It was hard to miss the exuberance in the Indian contingent at the Asian Games in Busan, South Korea. Indian athletes were in constant touch with the hockey team on Thursday, the day the defending champions were clashing with arch-rivals Pakistan. Tirkey's boys, in turn, kept regular tabs on the athletes. In the end, the news from both the stadia was heartwarming. While India was celebrating its most productive day in athletics, with three golds and one silver, the hockey team allowed Pakistan to equalise three times before taking a decisive 4-3 lead in a high-tension match marked by four yellow cards and one red card.
The show in Busan is not over as yet, but indications are that it could be India's best ever outing. Ironically, it's happened in South Korea, where 16 years ago India had a disastrous campaign—more than 400 athletes and officials brought home just five golds, four of them through the efforts of P.T. Usha, prompting the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, to remark: "If only Usha can win gold medals, why send more than 400 athletes to each Games?"
There are no such complaints this year. At the time of going to the press, India had already mopped up nine golds, six of them from athletics, besides one each in golf from the US-based amateur Shiv Kapur, snooker and kabaddi. The booty had already catapulted India to the sixth spot on the medals table and with some more medals expected, India could easily land up among the top five.
After a disastrous opening week in which India managed one gold and little else, the revival in the second week has been excellent. This was led by the gritty athletics contingent, often accused of promising the world and then falling short of expectations. But by Thursday, the 50-odd-strong athletics squad had fetched India six golds, four silvers and two bronzes—two-thirds of the gold and almost half of the 25 medals won so far. Understandably, Suresh Kalmadi, who heads the Indian Olympic Association and the Amateur Athletic Federation of India, is beaming with pride. Says he: "I always felt that athletics would do well."
Without doubt, the star of the squad was K.M. Beenamol. The 27-year-old made most of the fading away of the once-invincible Chinese from the fray. A relay silver medallist in Bangkok four years ago, Beenamol finally came into her own here, winning the 800m in 2:04.17 with effortless ease. "I would have liked to go faster, but when I have two more events (the 400m and the 4x400m relay) I am happy winning the gold even in a slow time," said Beenamol, before totting up a silver from the 400m. Adding to the family collection was her younger brother, K.M. Binu, who won the silver in the 800m for men, making the duo the first pair of siblings to strike medals for India at an Asian Games.
After her bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in August this year, Anju George was rated as India's best bet at a bigger platform. At 6.45m, she was way below her best of 6.47m, but it was sufficient to bag her a gold. "The performance can always be improved in other meets. If I can win gold at Busan, that's all I care about right now," says the tall and strikingly good-looking Anju. But two other gold medals came with high quality performances—Sunita Rani in the women's 1,500m clocked a new national record which was also a Games record with 4:06.03, and Neelam Jaswant Singh rewriting the national record in the women's discus with a huge effort of 64.55m.
One of the features of Asian athletics is that almost every event has a handful of athletes who are world-class. They could come from China, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka or even West Asia. The rest of the pack, which is where most Indian athletes figure, is some distance behind.But when one or two from the lead pack fall out, either because of poor form, injury or because they are not participating, as some top Japanese distance runners were, there is a very good chance for the rest, like India, to make their mark.
The Amateur Athletic Federation of India (AAFI) has capitalised on this rather well. Kalmadi, and Lalit Bhanot, a former thrower and now the AAFI secretary, did well to put together an Asian Grand Prix circuit. "The idea was to give the Asian athletes more competition amongst themselves. At the world level, they are often left behind. Three meets in Hyderabad, Bangkok and Manila thus were a start in the Asian GP circuit. We plan to increase this number next season," says Bhanot. Add to that coaches from the former Soviet Union and regular training tours and the results are already showing.
The obvious let-downs were the shooters and the cue sports squads. The shooting squad numbered more than 30, but it brought just two silver, one each in men's trap and in the women's 10m air rifle. The superstars of the Manchester Commonwealth Games, Jaspal Rana, Anjali Bhagwat and even Abhinav Bindra and Samaresh Jung, who won a bagful of medals including 14 gold, came a cropper here. Billiards star Geet Sethi complained about the shortened 100 points format, which he likened to a Test match being decided in five overs. Be that as it may, we will have to adjust to the new rules. As for shooting and weightlifting, the huge haul in Manchester had created unrealistic hopes for the Busan Games. And none of the eight boxers managed a medal, all falling before the semi-finals, while the entire wrestling squad—about a dozen men and women—managed just one bronze.
Clearly, there's still a long way to go for India to be in the top of the heap, but for the moment, three cheers to our athletes and a resurgent hockey team.
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