On the right track

Out of her sportsperson parents’ shell, Harmilan carving a niche for herself on the big stage

On the right track

Fresh from winning a gold in 1500m at the recently-concluded Asian Indoor Athletics Championships 2024 in Tehran, India’s rising middle and long distance runner Harmilan Kaur Bains has set her eyes on Olympic qualification but an unwanted controversy, involving her shift from Punjab to Chandigarh has led her to spend many a sleepless night.

In a freewheeling chat with The Statesman, the 25-year-old opens up on her experience of competing in her maiden Indoor competition and the sleepless nights that she had to spend in the run-up to her event, as she expects to get into Olympic-preparation mode with a free mind.

How was your experience at the Asian Indoor Championships?


A: To be honest, it was a mixed experience for me. Till the moment I landed in Dubai, it was all ok but then things changed overnight when I was asked to return my prize money from the Punjab government. I had to spend sleepless nights in Dubai, and when I was starting my race, it was the first thing that came to my mind. It did affect initially but I decided to leave that behind and focus on my race.

Describe the difference in competition in Indoor and Outdoor competitions?

A: The major difference was it was a messed up one. First the watch stopped, then it was in seconds, whereas in most outdoor competitions we calculate in minutes, so a bit of confusion. But the main worry was the start was delayed by more than 30 minutes, due to which our bodies lost the heat generated during the warmups. And then when we finally started, we were already cold, and most of the athletes weren’t in the mood to start. And since the venue was situated in a high-altitude terrain, it was chilly, and they turned on the heaters which led to suffocation and chest pain of many athletes.

How were you feeling mentally during the start?

A: Honestly speaking, all those things (regarding the return of prize money) were playing on my mind, and then the messy start made things worse. In the last three laps, I developed a chest pain and had to slow down the race, but then I managed to overcome it, considering I have a bigger goal in my mind. Thankfully, those things didn’t have a part in the overall outcome.

Coming to the controversy involving your switch to Chandigarh, do you feel you have betrayed Punjab?

A: No, not all…why would I? That’s my state, and I have no problems with the state. I have all the respect for my state and the government. But the switch was necessitated after I failed to find the response I deserved for my performance at the international meets, including the Hangzhou Asian Games. Coming to your point, I have got the required NOC from Punjab Athletics Association, and the same was submitted to the Chandigarh Athletics Association. This was checked and reviewed by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), so I don’t think I have done anything wrong.

But the Punjab association officials are saying that you have disrespected the bond that ensured your representation for the state for three years?

A: For the past many years, athletes haven’t been treated equally in Punjab. I had asked for three academies to train — Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur and Patiala — but unfortunately none of the venues were allotted. When young athletes come up to me and say that they don’t have tracks to train, it makes us feel so helpless. Someone has to stand up. If you remember during the Covid, I wasn’t allowed to train in Patiala as the NCOE was solely for the elite athletes, and I had to switch base to Himachal. It was difficult for me, it can be the same for others as well. Regarding the bond, and the prize money, we athletes have zero savings. It’s my request to the Punjab government to show a bigger heart and allow me to train freely. Also at the same time, I work for the RBI in Chandigarh, and I had to eventually shift someday, so I had no option.

What are your plans for the season ahead?

A: The first priority is to qualify for Paris, either by ranking points or by direct qualification. So we are looking at overseas training in the US or UK. If it’s the US, our coach has suggested Colorado where we’ll have team races. But if I switch to the UK, I will take part in the BMC’s (British Miller Clubs) similar to the Grand Prix in India, where I have a chance to earn some ranking points. The plan is to travel by mid-March and return by the time of the Inter-State completion, a mandatory one, scheduled on June 27. So, hopefully, I can be in great shape by the time I return for the inter-state, the main qualification event for the Olympics.

So which event are you primarily targeting?

A: As you know, both the events are close to my heart, and have a deep connection with my family. But on a serious note, I am targeting both, but there are more medal chances in the 1500m. And I am trying to achieve the 800m qualification by earning ranking points. To be eligible for the ranking chart, an athlete has to take part in minimum five meets, and I have so far taken part in four, so hopefully in the coming months, the picture will be clear.