Call it the Neeraj Chopra effect or whatever but there seems to be one happy high after another in Indian athletics.
Javelin thrower Neeraj’s Olympic gold has changed the sport, broken mental barriers and continues to inspire young athletes to think big. And after the country’s best-ever performance at the recent Worlds, where Neeraj won the first-ever silver and six Indians qualified for the final, expectations were high as the athletes flew to Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games.
They lived up to expectations, or perhaps even exceeded them, finishing with a best-ever medal haul — eight: one gold, four silver, three bronze — outside the country (the home Commonwealth Games, New Delhi 2010, had a bigger haul).
India’s previous best outside home was just three but this time, despite Neeraj pulling out with an injury, the medal bag was bigger.
How did the country manage such a sterling show?
“Immaculate planning,” said Athletics Federation of India (AFI) president Adille Sumariwall in a chat with The Hindu.
“And this was expected. We expected 1-2-3 in triple jump which we missed narrowly (Praveen Chithravel, fourth) by 4cm.”
There were many Indian CWG firsts too, like Sreeshankar’s men’s long jump silver, Eldhose Paul’s triple jump gold and his happy one-two with Abdulla Aboobacker. High jumper Tejaswin Shankar and woman javelin thrower Annu Rani, both with bronze, were among the others who opened the CWG medal account in their respective events.
But Avinash Sable’s silver show in the 3,000m steeplechase was perhaps the most precious, one worth its weight in gold as he shocked two-time World champion and 2016 Rio Olympic gold medallist Conseslus Kipruto.
“Sable’s race was the most dramatic and very special because we thought breaking the Kenyan wall in the steeplechase was almost impossible… but he made it,” said Anju Bobby George, the country’s first World Championships medallist and the first Indian woman to win a CWG medal in athletics.
The Kenyan steeplechasers had not lost a single medal in the CWG since 1998 but in Birmingham, Sable changed that, even giving a huge scare to Abraham Kibiwot, the 2018 CWG silver medallist who took the gold, at the finish.
With Tejaswin, given a CWG berth by the Delhi High Court after the AFI refused to include him in the team, taking bronze, the jumpers turned out to be the biggest medal winners at the CWG, four in all including a gold and two silver.
The 10,000m race walks also brought a women’s silver (Priyanka, personal best) and men’s bronze (Sandeep Kumar) but despite the long foreign training tours, the men’s and women’s relay teams were a big disappointment just like the women discus throwers Seema Punia and Navjeet Kaur.
The men’s 4x400m relay team of Muhammed Anas, Muhammed Ajmal, Naganathan Pandi and Amoj Jacob finished sixth (3:05.51s) while the women’s 4x100m quartet of Dutee Chand, Hima Das, Srabani Nanda and Jyothi Yarraji was fifth (43.81s).
With the Asian Games and Worlds next year, clearly there is much to do, perhaps a change in strategy too.
“We are working on it,” said Sumariwalla.