Call it the Neeraj Chopra effect or something else, but there seems to be one happy high after another in Indian athletics.
Javelin thrower Chopra’s Olympic gold has changed the sport, broken mental barriers, and inspired young athletes to think big. After India’s best-ever performance at the recent World Championships, where Chopra won the first-ever silver and six Indians qualified for the final, expectations were high as the athletes flew to Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games.
And they exceeded expectations, finishing with a best medal haul — eight medals, with one gold, four silver, and three bronze — outside the country. Only the home Commonwealth Games in New Delhi 2010 had a bigger haul.
How did the country manage such a sterling show?
“Immaculate planning,” said Adille Sumariwalla, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) president, in a chat with Sportstar from Birmingham.
“And this was expected. We expected 1-2-3 in triple jump which we missed narrowly (Praveen Chithravel, fourth) by four centimetres.”
On to new frontiers
There were many India firsts, too, at the Commonwealth Games, such as Sreeshankar’s men’s long jump silver, Eldhose Paul’s triple jump gold and his happy one-two with Abdulla Aboobacker. High jumper Tejaswin Shankar and javelin thrower Annu Rani, both of whom won bronze, were among the others who opened the Commonwealth Games medal account in their respective events. But Avinash Sable’s silver in the 3,000m steeple chase was perhaps the most precious, one worth its weight in gold, as he shocked two-time world champion and 2016 Rio Olympic gold medallist Conseslus Kipruto.
“Sable’s race was the most dramatic and very special because we thought breaking the Kenyan wall in the steeple chase was almost impossible....but he did it,” said Anju Bobby George, the country’s first World Championships medallist (long jump bronze, Paris 2003) and the first Indian woman to win a Commonwealth Games medal in athletics (2002, Manchester, bronze).
The Kenyan steeple chasers had not lost a single medal in the Commonwealth Games since 1998 but in Birmingham, Sable shocked some of the world’s best to grab a surprise silver in 8:11.20s, the ninth time he was bettering the event’s national record.
He gave a huge scare to Abraham Kibiwot, the 2018 Commonwealth Games silver medallist, who took the gold at the finish.
With high jumper Tejaswin Shankar taking bronze, the jumps turned out to be the biggest medal winners at the Commonwealth Games, four in all, including a gold and two silver.
The 10,000m race walks also brought a women’s silver (Priyanka, in personal best time) and men’s bronze (Sandeep Kumar) but despite the long foreign training tours, the men’s and women’s relay teams were a big disappointment, just like women discus throwers Seema Punia and Navjeet Kaur.
The men’s 4x400m relay team of Muhammed Anas, Muhammed Ajmal, Naganathan Pandi and Amoj Jacob finished sixth (3:05.51s) while the women’s 4x100m quartet of Dutee Chand, Hima Das, Srabani Nanda and Jyothi Yarraji was fifth (43.81s). With the Asian Games and Worlds next year, clearly there is much to do. Perhaps a change of strategy is needed.
“We are working on it,” said Sumariwalla.
While the happy faces make a beautiful picture, there is a bit of a worry, too, as athletes like sprinters S. Dhanalakshmi, M. V. Jilna and long-triple jumper B. Aishwarya, who were supposed to be on the flight to Birmingham, failed dope tests and were forced out.
So how genuine are these performances?
“What do you mean...genuine? Shameful way of thinking,” said Sumariwalla. “All are tested before Commonwealth Games and even here (in Birmingham).”
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