It was perhaps fitting that India’s best-ever showing at the Athletics World Championships was capped off by the Neeraj Chopra show. The Olympic gold medallist was the final Indian to be competing at the Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, where he would script history by winning a silver medal in the men’s javelin throw.
That medal was the first for a male Indian athlete and second ever after Anju Bobby George’s bronze in the women’s long jump in 2003.
But even prior to Chopra’s exploits, India had already had one of their best-ever results. An unprecedented six Indians — Chopra and Rohit Yadav (men’s javelin throw) Annu Rani (women’s javelin throw), M Sreeshankar (men’s long jump), Paul Eldhose (men’s triple jump), Avinash Sable (men’s 3000m steeplechase) — reached the final (top 12) in their respective event, double the previous highest amount – three at the 2015 World Championships.
“I’m happy about my silver medal but I’m also happy that the whole team did well. It’s a great start. I hope we do better in the future,” Chopra said after his win. While Chopra has high expectations, just what does India’s showing mean?
By any perspective the overall Indian athletic performance is getting better. While Chopra won a silver another two athletes – Annu Rani (women’s javelin) and M Sreeshankar (men’s long jump) finished in the top-eight. With the IAAF introducing a team points table for the first time. India finished with a total of 11 points (7 for Chopra’s silver + two points each for Annu and Sreeshankar’s seventh place finishes). In contrast, back in 2015 – only Lalita Babar made the top eight. With one day of the competition remaining, that puts India in 33 rd place among participating countries – and fourth best in Asia only behind China, Japan and Kazakhstan.
We are making slow progress but steady progress
— Adille Sumariwalla
“It’s great that India has got six athletes in the finals but what’s most satisfying is that we are getting finalists in events where previously hadn’t had much success,” says Anju Bobby George, who was the first Indian to win a medal at the World championships – a bronze in 2003.
Indeed, India qualified their first finalist in the men’s long jump in Murali Sreeshankar and triple jump in Paul Eldhose and sent two athletes – Chopra and Rohit Yadav for the first time to the final of the javelin throw event. While India just had a single representative in the final of the men’s long jump and triple jump, a total of six Indian athletes had qualified for the world championships in the two events – the most permissible.
“I’ve always felt that India’s best chances for a medal will come in the more technical event in athletics like the jumps or the javelin and discus throw. It’s a good sign that we are producing athletes who are able to compete at a good level in these events,” says George.
According to George, the improved results are a direct consequence of the better support Indian athletes are getting. “When I competed at the 2003 World championships, there was next to no support. There was no knowledge about injury prevention and recovery. It was a big deal if you got a chance to train abroad. These days Neeraj and Avinash (Sable) are training abroad. There are dedicated physios for each of our athletes. Injuries are treated early and prevented from recurring,” says George who competed in 3 finals – the most by any Indian-- between 2003 and 2007.
Inconsistency when it matters
What remains a concern for George is the fact that none of the Indians, even those who made the finals made personal bests. Indeed with the exception of Paul Eldhose—who jumped 16.79m in the final of the men’s triple jump after booking his finals appearance with a clearance of 16.68m—none of the Indians were able to improve on the performance in the qualification round.
“If our athletes had met their personal bests, we would have had three additional podium finishes,” says Sumariwalla.
Avinash Sable’s personal best of 8.12.48 would have been more than enough to win the 3000m steeplechase gold which ultimately went at 8.25.13, Sreeshankar’s national record of 8.36m was exactly the same as the gold medal-winning mark in the men’s long jump while Annu Rani would have won bronze with her personal best of 63.82m, recorded just a couple of months ago.
In this regard, India seems to have slipped even compared to the past. In 2022, just one Indian athlete (Parul Choudhary in the women’s 3000m steeplechase) recorded a personal best. In contrast, Indian athletes set two national records and two personal bests at the 2015 World championships.
“It’s a definite issue. If you want to get a medal, you can’t be so far off your personal bests. You have to perform where it matters. Right now I have a feeling that most Indian athletes plan their season to qualify for the major championships rather than to perform in them,” says George.
According to George, the fact that six athletes have qualified for the final of the world championships is a great start but not something to be satisfied over. “Getting to the top 12, in any event, is a very good achievement but the next step we should be looking to target would be to increase the number of athletes who are in medal contention. At the next major event, we need to try and increase the number of athletes who are in the top six. When you are in that range, it’s just a matter of a little bit of luck and you will find yourself on the podium,” says George.
What will help, says George, is the fact that many of the athletes who competed in the finals in Oregon, will still be at their peak next year. “Avinash is 27 but that’s very young for a steeplechaser. Neeraj is only 24. Sreeshankar is 23 and Rohit Yadav is 22. Right now we have a very young group of athletes. They will get better in the next couple of years. But what we need to do is build on the support system for Indian athletes. We need to improve our sports science structure. We need more Indian physios,” says George.
George is wary about the fact that past performance is no guarantee of future results. Since she competed in her final world championships in 2007, just one other Indian woman (Mayookha Johnny) has competed at the world championships in the long jump. Similarly, Indian results and representation have – with the notable exception of Sable -- dried up on the track. India for instance qualified seven athletes in the race walk competition at the 2015 World championships. That number is down to just two in 2022. Injuries and poor form have also scuttled the hopes of India’s quarter milers.
Another unspoken issue is the fact that India’s best results at the world championships have coincided with one of their worst years from a doping perspective. Since the start of the year, three high-profile names including two national record holders have tested positive for banned substances.
“We need to be on the lookout for such cases in the future as well. We have to be very careful going forward. The Russians ended up getting banned. We need to ensure we don’t go down that path. That would be very disappointing just as we are starting to perform at the world level,” George says.