Ranjit Bhatia, O.B.E., 1936-2014
A hugely popular member of Belgrave’s teams of the early 1960s, Ranjit Bhatia was admired as much for his modesty and support for the Club as he was for his prowess as a runner.
On 27 May 1936 Ranjit was born in Middlesex Hospital, but his family returned to Eastern India within a year. At eleven years old, Indian independence and partition meant that his home now fell in the newly created state of Pakistan. With the subsequent mass migration, Ranjit left his homeland in haste, moving to Delhi. By 1952, he was studying at Lawrence College, Sanawar, about a six hour drive from New Delhi. The school, one of the oldest boarding schools in India, is situated on Sanawar Hill at about 1,750 metres altitude, and it was here that Ranjit developed his skill and love for running – a talent that led him to become the Indian Universities Champion at 1,500m and silver medallist in the 800m.
As an excellent scholar, Ranjit was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to read mathematics at Jesus College, Oxford University, so by 1957 he was back in the land of his birth and on 16 December he became a member of Belgrave Harriers. Not really comfortable with the change of climate and making sure that his studies came first anyway, Ranjit was nevertheless selected to run for Oxford University AC v. Middlesex in 1958, and set a handy one-mile time of 4 mins 16 secs. He placed third behind John Davies and Pat Newell in the Belgrave Championship.
By April 1959, after a solid winter of training on the track, he’d assisted the Club to second place in the Ilford Road Relay, and as early as May he had set personal bests of 52.3 (440yds), 1:57.1 (880yds), 4:15.5 (1 mile) and 9:16.0 (2 miles). However, intensive study was now the order of the day and it paid dividends as he did so well in his ‘finals’ that he was awarded a third year at Jesus College to continue his research.
The Autumn of 1959 saw a change in Ranjit’s training methods as he began to run exclusively on the country throughout the following winter in the company of some excellent runners of the time – Stephen James, Paddy Montague and Alistair Wood. Almost every day a circuit was tackled that included steep hills and as 1960 dawned he found himself an immensely stronger athlete. Belgrave benefitted greatly from the ‘new’ Ranjit. He was the Club’s second man home in the South of Thames Championship (a very prestigious race in those days) and again was only beaten by one Belgravian in the Southern Cross Country Championship. He won the Oxfordshire County Cross Country Championship, but as the sport switched to the roads in the Spring, his progress became astounding. He was fastest Belgravian in the winning Ilford Road Relay team and the following week smashed, by no less than 25 seconds, Pat Newell’s record for the Belgrave 5¾ Miles Road Championship, used as the trial for the National Road Relay.
As for that “National” London to Brighton Relay, he had run well enough on the first leg in the “Southern” event the previous Autumn, bringing the Club to the first changeover in 3rd spot, but now he was promoted to 9th stage to face the “big guns”. His 28 mins. 56 secs. was third fastest of the day as he reduced the club record by half a minute and had the beating of internationals Gordon Pirie (South London H) and Bruce Tulloh (Portsmouth AC). It was regarded as his finest ever Club race.
Above. Ranjit Bhatia takes the tape for another fine win in a 3 miles race.
Of course, 1960 was also Olympic year. Ranjit hadn’t really thought about trying to gain Olympic selection, but at the end of April, on two successive days, he astounded his friends and rivals alike by running 4:08.7 to set a Club Record for the mile and then 13:57.6 to narrowly miss the 3 miles record. The Universities Athletic Union 3 miles title fell to him in a new Championship best of 13:56 at Nottingham. He then ran 13:57 in the Inter-Counties Championships and was runner-up in the Kinnaird Trophy. In the form of his life, Ranjit ran 14:12 or under on thirteen consecutive occasions during the next few months, sometimes racing twice a week.
