India set track and field on fire- The New Indian Express

Express News Service

HANGZHOU: On a slightly nippy night inside the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre, India’s athletes, young and old, came together to script stories to last a lifetime. Avinash Sable, who has had a history with being tight in big finals, came up with a Games record in the 3000m steeplechase. Tajinderpal Singh Toor, who has spent more days mending his bones than hurling a shot put over the last few years, rebelled against his body to successfully defend the gold he had won in Jakarta in 2018.

Jyothi Yarraji, running next to China’s Wu Yanni (Wu has been dubbed as the next athletic sensation by Chinese media) in Lane 5 in the women’s 100m hurdles, stared at wrongful disqualification. Wu had jumped the gun by a clear margin and anything that happens after that is moot. Instead, the officials decided to DQ Yarraji too. Both of them ran under protest, with the former picking up silver and the latter winning bronze. In the end, justice was served as Wu was rightfully DQ’ed with Yarraji’s medal being upgraded to silver.

But it must not have been a pleasant experience to go through the rigmarole in front of 50,000 people out for blood (Wu had suggested to the officials that the 24-year-old was the one to blame). On X (formerly Twitter), Tejaswin Shankar conveyed the emotions of a lot of athletics fans. “Doesn’t matter if we all follow a false start. First person to jump the gun is the only person that gets ejected,” the decathlete suggested. After the race, she admitted that the incident played on her and affected her.

Before Yarraji, there was the evergreen Seema Punia, still competing and winning at 40. When she won her first Asian Games medal — a gold at Incheon in 2014 — Toor, Yarraji, Sable and M Sreeshankar were either teenagers or adolescents. Speaking of Sreeshankar, the long-jumper won a fine silver less than two months after being ‘gutted’ post a surprise elimination in the qualifying stage of the World Championships in Budapest. Sreeshankar spent some time at Inspire Institute of Sports in Bellary before going to Hangzhou.  Like his father and coach S Murali puts it every day he had to keep motivating him and keep him focussed, especially after the world championships. It’s been a long season.  

Shot putter Tajinderpal Singh Toor also stepped up to pocket gold medal on Sunday

Even before Sunday’s eight athletics finals, there was a sense that this was going to be a big night for the Indian contingent. And it proved as they won nine medals (they had collected 20 across all athletics events in Jakarta so they are well on track to exceed that number). There were medals also for Harmilan Bains (women’s 1500m), a 2-3 in the men’s event (Ajay Saroj and Jinson Johnson) a bronze for Nandini Agasara who only won it after winning her 800m heat in the heptathlon.

Yarraji silver
Out of all the medals, it’s hard to not come back to the last event on the track. The women’s 100m hurdles had been billed as Wu v. Yarraji and it turned out to be melodramatic in the most dramatic of circumstances. Wu had moved before the pistol went off. Jyothi had moved after the Chinese athlete in Lane 4 had moved in the periphery of her vision. On China’s national day, one pitied the official who would be left with the task of disqualifying Wu. Intense lobbying followed and the Indian national record-holder was also being led off the track. All sets of shenanigans ensued before both athletes decided to run the race under protest. Meanwhile, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) were already raging that the Chinese athlete was allowed to race under protest. “We paid $100 and already protested the decision,” said Anju Bobby George.

That decision, when it was out, was clear. Yarraji, in her first Asian Games, would go home with silver with another sub-13-second mark.

Another athlete who had a similarly dramatic evening was Toor. After two rounds, his scoreboard was showing two big, dirty X, X. The defending champion, already battling inner demons because of the myriad injuries, was looking at an unceremonious exit. That’s when he decided to change his throwing shoes. “I was coming a bit slow in the circle so I changed my shoes,” he would tell the media later.

It worked as he hurled the iron ball 19.51m. Third place on the scoreboard. The thing is the men’s shot put is a legacy event for India at the Asian Games. Out of the 18 previous editions, Indian men have won it nine times. When you are used to having caviar, chances are you wouldn’t settle for a toast. So, up stepped Toor for his sixth and final attempt. After summoning the last bits of energy he had, he hurled the iron ball to a distance of 20.36m to win gold.

A crazy last few years for him still has a good ending (pulled out of the 2022 World Championships on the day of his meet following an injury. He missed this year’s Worlds because of a groin problem. He was primed to perform at the Olympics but picked up a wrist injury).

Then, there’s Sable, the steeple-chaser who used the brown canvas of the track to win the first major gold of his career. While Sable has been making a name for himself over the last 2-3 years — that Commonwealth Games silver in 2022 showed why — he has also come under pressure. Most notably, he failed to qualify for the final of the Worlds in 2023.

Coming to Sreeshankar, his father said, “There was immense pressure after the world championships and I had to keep motivating him every day,” he said after the event. “Yet if we look at the year it was very good especially with a record 8.41m personal best, top three finish at a Diamond League, medal at Asian meet and we got a lot of support from the Athletics Federation of India and the Sport Authority of India and TOPS.”

But Toor, Sable and the rest buried some of those demons to kick-start India’s push in track and field. On Monday, it will be the turn of the mixed 4×400 to continue this. 

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