Athlete in Poverty – P Naganathan Heads to the Olympics


BOULDER, Colorado — Pandi Naganathan was born and raised by his large family in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu in India. As an athlete born in poverty, his resources were scarce. Regardless of class status, there remained a dream any child could have: Naganathan wanted to run.

A Short Childhood

Naganathan started running at a young age and knew he loved it from the get-go. Yet he knew chasing a dream as an athlete born in poverty would be difficult. However, he never let it slow him down. Because his family was so large and had little money, he had to get a job at a young age. Like his father, he became a part-time construction worker to help support his family. Speaking to News18 he said, “in a way, it has helped me in my sporting career as I was able to gain stamina and power by lifting bricks and other construction materials.”

Even so, his family did not have enough money to afford running shoes for his passion. Naganathan did not let this stop him. He trained and raced in events barefoot. His longest event was the 1500-meter race. According to YourStory, he said, “when I made it to [the] district sports meet, my school gifted me a pair of shoes.” As an athlete born in poverty, he faced struggles like this. Once in college, he worked to pay off his school fees. He would work part-time so he had time to run and compete for his school. He wanted to study engineering but the costs were too much, so he studied history instead. Because of his excellent performance in sports, his fees were often reimbursed at the end of the semester.

Life in the Fast Lane

After college, Naganathan got a job to support himself. Though he wanted to continue to run, he needed to find support. In 2017, Naganathan found a job as an Armed Reserve Constable in the police force on a sports quota, a reservation given to a high-level athlete. This allowed him to continue to train as a runner. In 2019, he made his mark at the All-India Police Meet, winning a gold medal. The same year he won the CM’s trophy at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in his hometown of Chennai. Afterward, he could focus on his training rather than his police work because of his successes.

The Invitation

In February 2021, Naganathan placed second overall in the Federation Cup in Patiala, India. After training for so long, building up loans and debt, and making a name for himself as a racer, he received an offer that he did not see coming. Naganathan was selected to represent India as part of the 4×400 team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. According to the New Indian Express, he said, “not in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would get an opportunity to participate in the Olympics. I owe much of my success to my police coach Prabhakaran, the Chennai Police Sports Incharge and sub-inspectors Paul Dominic and Sivalingam.” Despite being an athlete born into poverty, he was able to make his dreams come true.

Poverty remains a challenge in India that many of its citizens face on a day-to-day basis. There are many hurdles for an athlete in poverty to overcome to achieve a dream. Naganathan faced those same hurdles. Though he had little to work with and a lot to deal with, he never gave up on his dream to run professionally. Today, he is achieving the ultimate dream by going to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

– Riley Prillwitz
Photo: Flickr


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