Bangladesh athletics team’s head coach Sufia Khatun is the living proof that age is not an insurmountable barrier for a person with great willpower. At the age of 72, she is conducting an athletic camp at BKSP from 10 March for the upcoming Commonwealth and Islamic Solidarity Games. Sufia spoke with Prothom Alo during a training session on BKSP’s athletic track on 21 April. In that conversation, the former fastest woman in Pakistan and Bangladesh spoke about the current state of the country’s athletics and also about her personal life.

At this age, you are expected to spend time with you grandchildren. But you are out here in BKSP, training the country’s top athletes. Where do you find your inspiration?

I inspire myself. I have loved sports, ever since I was a child. Sports is my life. So, I never feel that I am 72 years old.

Sufia Khatun conducting a training session of athletes.
Prothom Alo

Still, at one point everyone has to stop. Have you given any thought to retirement?

Not really. As long as I live, I will remain at the track. Actually, I can’t set my mind to anything else other than sports. I don’t like doing that. I can’t live a day without sports. I want to continue training athletes till the last day of my life.

But it’s difficult to get an opportunity to train athletes. Bangladesh Athletics Federation gave you the national team’s coaching duties after 29 years. Did you think you would get appointed?

I didn’t really think about it too much. But I had this belief, that I will once again get appointed as the coach of the national team. But no matter how much I wanted the job, I wouldn’t have landed it if the athletic federation hadn’t chosen me. They have valued my work and determined that I am suitable for the job. Now I want to fulfill this responsibility with utmost honesty.

You were the Bangladesh team’s coach during the 1993 SA Games in Dhaka. That year, you were named the coach of the year by the Bangladesh Sports Press Association. Do you remember?

I remember it vividly. In the 1993 Games, Bimal Chandra Tarafdar became the fastest man in South Asia. I was his coach. Actually, during that time we enjoyed a lot of success in athletics. But with time, everything changed. I feel bad comparing the current state of athletics with the old days.

After becoming the national team’s coach, what’s your assessment of the athletes?

There is a stark difference between our days in athletics and the present scene. Like, we used to train with deep focus, we wouldn’t go anywhere else, would stay occupied with athletics throughout the 24 hours. The current athletes are not like that. They ask for leave every now and then. Today they have this problem, tomorrow another thing. This is not the right way.

Athletics in Bangladesh is going through a long drought. Do you think this drought would end in the future?

Imranur (a Bangladeshi expatriate in England) has a good timing. We can be hopeful about him in the 100-metre sprint event in the next South Asia Games. Our kids are also doing well in the high jump event. Shirin (Akter), Sumiya (Dewan) are trying hard. Their timing is also improving. But they still have a lot of work left to do.

In the Pakistan Olympic held in Dhaka in 1968, you became Pakistan’s fastest woman. In 1974, you also became the first person to become the fastest woman of Bangladesh. In 1978-82, you became the fastest woman five times in a row. You became the queen of the tracks. What was your secret behind it?

There was no such secret, I used to train regularly. I would never try to skip training. To strengthen my leg muscle, I went and trained at Rajshahi’s Baluchar area countless times. Actually, you can’t achieve success without putting in the hard work. I remember, in 1968 I beat Pakistan’s Dolores Almeida to win the 100-metre sprint. I came second in the 200-metre sprint in that Games.

Sufia Khatun became the fastest woman in Pakistan in the Pakistan Olympic held in Dhaka in 1968.
Courtesy photo

You made headlines in West Bengal when you were a child athlete. How were those days like?

Incredible. I was born in Murshidabad district’s Baharampur. My name spread across India when I was studying at Sadikhar Diar Primary School. I was also the Junior Athletics champion in India. My picture got printed in Anadabazar and many other newspapers. In 1965, we sold our property there and shifted to Pabna.

But your roots are still in Murshidabad. How many of your family members are still living there?

My father passed away a long time ago. He was in the rice trade. We owned a lot of land. Out of two brothers and four sisters, only me (fourth of the six siblings) and our eldest sister are alive. Her nickname is Lata. I don’t remember what her proper name is. She lives in Baharampur. She is very old. All of my relatives also live there.

