete. But once your name gets associated with a doping violation, things are never quite the same. Everyone you know distances themselves from you. My family stood by me, but it wasn’t easy to face them either. To tell you the truth, I had to figure out a way to deal with things on my own during that period,” he says.
A day after the ban was revoked, Singh stepped out on the ground in Bhubaneswar. He was overwhelmed with emotion, agony and relief in equal measure, when he picked up the javelin again. But as he took on his first run, he realised it would be a long way back to being at his best again.
“I was really unfit and suffered from asthma. It was difficult to run just 400 metres around the track. I had to gradually start rebuilding on my own and be really patient to get to a point where I could consistently put in 4-5 hours of training each day. It was really difficult, but I knew I had to be at it,” he says.
At his first competition, the Indian Grand Prix in Bengaluru in April, Singh managed a throw of 79.70 metres. By June, he had pulled off his personal best this year of 81.96 metres to take bronze at the National Interstate Senior Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar.
“I haven’t been able to train systematically since the Tokyo Olympics. Just to work consistently again has made all the difference. I have been able to put in quality work while also remaining injury-free,” he says. “A few weeks ago, I reached out to my former coach, Naval Singh, who used to train me in 2015-16. He always used to say, Shivpal toh 90 metres maar sakta hai (I know Shivpal can throw 90 metres). It’s now time to maintain the focus and get back to my best again,” he says.
Singh has had no time to rest. The day he took gold at the National Games, he called home to share the news with his family. After a good night’s sleep, he was back at training the following day.
At the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, the 2019 Asian Athletics Championships silver medallist is currently taking on a full load under Naval Singh. The three-day training cycle is repeated twice a week—with most of his current focus on strengthening his core and hamstring—in addition to fine-tuning his technique. Other than the throw, he has also been working with other disciplines like sprinting and hurdle jumps, and cycling sessions during the sessions in the gym.
The dream is to have another shot at the Olympics in Paris next year. With a maximum of three athletes in each discipline from one country, and Chopra and Jena having already qualified, the odds are stacked up against Singh. He wants to continue working during the off season to have a crack at competitions early next year in order to make the cut. “I’ve come to understand a lot of things over the last two years. But all that is in the past now. It’s time to look ahead,” he says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.