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Commonwealth Games 2022: Why they mark a turning point for Indian athletics

Nihal Koshie writes: India's performance in the “mother of all sports” is cause for celebration. But sports administration needs to listen to athletes, double down to build on their performances.

Nihal Koshie writes: Avinash Sable's silver in the 3,000-metre steeplechase was the first-ever by an Indian and so was Tejaswin Shankar's bronze in the high jump. (Twitter/Team India)

Eight medals in track and field — the highest tally at a Commonwealth Games held outside the country — have left fans and sports administrators dizzy with glee. Busy keypads have launched a social media blitz on the medal rush. The number of medals in Birmingham does tell a story.

The 2010 Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi yielded 12 medals but a doping scandal less than a year later involving the high-profile women’s 4x400m relay team took away the sheen. In the next two editions of the CWG, the medal tally was a combined six.

In Gold Coast four years ago, India won just three medals — javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra’s gold, and a silver and bronze from discus throwers Seema Antil and Navjeet Dhillon. At the Asian Games in the same year, athletes returned with 20 medals. Medals in athletics, known as the mother of all sports, are harder to win at the CWG. The top five nations on the track and field medal tally in Birmingham — Jamaica, Australia, England, Nigeria, Kenya — are not at the Asian Games. So, celebrations are in order.

The spread of medals in Birmingham is historic. Avinash Sable’s silver in the 3,000-metre steeplechase was the first-ever by an Indian and so was Tejaswin Shankar’s bronze in the high jump. Eldhose Paul and Abdulla Aboobacker’s 1-2 in the men’s triple jump is unprecedented. To find a medal winner in the men’s long jump before Murali Sreeshankar’s silver, one has to go back to 1978, the year Suresh Babu won a bronze in Edmonton. By finishing third, Annu Rani became the first Indian woman to win a medal in the javelin throw at the CWG. Though the medals of Priyanka Goswami and Sandeep Kumar in the 10,000-metre race walk were in a non-Olympic category, they can use them as a stepping stone.

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What also stood out in the headline-grabbing medal wins was the fighting spirit. Athletes from India are known to develop frayed nerves at big events save for a few like Chopra.

Sable proved that Indian athletes are no longer pushovers in the heat of battle when he took on a famed trio of Kenyans, left two of them in his wake and pushed a former junior African great to the limit on the home stretch to narrowly miss out on a gold. Amazingly, he is the first non-Kenyan to win a medal in the 3,000m steeplechase at the CWG in over two decades.

High jumper Shankar should have been given a medal for just turning up at the Games. He had to approach a court in Delhi to get the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) to push for his inclusion with the organisers. The AFI had not selected Shankar despite him meeting qualification standards in the well-established National Collegiate Athletic Association. Shankar shut out the noise to finish on the podium. He is just 23 and his lack of rancour at the officials who made his life hell before the Games says the mature head on his shoulders can deal with adversity.

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Triple jumper Paul’s journey to the top of the podium has been paved with hurdles. He wasn’t the best triple jumper in his college and missed out on a sports scholarship. He is short for a triple jumper but makes up for it with explosive power, speed, and a big heart, which was on display the other day.

Well outside the medal bracket after the first two rounds, Paul broke the 17-metre barrier for the first time in his third jump to clinch the gold and edge out Aboobacker, who was equally impressive, by just a centimetre.

In the days to come, the achievements of these athletes will be celebrated, prize money cheques will be handed out and they will appear in selfies clicked by ministers and celebrities. Deservedly so. But the decision-makers also need to continue to listen carefully to athletes’ feedback.

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Sable and Paul have both spoken about the need to train abroad regularly and more opportunities to compete against the best in the world. While running in a Diamond League race recently Sable, who is head and shoulders above the rest in India, closely observed how top athletes pace a race and learnt how not to get boxed-in on the track. Paul picked up nuances from the warm-up routines of medal winners at the last month’s World Championships. Support in terms of funds, equipment, sports medicine, foreign coaches, and overseas training has improved and there is less red-tapism, but this is a good time for the Sports Authority of India, sports ministry and athletics federation to double down. The doping menace in the country needs a strong action plan, which can’t be just on paper.

Also athletes, officials, ministers and fans should not get carried away post-CWG. Medals at what used to be called the Empires Games are not a yardstick to predict the number of podium finishers at the World Championships next year or the Paris Olympics in 2024.

There is a reason why Neeraj Chopra is India’s only track and field medalist at the Olympics. Chopra is an inspiration for CWG medal winners, now they need to emulate him.

(The author can be reached at nihal.koshie@expressindia.com)

First published on: 08-08-2022 at 06:59:45 pm
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