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Indian athletes seem to have learnt to be at the forefront, come rain, shine or thunderstorm. After all, they overcame those impediments, besides, competition from their opponents, during Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar last week to hit the podium an unprecedented 29 times.
Rain left the Kalinga Stadium’s artificial track and field damp, and the resultant humidity hampered athletes’ performances on all five days. But Indian athletes won enough metal to finish atop the medal tally for the first time ever in 22 editions of the competition. In all, India clinched 29 medals—12 gold, five silver, and 12 bronze—in the 42-nation competition, reason enough to celebrate.
It could have been one more gold, but Archana Adhav, who came first in the women’s 800m, was later disqualified for ‘pushing’ an athlete towards the end of the fiercely contested race. That aberration apart, the championship served as preparation for athletes ahead of the World Championships, beginning on August 4 in London. All gold-winners automatically qualified for London.
India’s deputy chief coach Radhakrishnan Nair said 36 athletes have so far qualified according to criteria set by the International Association of Athletics Federations, the world governing body. “But the Indian Athletics Federation (AFI) selection committee will select the team,” Nair tells Outlook. That means not all 36 may go to London. AFI secretary C.K. Valson told Outlook that all qualified athletes would have to compete at the 57th National Inter-State Senior Athletics Championships from July 15-18 in Guntur, where a final selection would be made.
This has not gone down well. Some athletes who qualified question the rationale of being forced to prove their credentials all over again. They feel that if they competed so soon after Bhubaneswar, they would find it difficult to put in their best performance in Guntur, as recovery time is short. Crucially, after Guntur, they wouldn’t just be in top shape for London—due after just 16 days.
Junior world javelin record holder Neeraj Chopra, who won the gold with a new Asian meet record in Bhubaneswar, is among those inclined to skip Guntur. “I will try and compete at the IAAF Diamond League in Monaco (starting July 21) before the World Championships, instead of going for the Inter-State,” Chopra tells Outlook.
A veteran coach revealed that, according to a top athletic official, the timings clocked by Indian athletes were not impressive, so they were being made to improve their performances in Guntur.
Nonetheless, Indians’ performance was praiseworthy, considering the unconducive conditions. India had won 13 medals in the previous edition in Wuhan, China, in 2015, so at home, athletes took a quantum leap, egged on by passionately partisan spectators who packed the 9,800-capacity refurbished Kalinga Stadium on all the days.
Though India’s show was creditable, China and Japan sent their B teams, holding back the best for the World Championships in London next month.
World athletics powerhouse China finished a distant second with 20 medals (eight gold, seven silver, five bronze) and Kazakhstan was third, with eight medals in all (four gold, two silver, two bronze). To be fair, China and Japan had mostly sent second-rung athletes as their best athletes are preparing for the World Championships. Still, Indian athletes richly deserve credit. Long distance runner Govindan Lakshmanan (5,000m and 10,000m), Muhammed Anas (400m and 4x400m relay) and Nirmala Sheoran (women’s 400m and 4x400m relay), who won two gold medals each, were the toast of the competition.
On the other hand, Neeraj Chopra again proved that he was improving by leaps and bounds. The 19-year-old javelin thrower from Panipat established a new meet record, with a fantastic hurl of 85.23m on his very last attempt, while under immense pressure—at the time he was placed third. “I was confident about breaking the meet record here. At the 2015 Championships, when I finished ninth, I vowed to perform better at the next one. Here, the weather affected me too. Also, one would get his turn after almost half an hour, so I had to remain focussed and keep the body warm,” says Chopra.
Chopra’s was one of only two meet records established—both in javelin. The other mark was set by Chinese Li Lingwei, who hurled the javelin to 63.06m in the women’s competition.
After Manpreet Kaur opened India’s golden account, by winning the women’s shot put event with a throw of 18.28m—her second career-best performance—beating China’s Guo Tianqian (17.91m), it was a supremely confident Lakshmanan’s turn to spread more cheer, as he came up trumps in the 5,000 metre (14:54.48 seconds). Later, he completed a grand double, as he bagged 1,0000 m gold in 29:55:87 sec.
“After winning the 5,000m gold, I became more confident about the 10,000m race and my motivation went up many notches. I am confident I’ll better my personal best (13:36:62 sec) in London as the conditions there are expected to be much better. Here, I ran for India and gold, and not for my timings,” says Lakshmanan. However, he has no qualms about running both races in Guntur.
Chitra P.U. (inset, with gold) competing in the 1500m finals in Bhubaneswar
The wiry Ajay Kumar Saroj, who set the track on fire with a stupendous 1,500m run, was one of finds of the championships. The 20-year-old from Phaphamau, Allahabad, clinched the biggest reward of his fledgling career as he grabbed the gold rather easily in 3:45:85 seconds, and thus booked a London berth.
