THE MOUNTAIN of a man took his stance, raised his arms and shifted the iron ball from his right hand to his left. His feet firm, he held the shot close to his powdered neck. This was his fifth attempt. Though he had been leading the field with a 19.96m throw, he had always wanted to go beyond 20m. And so, with a mighty pirouette, Tejinder Pal Singh Toor, 23, sent the ball sailing and, from a spectator’s view, it landed well beyond the 20m mark. Tejinder knew it, too. He jumped in the air, slapped his thigh and, when the official measurement was shown, let out a wild scream. Bahadur Singh Chouhan, the chief national coach who had won gold in the event in 1982, looked on from the stands, a smile brightening his bearded face. It was a massive 20.75m and an Asian Games record.
With the throw, India had the first of its 19 athletics medals at the 2018 Asian Games; its best track and field performance outside India. Only when the Games were held at home (1951 and 1982) did India get more medals. Notably, however, there were more golds now than in 1982 (five then; seven now) and the field was much bigger than in 1951.
“Overall, it was a good performance,” Radhakrishnan Nair, deputy chief coach of the athletics team, told THE WEEK. “But, I am not fully satisfied. We lost some medals by a narrow margin. For example, the women’s 400m and 400m hurdles.” Nirmala Sheoran and Anu Raghavan had both finished fourth in their races. “We were expecting 20 to 25 medals. We got 20, but we returned one,” he said in jest, referring to G. Lakshmanan being disqualified for lane infringement, after winning the bronze in the men’s 10,000m.
Regardless, Jakarta saw some fine performances by Indian athletes, some of whom created history. Swapna Barman, for instance, had brought with her a body that was threatening to quit. She had recently dealt with injuries to her knee and ankle, had a disc bulge in her back and was born with twelve toes, which were bound tight in ill-fitting shoes. Then came the excruciating toothache, which forced her to tape her jaw. Through all the pain, she fought to win the heptathlon gold, becoming, at least in theory, Asia’s best woman athlete at 21. “I came fifth in the last Asian Games and, at that moment, I had decided that I would come back this time no matter what. I have been training to do better for four years,” Swapna told THE WEEK.
Several other athletes, too, had brought pain, physical or emotional, with them to Jakarta. Tejinder’s father was in the final stages of his cancer as the son battled rivals on the field. Sadly, he died the day Tejinder returned to Delhi; the shot-putter did not get to meet him one last time. Purnima Hembram, who finished fourth in heptathlon, had been nursing a hamstring injury for the past few months. None of them, however, gave up. “The performances this time are better than in previous editions, and that is because everyone has been working extremely hard,” Purnima told THE WEEK. “The federation has been supporting us a lot. The schemes that Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore has come up with have helped a lot of athletes.”
In fact, many of the athletes were all praise for the administration. Arpinder Singh, who won the triple jump gold, told THE WEEK: “The Athletics Federation of India is doing a really good job of providing us food, accommodation, training and coaching. Everything is going well. Their measurement [of performance] is so good. They are looking at everything properly. You can see the results. New national records are being created and so many people are doing well in so many events.”
The future, however, holds bigger challenges and preparations must begin. “We are going to send some of the athletes, like the 400m and 400m hurdlers, to train outside,” said Nair. “Foreign training will always benefit athletes. They have all the facilities in one place. Also, the athletes will not have any social commitments there, and the focus will only be on the training.”
Many of the coaches, athletes and journalists THE WEEK spoke to suggested that the employment of foreign coaches and exposure trips abroad were the reasons for the good performance.
“We had done well at the Commonwealth Games [in Australia]. A lot of money was invested in training the athletes and they were sent abroad,” veteran sports journalist Sanal P. Thomas told THE WEEK. “We have done the same for the Asian Games as well.” Middle- and long-distance runners went sent to Thimphu, Bhutan, for high-altitude training, while a large squad had trained in Prague, Czech Republic, and had participated in several meets in Europe.
“However, despite all this, three of our athletes, who were medal prospects, were disqualified,” said Thomas. While Lakshmanan had to return his medal, walkers K.T. Irfan and Manish Singh Rawat were disqualified in the men’s 20km walk final for ‘loss of contact’, which means that they were effectively running. “Some of the athletes need to be more aware about such technicalities,” said Thomas. “Also, we do not have an athlete in the men’s 100m category, we are unsure of whether we have one in the 200m category, and we do not have a woman in the 800m.”
