India’s Usain Bolt? A reality check on the hype around Srinivasa Gowda’s feat

Why the ‘kambala’ jockey’s ‘100m run in 9.55 seconds’ and comparisons with legend Usain Bolt must be read with caveats.

By Olympic Channel Writer

A day before Valentine’s Day, India fell in love with a 28-year-old who, to his own admission, was only running in a ‘slushy paddy field’. His feat - he sprinted 142.5 metres in 13.62 seconds in the annual event ‘kambala’ which involves participants running with two buffaloes. After the Internet went up in high praise comparing the local sprinter, Srinivasa Gowda, to Olympian Usain Bolt, we too dived in to take notes.

Srinivasa Gowda’s rise to Internet stardom

The man from Karnataka, prior to the race on Thursday was a virtually unknown entity outside of the circles who know about the annual race. His feat was first reported by local Kannada newspapers and it was not until an Additional Director General of Police told a senior editor of a major news network that Srinivasa Gowda shot to instant fame.

Soon enough, thrilling videos of him running on a paddy field, shepherding two buffaloes surfaced and went viral on social media. There were, of course, comparisons with the legendary Usain Bolt, because Srinivasa Gowda’s 100m timing seemed lesser than the Jamaican sprinter’s.

Bolt had sprinted his way to a sensational timing of 9.58 seconds in 2009, a world record that still stands in official books. A big throw of limelight came when Indian Member of Parliament and sports enthusiast tweeted urging the Athletics Association of India to ‘take this man under their wing’ and even wished to see him as an Olympic champion.

The hype reached further heights when India’s sports minister, Kiren Rijiju, who announced that not only had the Sports Authority of India noticed Srinivasa Gowda, they had already arranged for trials and ensured top coaches give him a look-in.

While it is commendable that overnight fame on the Internet has turned Srinivasa Gowda’s life around and he does seem like a potentially fine athlete, it’s worth taking a few reality checks on this blazing story.  

What is the sport that Srinivasa Gowda took part in?

Srinivasa Gowda was running in a traditional Indian sport called ‘kambala’- an annual event where a man, called the ‘kambala jockey’, has to keep up with two buffaloes, who pull him towards the finish line.

The animals are trained for the sport and the 28-year-old construction worker actually ran 142.5 metres, not just 100, in 13.62 seconds, which when back-calculated, equates to 100m run in around 9.55 seconds, which is 0.03 seconds faster than Usain Bolt’s record time of 9.58 seconds.

Objectively, the fact that he ran so quickly while the trained beasts were pulling him at ferocious speed is tremendous in itself and by no means can it be done by many other athletes.

That said, comparisons with Usain Bolt, a track-and-field legend who runs with several other factors in play, seem a little premature.

Cutting through the hype

First up, it’s important to note that the annual event in India’s southern state of Karnataka has had a bit of a controversial history. In 2014, animal welfare organisations who had approached the Supreme Court of India were successful in getting ‘kambala’ banned. But in 2017, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Karnataka Amendment) Ordinance re-legalised the kambala festival in Karnataka.

Secondly, even as the Srinivasa Gowda story has raged abroad, most have not noted that traditional Indian sports such as kambala follow hand timings. The daily Indian Express pointed out that Gowda’s speed of ‘100 metres in 9.55 seconds was mostly ‘due to the speed of his buffaloes.’

Watch a few of the videos and you’d note that the race involves the athlete maintaining momentum with some help from his four-legged partners.

Finally, it’s worth looking at the hype with a reality filter only because the man in the eye of the attention storm himself has said that putting him on the same plane as Usain Bolt would be a bit of a stretch.

That said, there is no doubt that Srinivasa Gowda’s achievement as well as his physique are stellar, and he must make the most of his newly landed opportunities to hone himself into a professional track and field athlete.

The hype would be real indeed if he cracks a similar timing in India’s timed trials and rises through the ranks. We’ll be watching!