Indians dominate once again

IT was yet another success story for India at the SAF Games, as it maintained the tradition of standing head and shoulders above the rest, in the regional competition.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

IT was yet another success story for India at the SAF Games, as it maintained the tradition of standing head and shoulders above the rest, in the regional competition.

Indian shooters (from left) Ashok Pandit, Jaspal Rana and Ronak Pandit share a few thoughts during the competition. Rana emerged the most successful sportsman in SAF Games history, taking his tally from three editions to 23 golds and a silver. — Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

To win more than 100 gold medals, 101 to be precise and nearly 200 medals in all, and that too in Pakistan's capital Islamabad, was a memorable experience for the emerging Indian talent, as most of the top athletes had skipped the Games to retain their focus towards the preparation for the Olympics in Athens.

The Indian swimmers, the shooters and the athletes scooped the bulk of the medals, accounting for 127 between them including 72 gold.

Jaspal Rana emerged the most successful sportsman in SAF Games history, as he collected seven gold and a silver medal, to take his tally from three editions to 23 golds and a silver. If losing the air pistol gold to the young Ronak Pandit was a setback for Jaspal, winning the rapidfire pistol, when he had practised for it just for three days in nearly five years, was a major success for the young man from Uttaranchal, who was tipped recently to get a seat for contesting the elections.

"It is a pleasure to win so many medals, but it is not that easy any more," said Jaspal, the man who had infused life into Indian shooting by winning the centrefire pistol gold in the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima, which incidentally was the only individual gold medal for the country.

Experience and expertise counted as the Indians clinched the gold in the volleyball event. -- Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

Richa Mishra was the queen among the women, as she collected seven gold medals from the pool that was cordoned off for men during the women's competition owing to regional sentiments.

"I am very happy to win seven gold medals with six new meet records. I was very happy with my effort in the 800-metre freestyle. It was just amazing that I could clock so well. Of course, my favourite events, the 400-metre individual medley and the 50-metre butterfly were not there, but I am happy with my overall collection," said Richa, a CRPF inspector from Delhi.

Reshma Millet had six gold medals to show, including three in individual events, while Sivaranjani Vaidyanathan was equally impressive, winning four gold and four silver medals.

Rehan Poncha, T. A. Sujith, Puneet Rana, Gairik Bardhan, Mandar Divase and Akbar Ali Mir emphasised the Indian supremacy in the men's events.

There were the odd jolts in swimming and shooting, when someone such as Conrad Anthony Francis of Sri Lanka, an Olympic qualified swimmer, asserted his supremacy, or when the kids from Bangladesh, the 17-year-old Mohammad Asif Hossain and the 16-year-old Sharmin Akhtar took the air rifle gold from the grasp of the Indian shooters.

It was also a disappointment for India in its football campaign when its young team lost the final to Pakistan 0-1 after having beaten the same team in the league with a penalty strike. Maybe, the Indian players, virtually under 19 years of age in the under-23 competition, were overawed by the atmosphere and the occasion. It was understandable, as experience counts in such situations, and the boys just did not rise to the occasion against a tough Pakistani side that stood to gain plenty of money for that solitary gold.

It was experience and expertise that counted, as Subba Rao led from the front in the climax in helping the Indian volleyball team beat the host 25-18, 23-25, 23-25, 25-18, 15-10, an effort that silenced the packed hall at the Liaquat indoor stadium.

The kabaddi gold was won with the usual poise, but the game lost out as it was not conducted at the main Islamabad Sports Complex, but at the twin city, Rawalpindi.

The Pakistan team which won the football gold. -- Pic. AFP-

With the main boxers focusing on the Olympic qualification, it was difficult for India to make an impression at the same Liaquat stadium later, when Pakistan swept all the 10 gold medals that it had aimed for. India won the odd gold through Harpreet Singh, as he was lucky to compete with a Nepalese boxer in the final.

Badminton and table tennis looked to be tailor-made for India, as it swept all the 14 gold medals at stake in these two disciplines. Except for the team competition, the finals were all-Indian affairs.

There was a mixed bag in squash, as the Indian women led by the Asian junior champion Joshna Chinnappa asserted themselves with a fair degree of authority, while the men were not able to match the power of Pakistan.

Jagdish Kaliraman, Kripa Shankar, Ravindra Kumar and Shokidar were able to win the gold medals in wrestling, while Satheesha Rai, Vicky Batta and Sudhir Kumar were able to out-lift the rest in weightlifting.

India fielded its teams in only two events in rowing, and managed to win a gold and a silver at the Rawal lake. Inderpal Singh and Jenil Krishnan won the coxless pairs events, but the team lost out to a superior Pakistan in the fours event later.

Indian athletes could have done a lot better but it was a fair collection to have won 15 gold medals. The best was S. Geetha achieving the Olympic qualifying mark in the women's 400 metres with a career-best timing of 52.25. M. Sangeetha in women's high jump, Piyush Kumar in 100 metres, Maha Singh in long jump, Madhuri Singh in winning the women's 800 and 1500 metres, returned impressive figures to emphasise their overall growth in track and field.

The entrance to the swimming pool is covered to prevent male spectators from viewing the women's events. A notice was put up, informing that the viewing of the events was restricted to female spectators only and taking of photographs during the events was strictly prohibited. -- Pic. AFP-

With two gold medals coming from taekwondo through Rupen Pradhan and Surendra Bhandari, India was able to show at least one gold in 13 of the 14 disciplines.

Overall, it was indeed a satisfactory outing for the Indian sportspersons, and it may be unfair to sneeze at everyone of those medals, as easy buy.

"Overall I am satisfied though we expected better results in athletics and boxing. The people have been very nice, and had genuine love for us. Their friendliness removed a lot of apprehensions and wrong impressions from our minds," said the Chef de Mission of the 400-odd Indian contingent, Baljit Singh Sethi.

The biggest heroine of the Games, Susanthika Jayasinghe of Sri Lanka, won the 200m without exerting much, but pulled out of the 100 metres after winning the heats in which a 11-year-old Afghan girl, Nargis Kakal, stole the thunder from the Olympic bronze medallist, in terms of winning attention. In any case, the Lankans showed considerable depth in athletics.

"This is my endurance training time. I came for the SAF Games because people had been saying that I compete only in the big meets," said Susanthika, who was not too pleased with the strict rationing of water bottles by the organisers and did not try to hide her displeasure.

India was successful in winning a major portion of the medals, Pakistan won the hearts as a good host, though it could not handle quite a few areas, despite the hard-working volunteers who projected a positive image of the future of the country. There was no media box for athletics and football. It was not easy to work, sitting with the crowd, which was enjoying itself, but always with emotions under check.

Afghanistan's 11-year-old Nargis Kakal, the youngest competitor of the Games, gets a hug from Sri Lankan sprint queen Susanthika Jayasinghe. -- Pic. AFP-

Well, they removed the F from the SAF, to make it South Asian Games for the future, but on popular demand one letter was added to the ninth edition, to be rechristened as the SAFE Games.

The huge number of spectators for football, volleyball, boxing, table tennis, badminton, when fans reached with their family, was a welcome feature that made the Games lively.

With more competitions in the region, the standard will only go up.