November 2021 | 1285 words | 5-minute read
Several past employees of Tata group companies have represented India at the pinnacle of athletic achievement — the Olympics. Here are some of them.
Lavinho (Lavy) Pinto, 1952 Helsinki
No story on the history of Indian athletics can begin without Lavy Pinto. Born in Nairobi in 1930, he joined the Tatas after completing his matriculation — equivalent to secondary school today — and soon, under the stewardship of coach Benson Proudfoot, set several national records while representing Bombay. He achieved international prominence with the first Asian Games in 1951 where he won gold in both the 100m and 200m, earning plaudits from the crowd and the press.
In 1952, he captained the Indian athletics team to the Helsinki Olympics where he made it to the semi-finals of the 100m and 200m. He continued to set further national records in the later years before settling into a career with Indian Hotels and Air India. He left the Tata group in 1969 when he shifted to Chicago where he passed away in February 2020.
Mercy Kuttan, 1988 Seoul
Mercy Kuttan represented India in the 1988 Seoul Olympics in the 400m and 4x400 m relay.
Ms Kuttan was already the national long jump champion for two years when she joined Tata Steel in 1981. She won the silver at the 1982 Delhi Asian Games but at the advice of her husband and coach, the late Murali Kuttan, also a Tata Steel employee, she transitioned to 400m. At the Seoul Olympics, she made it to the second round, performing in a star-studded arena that had Florence Griffith-Joyner, Heike Dreschler and India’s own PT Usha, Vandana Rao and Shiny Abraham-Wilson.
Ms Kuttan, who retired from Tata Steel to return to Kerala, feels that Indian athletics could do with much more sponsorship. “Back then, we had only modest dreams of participating in the Olympics,” she says. “Exposure at international levels is very important, and for that, you need long-term support,” she says.
"From my experience as an athlete, as a coach, and as an administrator, we need support from corporates, long-term and in a big way. No athletic achievement is built in a day. There is no reason why we can’t be world-beaters if the right support is available for athletes."
As a prominent voice in athletics administration and coaching in Kerala, she hopes to groom athletes who can be world-beaters. She is presently the president of the Kerala Athletic Federation and runs the Mercy Kuttan Athletics Academy in Kochi.
Charles Borromeo, 1984 Los Angeles
Charles Borromeo competed in the 800m at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Mr Borromeo was already an outstanding athlete before he became an Olympian, winning the gold in 800m in the 1982 Asian Games.
“Winning in the Olympics would have been a dream come true,” he says about the 1984 games. “But representing the country was itself a great achievement, especially since there was no exposure or support. You had to reach out to people, you had to plan, and had to execute everything yourself, including nutrition, training regimes, venues, and that too in a new country.”
Mr Borromeo recalls that JRD Tata gave him a carte blanche to do well in sports. "He asked me to do well for the country and not worry about anything else," he says. Arriving in Los Angeles a few months ahead of the Olympics, he trained alongside the likes of Daley Thompson and Carl Lewis as part of the Nike preparatory program. "It was a great experience and I learned a lot by observing these athletes," he says.
"My mantras are at an individual level and derived from the seven pillars of Tata Steel production quality. In sport, there are four: self-belief, determination, hard work, and consistency. We should also learn from defeats. This will get us anywhere."
Mr Borromeo was named the Tata all-round athlete in 2000 at the Tata Sports Meet and was involved in the Tata Steel sports program. He retired from the company in 2016 as the head of the sports department, but not before overseeing the emergence of archers such as Deepika Kumari and Atanu Das. Mr Borromeo now divides his time between his native Tamil Nadu where he works with schools and colleges spotting and nurturing talent, and Gujarat, where he coaches school athletes.
T C Yohannan, 1976 Montreal
Thadathuvila Chandrapillai Yohannan was first noticed at a national youth meet in 1970 over many other offers he received. Under the tutelage of the TELCO (now Tata Motors) coach Suresh Gujrati, Mr Yohannan started winning and setting national records.
But it was at the Teheran Asian Games in 1974 that he made his mark. He cleared 8.07 metres for a new Asian and national record in a jump that was noted for its technical proficiency. The national record stood for 18 years.
Continuing his spree, he won golds at several invitational Asian meets before being selected for the Montreal Olympics. He finished in fourth place with a jump of 7.67 meters.
“It was a wonderful experience,” recalls Mr Yohannan. “I was performing at the highest level of sports any athlete could have, alongside legends like Sebastian Coe and Alberto Juantorena. I made friends with them too.”
"We don’t lack talent and ambition. We need better infrastructure and facilities. For example, despite the performance of P R Sreejesh in Hockey, we have only one hockey stadium in Kerala and many cricket stadiums. Without these, we can’t advance."
Mr Yohannan’s career was tragically cut short at its peak. In 1978, he sustained a knee injury while training and lack of immediate treatment did much damage. TELCO stepped in to help but despite several surgeries, he could not recover. He never jumped again. “I still cannot bend my knee,” says Mr Yohannan.
Bahadur Singh, 1980 Moscow
There will be few coaches in India as respected and loved as Bahadur Singh. He was chief coach of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) for over 25 years before he stepped down last year, citing advancing age and inability to travel to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics due to Covid19 restrictions.
The legendary Shot Put and Discus thrower commenced his career with TELCO, Jamshedpur, in 1967. He had already made a mark in sports by then. “I had offers from Punjab Police and the Railways, but I chose Tata. Tata had a reputation for encouraging and nurturing sportspersons and had good facilities. It was an easy choice to make,” says Mr Singh. He became the national champion in Discus Throw that year.
Between 1973 and 1985, he won three gold, two silver, and three bronze at the Asian level, including back-to-back golds in the 1978 Bangkok and 1982 Delhi Asian Games. He represented India at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and finished 15th.
"Sports must start at the school level. In China, schoolchildren devote half their time to studies and the other half to sports. This is a good model to emulate. We will have a healthy and well-rounded population and our performance at the national level will automatically increase."
In 1991, he joined the AFI as a coach. In 2003, he retired from Tata Motors to concentrate fully on his assignment as the chief coach of the federation. His biggest achievement: during his tenure, India’s medal count increased from three bronze medals at the Asian Games to winning 20 — including eight golds — at the 2018 Asian Games at Jakarta.
Other Tata employees who are Olympians include Eddie Sequira (Munich 1972), Adille Sumariwala (1980 Moscow), Baldev Singh (1948 London) Sanjeeva Singh (1980 Moscow) and Deepika Kumari (2020 Tokyo) in archery and Leo Pinto, in Hockey (1948 London).
— Haroon Bijli