Paris Olympics: Poovamma fighting doping charges to flying tricolour again

At 34, the decorated 400 m relay ace has seen both sides of the coin

At 34, M.R. Poovamma is starting afresh (file photo)
At 34, M.R. Poovamma is starting afresh (file photo)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

At 34, it’s certainly not getting any easier for M.R. Poovamma, the seniormost member of the Indian women’s 4 x 400 m relay squad which booked a berth for the Paris Olympics last month, to give her best. However, she wants to give it a final shot thanks to a strong personal agenda, as well as making the national tricolour proud at the ‘greatest show on earth’.

After facing a two-year doping ban between 2021 and 2023, the perception in the athletics community was that it was the end of the road for the decorated 400 m specialist from Karnataka. Hence, when the quartet of  Poovamma, Rupal Chaudhary, Jyothika Sri Dandi and Subha Venkatesan clocked 3.29 minutes to finish second behind Jamaica (3.28 min.) at the World Athletics Relay in Bahamas in early May to earn a spot for India in Paris along with the men’s squad, the Arjuna awardee felt hugely vindicated.

"Most people thought I would quit, but I wanted to make a comeback on the big stage. See, I have been at two Olympics before (in 2008 and 2016) and have got everything as an Indian athlete, winning medals in Asian Games, Asian Championships, and I've also been to four World Championships. However, I want to inspire other girls, show them it’s possible to overcome age and tough times if you have the will,’’ she said.

The build-up to the Games has been hectic for someone like Poovamma as, soon after returning from the Bahamas, she was off to Bangkok for the Asian Relay, where the Indian quartet finished with silver and a time of 3.33 minutes.

Back in her base at Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, she is back to the grind for the upcoming Grand Prix in Bengaluru and then the inter-state athletics in Panchkula from 27-30 June, which will serve as the final selection trials for the Olympics.

Taking time out from her gruelling schedule, Poovamma told National Herald in an exclusive chat over phone that the confidence levels and focus of her younger teammates makes her really hopeful of making a mark in Paris. ‘’It’s true that most of these girls are about eight to 10 years younger than me, but they are really motivated and have a greater self belief than when we started.

"There is no senior-junior culture in the squad any more, and I strongly feel we are in a position to better the 20-year-old national record set in the Athens Olympics,’’ said Poovamma,  who won gold in both the 4x400 m and mixed 4x400 m relay races at the 2018 Asian Games.

The national record for women’s 4x400 m relay stands in the name of Chitra Soman, Rajwinder Kaur, K.M. Beenamol and Manjit Kaur, with a timing of 3.26 minutes in Athens, while India’s best showing in the Olympics women’s 4x400 m relay event was a seventh-place finish twice: in Los Angeles 1984 and Athens 2004.

‘’Our timing could have been better in the Bahamas. However we ran 3.27 minutes at the Asian Games last year and I feel unlike in the past, when we would just go to participate, there is a realistic chance of us of lowering the national record and making the final. The same applies to the mixed relay event, while the men’s team stands a chance of finishing with a medal,’’ Poovamma said.

The can-do attitude of the Karnataka runner, egged on by her athlete husband Jithin Paul, was instrumental in pulling her through dark times as she served a two-year suspension handed out by the Anti-Doping Appeal Panel for a failed drug test in February 2021.

She had allegedly tested positive for methylhexaneamine, a simulant prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), in an in-competition test at the Indian Grand Prix 1 in Patiala, a verdict which prevented her from participating in what could have been a third Olympics in Tokyo itself.

‘’I had gone into depression and thought of giving it all up but my husband, a former international hurdler himself, said it would be impossible to come back if I did so, and I should wait for the ban to end. So on the one hand, while I went to Kerala High Court and challenged the ban, I kept preparing for the Inter-State or Fed Cup, only to be stopped from participating at the last minute. Looking back, it would have been impossible for me to be here today if Jithin wasn't there,’’ said Poovamma, who got married in late 2021 after a brief courtship.

Looking back, how does she reconcile with the lost two years? ‘’It was not in my hands. I have been a God-fearing person and waited for this day, postponing all plans of starting a family. Now, I can only look forward to giving my best,’’ she said.

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