Sufia Khatun became Bangladesh's fastest woman six times.
Courtesy photo

How many children do you have?

My only son lives in Rajshahi and my only daughter lives in Murshidabad. My son-in-law is a leader of CPM (Communist Party of India) in Murshidabad’s Jalangi. They are all happy with their lives. My daughter visited Bangladesh a few days ago, she also came to BKSP. Here she told me, “You look quite happy here.” I said I’m always happy.

You live alone without your children; don’t you feel bad about that?

I have been living alone for a long time now. My husband passed away in 2003. I have been without a partner since. But I actually quite like living alone. I feel uneasy when someone comes to my home, I always wonder when will they leave (smiles). I require no help while moving around. I am good enough by myself.

Do you go to Murshidabad?

I went there in 2019, before Covid-19. After that I went there last year.

I saw your picture published in Anadabazar newspaper in the 1960s.

Yes, I first won a race when I was a student at Sadikhar Diar Primary School in Murshidabad’s Baharampur. My picture used to get published in newspapers in Kolkata. After I became champion in the All-India Junior Athletics in Chandigarh, my picture was printed in Anadabazar and other newspapers in Kolkata. I have kept those photos with me.

This photo of Sufia Khatun was published in Anadabazar newspaper in the 1960s.
Courtesy photo

What do you remember most about your time in Sadikhar Diar school?

The memories of sprinting. There was a huge ground at the school, it’s still there. I would always come first in the race. Everyone used to adore me at school. Still, during the annual athletics in the school they talk about me. My relatives get phone calls from the school.

How do you keep yourself fit even at this age?

I follow a strict routine. That’s why I am physically fit and doing well. I stay fit throughout the year. The last time I fell seriously ill and had to get admitted into BIRDEM hospital, was in 2010. Since then, I haven’t faced any such problems. I am always busy with my work. I am always walking. Last year I went to India, got my eyes tested and got lenses. Now my eyes are working fine. I have no problems physically.

What’s your everyday routine?

I go to bed very early. I fall asleep before 9:00 PM. I wake up at around 4:30-5:00 AM in the morning. I go out for a walk after my prayers. I return at around 7:30 AM and then prepare breakfast.

You cook for yourself?

I do everything by myself. I prepare breakfast in the morning- roti and vegetables. For lunch I cook rice, fish, lentils, vegetables. In dinner, I take two rotis and vegetables. I eat roti in two meals and rice in one. I like fish like koi and shing, lentils, bananas etc. Sometimes I eat khichuri. But I don’t eat beef, mutton or chicken. When I got sick in 2010, the physicians advised me not to eat these things.

Sufia Khatun keeps fit through regular exercise.
Prothom Alo

Before this, you were a teacher in an English medium school in the Bashundhara residential area. Why did you quit that job?

I was bored from working there from 2012. The job was at a school, so it became monotonous for us. That’s why I quit the job in 2019. After that I shifted to the Jirani Bazar area near BKSP.

Why Jirani Bazar?

The reason to shift here was the pollution free environment. I shifted my house there to be near BKSP. At first I took a one room house, so I could come to BKSP every day for a walk. I could also go to the gym here. But I shifted from there to a new home two days ago. After retiring from competing, I was a coach in BKSP for 22 years, so everyone knows me here. People ask me where was I for so long. I like hearing that. At this age, I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Do you have any other dreams now?

I don’t have much left to ask for. I don’t have any wish to hold a position in the Athletics Federation. Who would want to entangle themselves in so much mess, tell me! I want to stay with athletics till my death. Where else would I be! I have no other place to go.

You could’ve taken up some other profession.

I could’ve. I have completed honours and masters in history in Rajshahi University. I did my masters in 1985, when I was 35. But I didn’t enter any other profession as I never thought about anything else other than sports.

A picture taken four years ago during the National Athletics held at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka.
Prothom Alo

Do you have any unfulfilled desire?

There is one. But before saying what it is, I want to ask you a question. What does it take to become a federation councillor? Look, I have received the national sports award, the Prothom Alo lifetime achievement award (2016). I have achieved a lot of things in my life. But in all these years, I couldn’t become a coucillor in any of the federation elections. I still have this one regret left.

*This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ashfaq-Ul-Alam Niloy.