The pre-and post-Budapest chatter on social media has been so different. The post-world championship X (previously known as Twitter) has been all about Neeraj Chopra and his historic 88.17-metre throw. The pre-world championship, though, had a lot of attention on the Indian jumpers too, especially the two long jumpers, Jeswin Aldrin and Murali Sreeshankar. And rightly so.
India, for the first time, could think beyond Neeraj in track and field. There was hope that either of the two would join the Olympics and become world champion, changing the course of Indian athletics. The expectations were quite understandable.
Both the jumpers entered the competition with the best jumps this year. Jeswin (21) and Sreeshankar (23) had shown the world that they were here to stay and win medals. While Sreeshankar was coming off an 8.37m silver medal jump at the Asian Championship, Jeswin entered the world championships with an 8.22m gold medal jump at the Citius Meeting in Bern. But in Budapest, they (long jumpers) could not escape the slippery curse of the World Championships.
THE LITERAL CURSE
The curse was the “Long Jump Board” which had caused a lot of trouble for the jumpers. At least six of our Indian jumpers suffered from the problematic board. Usually, the equipment used at such major events as the World Championships goes through multiple stages of testing.
However, it seemed that the World Athletics missed the trick this time, and it caused quite a scene at the runway and pit.
Jamaican long jumper Carey McLeod, who was third after his 8.27m effort in the second attempt, slipped on the board in the very next attempt. He ended up landing on his face. The slip saw him become airborne momentarily, almost as if he were flying, before he landed past the eight-metre mark with his face in the sand. He did avoid the injury but could not mentally get back into the competition and recorded 6.57 (fourth attempt) and 7.19 (final attempt).
Jeswin, too, had a similar fate. His first jump, where he recorded 8.10+, was deemed a foul jump. But when you look at the replay, you will see that he slipped and therefore lost control during the takeoff. He suffered a minor discomfort in his ankle after that; however, it was the damage mentally that cost him dearly.
Sreeshankar, meanwhile, did not slip but just could not get comfortable with the long jump board. All three attempts in the qualification round were off the board.
The World Athletics later accepted faultiness on the board and said they would be looking into the matter and working towards resolving it.
This long jump board even had a victim in Bahamas’ LaQuan Narn, who injured his ankle after the slip on the board.
I did meet both our jumpers after the competition to understand what had exactly happened. When you go into the competition as favourites to finish on the podium and fail to even deliver a decent show, there needs to be an explanation.
Both of them had mentioned the board problem during our conversation, but there was an underlying cause to it as well.
This is where the metaphorical slippery curse comes from.
THE FINAL STAGE
What sets apart India’s two Olympic champions, Neeraj and Abhinav Bindra, from the rest?
I have had the pleasure to work with both of them and be part of their development to become champions. And while both of them have two contrasting personalities, it is their zeal to deliver on the big stage that makes them special and CHAMPIONS.
I remember that in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Abhinav did not have the best performances. He would often falter just at the right time. While a disappointed me always questioned his approach, Abhinav would just stay calm and tell me that “all is well”.
He would later tell me that he was working on a few new things and was not worried about the results at the moment. Gladly, it all clicked when it mattered the most, and Abhinav won India’s first individual gold medal at the Olympics.
Neeraj, on the other hand, had a troublesome 2023 season. He struggled with his groin injury and therefore competed in just five competitions before the World Championships, the last being the Lausanne Diamond League in June.
However, he knew exactly how to handle the pressure and did what he does best. Throw the javelin far enough to qualify (though it was better than his gold medal throw) and then repeat the same in the final. He overcame the doubts and pressure to create history by becoming the first Indian world champion in athletics.
This is a quality that our jumpers still lack. Both Jeswin and Sreeshankar have reached the world-class level and have established themselves among the top jumpers of this generation. However, they are yet to cross the final stage before they are the finished product to be crowned champions.
They still don’t know how to handle the pressure of the big stage or come out of a situation during a competition. I did think Sreeshankar, who is the more experienced one of the two, would be able to do it given his experience at the Olympics and this year at multiple Diamond Leagues.
However, as he puts it, his body got stiff, and he could not figure out the problem during the competition. Jeswin, too, could not come out of the fear of getting injured on the board and therefore stopped giving his best.
This is the final stage for them. They need to learn how to tackle problems without input from their respective coaches. A coach can only tell you what he sees; however, it is on the athlete to figure out the deeper problems.
All of this will come with experience and belief. As they now prepare for the Asian Games, it is important to help these youngsters overcome all their self-doubts (from the World Championships) and get them game-ready for Hangzhou.
Manisha Malhotra is the Head of Sports Excellence and Scouting, JSW Sports.
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