Another athlete who emerged as a veritable trackstar is 22-year-old Chitra P.U. She surprised all by nailing the 1,500m gold in a strategically well-run race with a personal best of 4:17:92 sec (the WR is 3:50:07 sec). Coming from a poor family, she had grabbed attention by winning the 3,000m gold at the Asian School Championship four years ago in Malaysia. Here, she beat the seasoned Ayako Jinnouchi of Japan, who ran her season’s best here.
Anas was a success story too. He bagged the 400m and 4x400m relay (along with Kunju Mohammed, Amoj Jacob, and Arokia Rajiv) gold medals in style. In the individual one-lap race, the Kerala athlete won easily in 45.77 sec. And in the relay, 23-year-old Anas, as the third runner, opened up a crucial lead that proved to be insurmountable for India’s opponents.
Pocket dynamite Swapna Barman won hearts in heptathlon, Dutee Chand won a bronze but Tintu Luka was unlucky.
Pocket dynamite Swapna Barman also won hearts at the gruelling heptathlon with 5942 points. Orissa’s Dutee Chand, the local favourite, who is still under the scanner after being diagnosed with hyperandrogenism in 2014, won a bronze in 4x100m relay and came fourth in 200m, clocking a season’s best of 23.59 sec.
The tiny Jisna Mathew, a product of the P.T. Usha Athletics School, impressed with her two medals—gold in 4x400m relay and silver in 400m, while Tintu Luka, her coursemate, failed to finish the 400m race, pulling out after 500m. Usha said she was running a temperature.
All in all, it was a happy outing for Indian athletes, organisers and the Orissa government. After Ranchi pulled out from hosting the championships, Orissa CM Naveen Patnaik took up the challenge, laid a brand new synthetic track and installed floodlights. The official machinery, comprising top IAS officers, got a boost when tickets for all four days were lapped up. So glitch-free was the organisation that top officials of the Asian Athletics Association acknowledged it in their closing speeches. Orissa is now looking forward to hosting more international events—come rain or thunderstorm.
Govindan Lakshmanan, 27
The Naik Subedar is a confident man. Although 5,000m is his main event, he also won gold in 10,000m in Bhubaneswar and qualified for the London World Championships. “London has the best weather. When I race with the world’s best, I’ll perform better. I’ll try to best my 5,000m personal best (13:36:62 sec) and try to beat Bahadur Prasad’s 25-year-old national record,” he says. The 5,000m world record is 12:37:35 secs.
Ajay Kumar Saroj, 20
To concentrate on the job in Bhubaneswar, he had gone off WhatsApp. That helped. He clinched the 1,500m gold—his second at the senior international level. Ajay’s personal best is 3:43:27 sec; the WR stands at 3:26:00 sec. “My target is to win gold at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games next year,” declares the protege of veteran coach J.S. Bhatia. On his tactics, Ajay says after 1,000m he assesses his run and paces himself for the last 500m.
Jisna Mathew, 18
She is virtually a pocket bazooka. Seen as the next big thing from the P.T. Usha School of Athletics, as the third runner of the 4x400m relay team in Bhubaneswar she was involved in a horrendous baton exchange and still won gold. Besides competing at the World C’ships, she plans to perform well at the World Junior Championships in July 2018. Her personal 400m best is 52.65 sec, while the world record is 47.60 sec. She will now attend B.Com classes at Calicut University.
Muhammed Anas, 22
This 178 cm tall, simple athlete from Kollam, Kerala, completely transforms once he steps on to the track. In Bhubaneswar, he showed his class by winning the 400m gold (his personal best is 45.32 sec; the WR is 43.03 sec) and helping the 4x400m team win the relay gold comfortably, despite inclement conditions. Besides trying to put his best foot forward at the World Championships, Anas is looking ahead. “I will aim to run under 45 seconds at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games next year,” Anas, who also trains often at the beach in Trivandrum, tells Outlook.
Neeraj Chopra, 19
The Panipat-born handsome javelin thrower could have tried his luck in Bollywood. But he chose athletics after watching his seniors practise in his home town. Then, last year, he emerged as a whiff of fresh air when he surprised everyone by winning the World Junior ChaMPionship gold with a brilliant throw of 86.48m in Bydgoszcz, Poland (his best). Now, after shattering the Asian C’ships record in Bhubaneswar, the Rajasthan Rifles JCO is set to go a few metres farther at the London meet. The sky’s the limit for Chopra—the WR stands at 98.48m.
By Qaiser Mohammad Ali in Bhubaneswar