As the fastest Asian runner over one mile, a place on India’s team for the Rome Olympics became a possibility. Initial enquiries resulted in the news that the team had already been selected but Belgrave’s half-miler Bob Taylor had the idea of approaching another Belgravian, Les Cohen, who wielded considerable influence in the higher echelons of athletics; perhaps he could offer some advice. Les got in touch with the Indian Olympic Committee, and not only was Ranjit soon notified that he had been selected for the 5,000 metres, he was told that there was a spare spot in the 10,000 metres as well. The Club 6 miles Championship was coming up and Ranjit decided to have a crack at it to see how he would go. Charlie Dabbs, Malcolm Robinson and Ranjit agreed to share the pace on the Battersea cinders and the result was that for 1960 the name of R. Bhatia would be engraved on the Tom Carter Trophy, time 29:50.4 – a Championship Record. Ranjit’s main concern after the race seemed to be to apologise to his colleagues for not running fast enough during his stints at the front.
Unfortunately, along with all of the distance runners from the British Isles, Ranjit’s races in Rome were not what had been hoped for; the extreme humidity was often cited for the below par performances. He placed 11th in the second heat of the 5,000 metres, just outside 15 minutes, and didn’t take up his 10,000 metres slot, opting instead for the marathon where he placed 60th in 2 hrs. 57 mins. 6 secs. That marathon was a pivotal event for distance running as the barefooted Abebe Bikila became the first African to break an athletics World Record and the first sub-Saharan African Olympic gold medallist.
Sadly, it was now time for Belgrave Harriers to say goodbye to Ranjit, but at the Club’s AGM he was unanimously elected a Vice-President, honouring him not only for his athletic prowess but for his modesty and love for Belgrave.
Ranjit took up a post at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, teaching mathematics, and he remained with the college until his retirement as Reader. He was very highly regarded in athletic and scholarly circles for the rest of his life. In 1963 he became Indian 1,500 metres Champion and for many years afterwards he was noted as the man who, after a day at college, would drop off the bus on his way home to run at the National Stadium before completing his journey. A handy bag was usually slung on his shoulder, in which he would carry a pair of brown canvas running shoes and shorts, and a copy of ‘Runners World’. The Sunday morning Otto Peltzer road races of those days were incomplete without this soft-spoken scholar-sportsman taking part.
The legendary Indian 400 metre runner Milka Singh recalled him as “the perfect gentleman.” Sriam Singh, one-time Asian 800 metre record holder said that Ranjit was fondly known as “Bhatia sahib … always there to help any athlete.” At the Munich Olympics Sriram had run a fine 800 metres but the scoreboard only showed a very poor time: “Bhatia sahib protested on my behalf and it was found that a pigeon was stuck in the electronic wires of the board causing the machine to malfunction. Later the organisers corrected my timings.”
As well as teaching, Ranjit wrote regularly on Athletics for Indian and overseas newspapers and magazines, including ‘Athletics Weekly’. He covered seven Olympic Games for different Indian newspapers. Ranjit also authored several books including the ‘Handbook of Indian Athletics’ and the ‘Book of Asian Games’. He was an active member of the Association of Track and Field Statisticians, a national-level selector for Indian athletics between 1976 and 1984, and an administrator for the Indian chapter of the Rhodes Scholarships from 1962 until his retirement in 1997. In recognition of his services to the Rhodes Trust and athletics, the British Government awarded Ranjit Bhatia the O.B.E.
Ranjit died in New Delhi on 9 February, aged 77.
Far left: March 28th, 1959, and Ranjit Bhatia hands over to Archie Bedford to complete the second stage of the Thames Valley Road Relay. The Bels. placed 8th.
Left: On the Brighton Road, April 9th, 1960, and Ranjit takes control of the second of the all-important six mile stages of the London to Brighton National Road Relay. He ran faster than Gordon Pirie and Bruce Tulloh to maintain the Club's position of 5th, pulling up to within striking distance of 4th. The Bels. ended up in 4th place by the time last stage runner Alan Black reached the Aquarium in Brighton. Running behind and watching Ranjit's progress with interest is Malcolm Robinson (in the bobble hat) who didn't make the team on that day.
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