Indian Athletes Deliver but Time to Ensure Momentum Carries On

Asian Games 2018: Indian athletes won 19 medals in Indonesia but there’s a need to capitalise on the performance.

Asian Games
4 min read
India’s athletes won 19 medals at the 2018 Asian Games. 

On most days, faces of Indian athletes rarely adorn the front pages of the sports section of newspapers. Their stories are pushed into nooks and crannies where they are seldom read.

Of course, once every four years, during quadrennial meets like the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games, where Indian athletes win a clutch of medals, the freshly-minted love for athletics is on technicolour display, albeit fleetingly, like shooting stars on a moonless night.

One doesn’t know yet if things will change after India’s athletes added the biggest chunk of 19 medals to India’s overall tally at the 2018 Asian Games, including seven gold,10 silver and two bronze.

Indian Athletes Deliver but Time to Ensure Momentum Carries On
(Graphics: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

Barring the inaugural Games in 1951, this is the best result since the 1978 edition in Bangkok where India’s athletics medal count was eight gold, seven silver and three bronze.

It’s quite befitting that Neeraj Chopra (20) and Hima Das (18) have emerged as the two best hopes to carry the flame forward for the next generation in athletics. They represent the aspirations of a country where almost 20 percent of its population is below the age of 25 years, which is expected to rise to 34 percent by 2020.

Chopra is already within a touching distance of the 90-metre club where the big boys of javelin play, while Das has made rapid progress since her first 400-metre race at the Federation Cup in Patiala in March 2018, shaving off more than a second in her timings from 51.97 to 50.79 in Jakarta for her silver medal. At this rate, if Das is able to break into the sub-50 zone, she can be a medal contender at the world level.

These Games provided redemption for the likes of triple jumper Arpinder Singh, shot putter Tajinderpal Singh Toor, Manjit Singh in 800 metres and hepta athlete Swapna Burman. Arpinder battled the demons of self-doubt to become the first man to win gold in the toughest of jumping events since Mohinder Singh Gill’s in 1970.

In shot put, Toor overcame a sustained slump since his 20.24 metre record in the Federation Cup to establish a new Asian record of 20.75 metres. Manjit, the forgotten man of 800 metres, turned on his afterburners just at the right time to trick the rest of pack to the finish line for victory that should restore the faith of Athletic Federation of India and SAI officials who had virtually given up on him.

There is a lot to celebrate about the heroics of Swapna Burman in women’s heptathlon, one of the most gruelling disciplines in athletics, for the first-ever gold medal in the Asian Games with a personal best score of 6026 points. Much has been written about how she competes breaking trough pain barrier due to the extra digits on her feet or how she overcame a debilitating toothache going into the final day of her event, but it’s her ability to beat back the injuries that she picked up in the past one year that lends a steely edge to her story.

These stories along with Jinson Johnson’s gold in the men’s 1500 metres and the fifth straight win in the women’s 4x400 metre event apart from the 10 silver medals, including Dutee Chand’s two second places in the sprints events and two bronze medals will be recalled with a sense of nostalgia by athletics fans in the years to come.

To give the devil its due, a substantial part of the credit for India’s good show in Jakarta must go to the Athletics Federation of India.

It’s norm to shower brickbats on the federation when things go wrong or don’t meet expectations, but when it gets them right, the accolades flow in a trickle.

The decision to engage the right mix of foreign and domestic coaches has paid the right dividends. The short distance runners gained a lot from training under former Soviet Olympic bronze medallist Galina Bukharina in the Czech Republic before the Games. Similarly, the chief jumping coach, Bedros Bedrosian, played an important hand in getting Arpinder back in the groove to end a 48-year gold medal drought.

The high-altitude camp for middle and long-distance runners that was conducted in Thimphu, Bhutan, under the supervision of experienced coaches such as JS Bhatia, Surinder Singh Vijender Singh and K Amrish primed the athletes for the rigours of competition at sea-level. Also, the fact that the SAI allowed the federation to organise preparatory training camps in different parts of the world in the run-up to the Asian Games is a refreshing change in attitude. These are important lessons, both for the federation and SAI.

Collective public memory, however, is notoriously short. It is, therefore, pertinent that these gains are consolidated in time to begin preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the World Championships in 2019. Early selection of probables and a well-thought out training and competition schedule would be the right step in that direction.

Of course, when the athletes are back, the din of clamour for awards is bound to reach a feverish pitch. As much as the medal-winning athletes and the coaches— both Indian and foreign—deserve awards and bonuses for the good show in Jakarta, it’s incumbent upon the federation and the sports ministry to adopt an equanimous approach towards implementing a fair reward system. If that means tweaking some of the fossilised rules, then so be it. After all, no one gains if bad blood is spilt on the victory floor.

It will be also interesting to see how corporate India reacts to this moment of glory in athletics. Past experience offers ample evidence that India Inc has been notoriously stingy and petty when it concerns non-cricket sports. Some of the corporate captains have been quick to hail the medal-winning athletes on social media. But they have given no indication yet whether they will step in to offer brand endorsements or any other support to those who run, jump and throw. Only time will tell whether the fat cats of the industry will walk the talk or endorse the axiom that talk is cheap.

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