Gopi Thonakal entered into the sporting history of India by becoming the nation’s first man to win Asian Marathon Championship. He achieved the feat in the 16th edition of the prestigious event held at Dongguan in China. Gopi clocked 2 hours 15 minutes and 48 seconds to clinch the title.
Prior to Gopi, two Indian women won this competition. Asha Agarwal won the women’s gold medal in 1985 but that was when the marathon was part of the biennial Asian Track and Field Championships. Later when the Asian Athletics Association started conducting it separately as Asian Marathon Championship, then India’s Sunita Godara won the gold medal in1992.
Gopi Thonakal is an only child of his farmer parents who grew up helping his father in a small area of land at a small village in Wayanad, Kerala. His village, Suthan Bathery, is situated at an altitude of 1000m above sea level, where Gopi started running right from his school years. But as he grew up he understood the need of a steady income and thus, joined the Indian army at the age of 21 as a Hawildar at the Army Artillery Center in Hyderabad. He was a 10,000m athlete who won gold in the 2014 National Open Athletics Championship and the 2016 gold medal in the South Asian Games with a new games record of 29 hours 10 minutes 53 seconds. But his shift to marathon was quite surprising.
In 2016 Mumbai Marathon, Gopi was brought in as a pace-setter for Nitendra Rawat for the first 30 km so that Rawat could qualify for the Olympics. A pace-setter in marathon is employed to keep the heavy-weight runners at a certain speed so that they can manage that speed for the rest of the race. Though Gopi initially started as a pace setter in Mumbai Marathon, but after 30 kms he did not drop out and completed the full race. He finished just 37 seconds behind Nitendra Rawat and with a timing of 2 hours 16 minutes and 15 seconds, Gopi qualified for the Rio Olympics in 2016.
At the big stage, Gopi produced his best timing of 2 hours 15 minutes and 26 seconds to finish as the second Indian after Kheta Ram. His overall position was 26th in a field of 155 marathoners in Rio. Gopi represented India in 2017 IAAF World Championships and finished the race with a timing of 2 hours 17 minutes and 13 seconds at 28th position.