Akimji, the sprinting Hornbill, greeted visitors at the Dimapur airport. The beautiful bird — a proud resident of the verdant forests of Nagaland — is very close to the heart of the people of this colourful North-Eastern state. Posters of Akimji — the mascot for the 56th National and second SAAF Cross Country Championship — popped up at every bend and corner of the winding road to Kohima. The Nagaland Athletics, the local organising committee, and the state administration played the perfect host to around 800 national and international athletes, showcasing the region’s heritage and natural beauty.

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“Nagaland is honoured to host the biggest sports event in the history of the state. It is a recognition of the state's potential in sports. The entire state and its citizens are looking forward to welcoming the sports fraternity of the country and the SAAF nations,” the joy resonated in the message from the Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, who was also the chairman of the organising committee.

It was a historic occasion for the state, emerging from prolonged political unrest that had kept it away from the national and international sports scene. The Championship provided the perfect backdrop for the rest of India to experience Nagaland — the land of festivals — and Naga hospitality.


Girl power: Varsha Devi of the Railways won the women’s title.


The cross-country format appeared curated for the adventure-loving Nagas and the Athletics Federation of India put its might and expertise to ensure that the region’s maiden entry as a host was a memorable one. The results of the event seemed to follow the distinctiveness of the occasion as the country found a set of new champions in the senior men’s and women’s categories. The Indian dominance continued in the South Asian event. For the runners from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Maldives, it was an occasion to learn the tricks of the trade as the host won both the individual and team events. The SAFF championship saw competition in four events – men and women’s 10 km and under-20 boys and girls in the age-group section – while for the Nationals, the age-group category also included under-18 and under-16 boys and girls.

Carrying the Indian flag high were Darshan Singh and Varsha Devi, the men’s and women’s champions representing Services and Railways – the two sports boards that employ the bulk of the country's athletic talents.

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Their triumph was amplified by a challenging course designed around the picturesque Indira Gandhi Stadium, standing atop the undulating hills of Kohima. The AFI technical team set out a tough course with bends, turns and elevation. It was made more challenging by a persistent drizzle and gusts of wind on the day of the event.

India is an emerging power in the continental cross-country scene and the performance of its runners did provide sufficient hope for the country to win Asian championship medals in future. “If you see the world cross-country scene, you find the African countries dominating. These countries have good long-distance runners and that helps them get the best results in the international competitions. India is steadily developing in that field of long-distance running, and it is a matter of time before we see some good results in the continental scenario,” said the secretary of the Athletics Federation of India, Ravinder Chaudhry. India won the men’s team event in the Asian Cross-Country Championship in 1993 and there has been no mentionable performance in the three decades since then.

“The Indian teams are getting closer to winning a medal in the Asian meets which is the direct result of our long-distance runners performing well in the events like the Asian Games. Our team finished fourth in the Asian Championship in 2018 in China and we hope to improve our performance in future,” said Services coach Sekar Mariappa, who oversees the training of the Indian men’s team at the Artillery Centre in Hyderabad.


Top draw: Darshan Singh of Services won the men’s title.


For Nagaland, which hosted its first national-level sports event since it became a state in 1963, there was a tangible gain from the effort. The state’s women’s team picked up the bronze after barely three months of training. This underlines the talent pool of long-distance runners in the region. “The basic reason for awarding the cross-country championship to Nagaland was to encourage North-East to develop its infrastructure and to popularise athletics in the region. You see the Nagaland team made a podium finish because of this event. We had sent high-performance coaches to Nagaland to train their athletes and that yielded good results as Nagaland finished third in the women’s team event. There is a lot of talent in the Northeast because of its geographical situation,” Chaudhry said. The AFI secretary arrived at the venue early to monitor the preparations and help the Nagaland Athletics Association.

Abu Metha, president of Nagaland Athletics, said: “It was a landmark event in the six decades of Nagaland’s existence as an Indian state. We are ready to take a greater role in sports by successfully hosting the SAAF and National cross-country meet. The event will also showcase the talent North-East possesses.”

Buoyed by the success, Metha is confident of hosting more events in the state and sowing the seeds of an athletics revolution in the region.