Naganathan Pandi - Trained & ran barefoot, toiled as construction worker, now a Police Constable and 4x400m Olympian Photograph:( Others )
After they turned 15, Naganathan and his brother worked as construction labourers, ferrying material, and performing masonry over the weekends to support their family.
He’s made it to the Olympics 4x400m relay and will be representing India -a country of 1.3 billion people. But, his parents- Pandi, a construction labourer and Panchavarnam, a homemaker, hardly have an inkling of an idea of how significant their son’s feat is. However, for his colleagues at the Tamil Nadu Police, this is a historic leap, as one from their Service has made it to the world’s biggest sporting event. Zee Media spoke to the 25-year old sprinter to understand his journey thus far.
Growing up, Naganathan never had it easy. His father’s meagre income from working as a construction or agricultural labourer was what fed the five children and their homemaker mother. It was a struggle for his parents to even make ends meet, while also ensuring that the five children got their education. After they turned 15, Naganathan and his brother worked as construction labourers, ferrying material, and performing masonry over the weekends to support their family.
It was around 10th grade (aged 15) that Naganathan had taken to running. His foray was purely out of fascination from seeing his peers succeed on the track in his village school. He started off as a barefoot runner, as shoes were too much of a luxury. With the support of his Physical training teacher from school, he ran 1500m races. Following his encouraging performance, the school gifted him a pair of running spikes, by the time he was in 12th grade.
While pursuing his BA History at the PTMTM college in his hometown, he continued his stellar runs by winning golds at the college and university level with 400m timings of nearly 49 seconds. A certificate from having taken part in an all India meet in Bengaluru made him eligible to apply for a job in the State Police department, under the sports quota.
Having passed the entrance tests, he joined the Tamil Nadu Police in 2017 as a Constable, with a posting in Chennai. To better his track performance, despite having less time to spare, he trained before and after his duty hours. It was Prabhakaran, a friend and batchmate who recognized the inherent potential and coached Naganathan during his initial days in the service, in the absence of a dedicated coach.
To continue his training and nutrition, along with his basic living expenses in an expensive metropolis like Chennai, Naganathan even secured a loan of Rs.5 lakhs - of which he spent 3 lakhs for his needs and offered the rest to his family, back home in Ramanathapuram. Manikandan, an athlete since his schooling and also Naganathan’s roommate was also instrumental in helping the sprinter cope with injuries and better his technique, besides making the necessary arrangement for training and equipment.
Since 2019, there has been no looking back for Naganathan who went on to bag an individual Gold (400m) at the Chief Minister’s Meet, a gold at the 400m individual and relay events in the All India Police meet in Chandigarh, followed by another gold in the 400m individuals at the Indian Grand Prix. He also ran a personal best and completed the 400m dash in 46.09 seconds at the Federation Cup, which took him to the Indian Camp at Patiala that was training sportspersons for the Olympics.
To this day, his friends continue to lend him money to support his training and basic needs. The sprinter says that he repays his friends promptly after he receives his salary, but whatever remains is barely sufficient for his sustenance. Recently, he was also gifted a running kit by the Greater Chennai Police.
Until he started winning big at the National level, Naganathan didn’t even tell his parents about his athletics training and achievements. All this was owing to fear of backlash from his uneducated parents, who wanted their five children to continue and focus on their respective academic pursuits and careers to support the family. In the eyes of his parents, sports are a needless pursuit, in the face of all their struggles to fend for themselves.
Now he coyly admits that his parents have some knowledge about the Olympics and are happy about his feats. He credits his siblings for having convinced their parents and conveyed the message of his having won the coveted ticket and an India jersey to Tokyo.