Indians make the most of missing stars

After the sweep…Indian discus throwers Krishna Poonia (right), Harwant Kaur (centre) and Seema Antil celebrate their 1-2-3 finish.

India, which had won only nine medals in the last 52 years, starting with the great Milkha Singh's 440 yards gold at the Cardiff Games in 1958, wrote a new, glittering chapter almost every day in athletics. And on one happy day, it won five medals in all. By Stan Rayan.

Nobody spoke of long jumper M. A. Prajusha as a medal prospect before the Commonwealth Games. Nor did anyone predict that the Indian women's 4x400m relay team would strike gold or that the sprint relay quartets would pick up a bronze in Delhi.

Indian athletics hit an exciting new high at the Games, at home, winning a dozen medals including two golds through woman discus thrower Krishna Poonia and the 4x400 women's relay squad.

India, which had won only nine medals in the last 52 years, starting with the great Milkha Singh's 440 yards gold at the Cardiff Games in 1958, wrote a new, glittering chapter almost every day in athletics. And on one happy day, it won five medals in all.

What has happened? Has India finally found the secret of success? The magic potion?

The questions came rushing out.

For sure, the Indian athletes were an inspired lot in Delhi. While the women in the 4x400 relay, especially A. C. Aswini on the third leg, ran as if their backs were on fire, and went on to grab the gold, triple jumper Renjith Maheswary and the men's sprint relay team were at their best and shattered National records. Discus throwers, women's gold medallist Krishna Poonia and men's silver winner Vikas Gowda, were close to it.

However, a good majority of the rest were just lucky to be among the medals. For, Delhi was without many big names. Jamaican sprint sensation Usain Bolt, Kenya's 800m world record holder David Rudisha, England's triple jumper Philips Idowu and Australia's discus thrower Danil Samuels — both world champions — were some of the stars who stayed away for one reason or the other.

You will get an idea of what a long-drawn-out season means from the words of Australian Steven Hooker, and that perhaps could be one of the factors that helped the Indian athletes perform beyond expectations.

After he had endured a few anxious moments before picking up the gold with 5.60m on the count-back with Englishman Steven Lewis, in the pole vault, Hooker raised the bar to 5.81m in an attempt to better his own Games record set in Melbourne four years ago. The 28-year-old went halfway down the runway before waving his hand to say that he could do no more.

Hooker had been competing for 10 straight months, during which time he had hopped into nearly a hundred planes going around 14 countries. “I can't express to you how hard that was mentally,” the Delhi Games' biggest star said later. “After competing for so long, your body just breaks down — it's just not meant to do that.”

The Indians did not have such a crazy season. They had enough time to rest between events; some of them went to Ukraine to try out new things. And lo and behold, the Indians won more medals than expected.

The going was so good for India that until the final round of the women's long jump, Prajusha — who has for long been living in Mayookha Johny's shadow in the National circuit — was in contention for the gold, and this despite two jumpers recording their personal best of 6.82m. She had to finally settle for the silver with 6.47m, while Mayookha, India's favourite for medals in the long jump and triple jump, went home with an empty bag after hurting her ankle during the long jump event.

Krishna Poonia, however, was an exception. She began as a favourite for the gold in women's discus despite the presence of New Zealand's former World champion Beatrice Faumuina and Elizna Naude, the defending champion from South Africa.

Poonia, with a first-round effort of 61.51m, led India to its first ever sweep of the medals in an event at the Commonwealth Games. It was also the first ever gold by an Indian woman at the Games and the second after Milkha Singh's Cardiff win. It was also the country's lone individual athletics gold in Delhi.

The 33-year-old athlete from Haryana soon became the darling of the media, her emotional story of sacrifice and pain at being away from her nine-year-old son for months together during her training becoming a hit all over.

Indian women were clearly on top at the Games, accounting for seven of the 12 medals, including the two golds, won by the nation.

Manjeet Kaur, Sini Jose, A. C. Ashwini and Mandeep Kaur, with a smart run and a clean baton exchange, raced to victory in the 4x400. Ashwini, a hurdler, gave the team the decisive lead in the third leg and anchor Mandeep Kaur kept up the good work.

The women's 4x100 relay team went on to win the bronze while the men's quartet of Rahamatulla Molla, Sathya Suresh, Shameermon and Abdul Najeeb Qureshi not only brought a rare bronze but topped it with a National record as well.

Renjith Maheswary, former Asian champion whose career has seen a strange surge and dip in form in recent years, shattered his own National record while taking the men's triple jump bronze with 17.07m. In javelin, Kashinath Naik was lucky to win the bronze with an effort of 74.29m, which was well below standards seen even in the National meets.

The Commonwealth Games also offered an exciting peek into the future. Despite the absence of David Rudisha and the 1500m Olympic champion, Asbel Kiprop, Kenya proved that it had a strong backup with some of the world's most promising distance runners.

In fact, Kenya went on to top the medals table in athletics with 11 gold, 10 silver and eight bronze medals, pipping Australia (11-6-3). But the timings, as expected, were mediocre in most of the events.

The young Boaz Lalang made the most of Rudisha's absence and went home with the gold in the 800 metres, one of the four events where Kenya swept the podium.

Silas Kiplagat, the prince-in-waiting for the world 1500m throne, won the metric mile while Kenya's Nancy Langat (women's 800, 1500) bagged a double, after breaking P. T. Usha's trainee Tintu Luka's early front-running strategy in the shorter race.

Ugandan Moses Kipsiro upset the Kenyans and walked away with a distance double, taking the men's 5000 and 10,000m golds while Kenya's Richard Mateelong jolted Olympic champion Brimin Kipruto and World champion Ezekiel Kemboi to claim the men's 3000m steeplechase gold.

Jamaica's Lerone Clarke emerged the fastest man of the meet, but the men's 100m lost much of its fizz when the Jamaican national champion Oshane Bailey missed the final after pulling a hamstring in the semifinal.

The shortest race in the women's event, ironically, brought the biggest controversy. There were three champions in the women's 100m. Australian Sally Pearson, an Olympic silver medallist in the sprint hurdles who later went on to win her pet event, was first declared as the fastest woman of the Games. But four hours later, she was in tears as the jury declared that she had jumped the gun. Nigerian Oludamola Osayami, the runner-up, was then given the gold but it was taken away a couple of days later after she failed a dope test.

Natasha Mayers was then awarded the title, a first for St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Incidentally, she had served a two-year ban in mid-2005 for doping.