Avinash Sable came to Hangzhou in search of himself. That need to figure out why everything went so horribly wrong a few months back in Budapest. The World Championships was the place, venue, track where he could have stood, shoulder to shoulder, with the best. In the end, the qualifying became a nightmare and every hour after that was riddled with questions ‘am I really worth it’?
Seven and a half laps over hurdles and water jumps may not be everybody’s idea of a thrill or the way to make a living. Sable’s world, his very existence thrives on those tracks.
And on those very tracks, over those water jumps, on Sunday, Sable redeemed himself.
At the Sports Park, under bright flood lights, overlooking a dark, Hangzhou sky, Sunday evening was all about redemption. The need for vindication was triggered at Budapest, stories that became trainwrecks, performances that fell short, most left the Hungarian capital hungry for vindication. They found it under a starless Hangzhou sky.
Apart from Sable in steeplechase, long jumper Murali Sreeshankar had promised after the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games that he would be on the podium. ‘It was sad in Budapest’, he said as he referred to the World Championship earlier this year, as he redeemed himself on Sunday picking up an Asian Games silver. In Jakarta, he had jumped 7.95 to finish 6th. In Hangzhou, his 4th jump of 8.19m was good enough for a silver.
“It is a good end to the season,” he said later. “The first Asian Games medal always feels great. It was a sad Budapest story and somehow, I had to redeem myself.”
Sreeshankar also praised Yuhao Shi, the Chinese jumper who finished with the bronze: “He had broken his ankle five years back. Superb perseverance on his side to come back and win a medal.”
Sreeshankar later put the medal around his father’s neck and happily took pictures. One does feel now for Jeswin Aldrin, still the 3rd leading long jumper in the world with 8.41 walking away sadly, only 7.76m and an 8th place to show for it – no redemption fairy tale there.
Harmilan Bains had run her first race in her mother’s womb. In 1997, Madhuri Bains, Saxena then, had to prove to the Punjab state government that she indeed was a middle-distance runner to get a job at the Punjab State Electricity Board. So, she ran, with Harmilan, all of three months inside her. Six months later, Harmilan was born. Four years later, Madhuri picked up the 800m silver at the Busan Asian Games. Genes played their part and with a father who also ran the 1500m at the South Asian Games, and the stage was set.
Excited, smiling, aglow, Bains, said after winning the silver in the 1500m final, “Mom, the 800m is still left.” Bains promises a double medal here. “I aimed for the gold in the 1500m, and it was my mistake in the middle of the race. But I will do my best in the 800m.” The Bains family awaits to add to the collection of the Asian Games medals at home.
In Budapest this past August, Ajay Kumar Saroj had said he was left disappointed even after running a personal best (3:38.24) in the 1500m race. Back then, after the race, he had said: “Even though, I have run my personal best. But not making it to the final to be able to run with the world’s best is very disappointing. I will try and make amends at the Asian Games.”
Locked in with the bunch, at the back, like what the great Moroccan 3000m steeplechaser, Olympic and World Champion, Soufiane El Bakkali does, Ajay Kumar Saroj bided his time. He let the others dictate the pace including the reigning Champion Jinson Johnson and only on the last lap, went outside, a tough tactic to follow through. Only a medal mattered for Ajay. He sprinted, powerful strides, going past three others including Jinson to finish with a silver.
At the 2017 Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar, after winning gold, Ajay had then said, “I have to stand one day on the Asian Games podium.” Sunday night at the Sports Park, the silver medal glinting away, Ajay got his podium.
The drama was, however, about to come. China loves their sprinters. Especially the hurdlers. Way back, in 2004, Liu Xiang, won the 2004 Olympic gold following it up with the World Championship gold. And when the 2008 Beijing Olympics came by, a packed Birds Nest, the athletic stadium sat on the edge of their seats waiting for Xiang to compete in the heats. It never happened. Xiang pulled out with an Achilles tendon injury. China was devastated.
Something on similar lines happened in the women's 100m hurdles final on Sunday.
Yuwei Lin and Yanni Wu are two super-stars of Chinese athletics and attracted a packed stadium to watch in the final, waiting expectantly for China to pick up gold and silver, in a race that featured India's medal favourite Jyothi Yarraj as well.
Under pressure, Wu jumped the gun at the start, a good step ahead. Straight forward disqualification it should've been but the card was also shown to Yarraji. That was unfair. With the entire continent watching and highlights surely to go across the world, China, instead of playing by the rules, upset to see their star athlete out, decided to remove Yarraji from the race too.
In a story that would play out in the coming days, discussed at the World Athletic Headquarters, Yarraji, decided to fight it out. She challenged the judges and stood there not arguing. But asking for reasons. There were none. China had been caught with their hand inside the tiller.
Eventually, when it threatened to turn into a farce, the officials let Wu run under protest, setting off what is an unwise precedent. It was a farcical drama.
Eventually, the race was run. Lin finished in first place, Wu in second and Yarraji was third. Then within the hour, as protests happened, someone reasonable out there among the officials disqualified Wu, bumping up Yarraji to silver and Japan’s Yumi Tanaka to bronze.
What stood out more than even her silver was Yarraji’s stand out in the middle, taking on the Chinese officials, was on behalf of every athlete. In another period, another era, an Indian athlete would have argued a bit and walked off. Not in this age. Yarraji didn’t break the national record seven times to walk away from the track. That silver was a testament to her courage to stand there and then win on her terms.
During all this, an ageless athlete with a personal best in discus throw of 64.84m, three Commonwealth Games silver and a bronze, the 2014 Asian Games champion, 40-year-old Seema Punia, won another bronze with a season’s best of 58.62m.
“Let’s not talk about my age,” was her response after winning the bronze. After what was a turbulent evening, studded with gold and silver medals for India, Punia’s bronze, surely will not redefine the discus. It will be a new take on what has been a roller-coaster ride for Seema Punia.
Ageless Seema Punia. The sport evolves. Punia along with it. She is not redefining the sport of discus. But our very idea of an ageless athlete.