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RIGHT ON TRACK

Chatline Murali and Mercy Kuttan tell K. Pradeep about how they teamed up and their work at the Mercy Kuttan Athletics Academy

Photos: H. Vibhu

Like a duet International athletes Mercy Kuttan and Murali Kuttan are grooming talents together

Mercy and Murali Kuttan have found love, leading to marriage, just as they have found fame and fortune on the track. But their union is more unique. They were the first Indian athletic ‘couple,’ the first pair to emerge National champions and win Asian medals.

And if all this was not enough to draw attention to them, their romance and subsequent marriage certainly was. For Mercy and Murali those were turbulent days. “We met during the selection camp for the Moscow Olympics. It was love at first sight for me,” says Murali, a 400-metres National champion then. But when Murali proposed Mercy rejected it outright. “I was focussed on my career that was just taking off. I was an automatic choice in the Olympic squad,” recalls long jumper Mercy. Murali began avoiding Mercy; his athlete friends told her that Murali had even stopped eating. “Slowly, I began to take a liking to him. I knew that he was serious. We met, talked and decided to get married. This news angered the chief coach J. S. Saini. He took a hard stance. I was not selected for the Olympics…” Mercy is interrupted by Murali. “I was not a certainty in the side but that was not the case with Mercy. She was the best in the country in her event. That would have been her first Olympic Games. I was really sad that she could not make it because of me. There was a guilty feeling.”

“I was really upset but it made me more determined. Despite protests from both our families we decided to go ahead . Looking back I feel that this served as a springboard to my career in athletics. It is so much easier being married to someone in the same field. Only an athlete would understand the intricacies and challenges faced by another athlete,” feels Mercy.

In 1981 at the Asian Track and Field Championships, Tokyo, love grew. So did their careers. Mercy won the bronze in long jump and 4x400 metres relay and Murali a bronze in the men’s 4 x 400 m relay. Back from Tokyo they got married. “It was a quiet affair at a register office in Jamshedpur where I was stationed with Tata Steel. We had a party for our friends there,” recalls Murali. Soon, Mercy joined him at Tata.

Mercy says her husband has been very influential in her career. “I had no personal coach then. Murali stepped into that role. There was a sort of confidence I had not felt before.”


This was seen in her performances following her marriage. Mercy won the silver at the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi. She has the record of being the first Indian jumper to cross the six metre mark.

She added a few more firsts to her career. Mercy became the first Indian woman to participate in the Commonwealth Games (1982, Brisbane) and World Championships (1983, Helsinki). But all the while there was this deep regret of not taking part in the Olympics.

“I realised that achieving the Olympic qualifying mark for long jump was difficult. I decided to take a break. Two years after my son Suraj was born I decided once again this dream a final shot,” Mercy says. And Murali was only ready to help. “I always wanted to be part of that dream. I asked her to shift to 400m as she stood a good chance to make it to the relay team. We began training,” adds Murali.

Shifting to another event at that stage of her career was not easy. Mercy had to slog it out. She also had a baby to care for. “I always loved challenges. The hard work paid off when I won my first 400 m at the Kanpur nationals beating a star-studded field,” says Mercy with a gratified smile.

Fighting for Arjuna

Mercy went on to record commendable wins in her new event and she also realised her Olympic dream. Mercy was picked for the 1988 Olympic Games at Seoul. She only managed to reach the second round of the 400m but achieved the Olympian tag. She was honoured with the Arjuna Award in 1989 but Mercy had to virtually fight for it.

“Yes, it came after I protested at the manner in which they distributed this prestigious award. I though I deserved it somewhere in 1987 itself. Then after being sidelined for three years in 1988 it was given to an athlete who had no great stakes for the award. I was in Delhi at that time. We were at the training camp for the Beijing Asian Games. I was so frustrated that I announced my retirement in protest. This issue was raised in the Parliament. Then for the next two years this award was not given. In 1991, they gave me the award for the year 1989,” says Mercy.

Both Mercy and Murali, who qualified as a NIS coach, took retirement from Tata’s and also from the sport. After a long hiatus they are back to where they belong – the track. The academy, which has been granted sports hostel status by the State government, has eight girls and three boys. The children, all under 13 years and selected from all over the State, are trained in track events. “We have just begun. We have participated in just one competition. All of them are raw talent. We have set an eight-year goal. It is surely a huge challenge but let’s see what we’ll be to achieve. With my second son Sujith joining the academy, I’m sure we’ll be noticed,” says Mercy.

Knowing Mercy and Murali they are sure to take on any of these challenges head on.

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