THE BOYS ARE BACK
Go through the results of the past few Asian Games, and you will see that it was the women who brought India medals in athletics, particularly in the track events. This time, however, the men have made a comeback. Of the total 19 medals, men and women won nine each, and then there was the mixed relay silver. Of the seven gold, however, five went to the men. This is in stark contrast to the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, where the men had won only two medals, compared with the ten the women had claimed. In Doha 2006, no man won a medal. All nine were pocketed by the women. “From the first Asian Games in 1951 to the 1980s, men dominated Indian athletics,” said Thomas. “Then, from the time of P.T. Usha, when she won four gold medals at the 1986 Asian Games, there was a consolidation of female athletes. Now, however, it is changing again with this edition.”
Jinson Johnson was, perhaps, the pick of the male athletes, as he pulled off two electric performances to return with a gold and a silver. The 27-year-old won the 1,500m, after he narrowly missed the 800m gold. Compatriot Manjit Singh had stunned Jinson and everyone else to storm ahead of the pack in the final stretch of the 800m. The bonhomie of the two middle-distance runners was on full display as Jinson admitted that he was happy that India got the gold eventually; he said he was not surprised by Manjit’s victory, despite the Haryanvi failing to beat him in the past five years.
“Many of the golds have come in field events. Usually, we get more gold in track events. Neena [Varakil, who won silver in long jump] being an exception, all the others in field [events] are men,” said Nair.
Of the seven gold, three were in field, three from track and one from heptathlon. Of the five gold the men won, three went to field athletes—Neeraj Chopra in javelin, Tejinder in shot put and Arpinder in triple jump. At least in the past six editions of the Asian Games, this has been India’s joint best effort in field events, in terms of gold, along with the performance at the 2002 Busan Games. In both editions, India won three gold each in track and field events.
Said Thomas: “In 2002, after Bahadur Singh [Sagoo] won gold in shot put, we have not had many good field results. This time, we have, mainly because we found some good athletes and because foreign coaches were brought in. Neeraj Chopra, for instance, benefitted from the foreign coach.”
After winning the gold medal, Neeraj had told THE WEEK: “I did my best and have broken the national record.
It feels really good. I have been giving my 100 per cent.” Neeraj broke his own national record with a throw of 88.06m to clinch the gold.
Once again, nations like Bahrain and Qatar climbed the medal tally with imported athletes. “Given the results, [the top three are] China, Bahrain and India. In that, almost half of Bahrain’s squad has been adopted from African countries,” said Thomas. “If we set aside those athletes, India would have been number two.”
The controversy had often made headlines, but the results in Jakarta only intensified the argument against adoption. Seven of India’s silvers would have been gold had the African-origin athletes not competed. “However, we cannot blame them. Bahrain is scouting raw talent and moulding it into a winner. They are not importing already successful athletes,” said Thomas.
And, there is nothing illegal about it. The only fear is that, perhaps in future, athletes would look to impress scouts from richer countries, often at the expense of their homeland.
At a Games where India lost its kabbadi crown and failed to bag the hockey gold, the athletics performance was the prime reason for cheer. And, at the halfway mark to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the Indian team looks to be on the ascent. Hima Das, 18, who won silver in the 400m to break the national record, led the women’s 4x400m relay team to a fifth consecutive gold at the Games. Indian athletics has a star for the future, and all eyes will be on Das, come Tokyo 2020.
However, caution needs to be exercised. Though the athletics team did well, India is by no means a powerhouse on the world stage. Even now, after every gold medal, there is a rush of stories about how an athlete had to fight demons off the field in his or her quest for the medal. There are not many pages devoted to a regular athlete, who was groomed through a proper system, and delivered what was asked, efficiently. This is not to take anything away from the athletes, who have endured a lot and have put their bodies on the line to make the country proud.
However, one of the positives coming out of the Games this time is that there seems to be a growing support base for athletes. Runners, jumpers and throwers are becoming popular among the youth, and this might inspire the next generation of potential medal winners.
Interestingly, proof of this popularity was found on social media. In the past few weeks, many athletes have won another ‘achievement’—a blue tick on their social media profiles.