Everything played out as per script for the Indian women in the 4x400m relay on the final day of the athletics programme at the 2018 Asian Games. Hima Das, the fastest quarter-miler in the country, gave the lead on the first lap with a searing run, setting a heady tone for the whole race, which the rest did well to consolidate, leaving their opponets in a helpless wake. Clocking an impressive 3:28.72s, they ensured India won its fifth 4×400 relay gold medal at the Asian Games on the trot.
For Hima, who celebrated wildly, it was her first gold medal at the Games after enduring heartbreaks in 400m and 4x400m mixed relay. On both instances she had to settle for silver.
Seasoned runner MR Poovamma, the only member from the previous winning squad that set a games record with an effort of 3.28.68, took the baton from the Assam girl and ensured India didn’t lose the advantage. From there on, victory seemed certain and the only question was about the margin.
Bahrain (3:30.61s) finished almost two seconds behind India while Vietnam could manage 3:33.23s for the bronze. The Indian women missed the Games record of 3:28.68s by a very narrow margin.
“The strategy was to let the two experienced runners begin it. We just wanted to beat Bahrain. That was the goal today,” Poovamma would explain later.
What makes the gold even more glittering is that they are a young group. Poovamma, at 28, is the oldest. Sarita Gayakwad is 24, Hima 18 and VK Vismaya 21. Both Povamma and Hima, who undoubtedly is among the most promising young athletes in the continent, had on Wednesday claimed silver in the 4x400m mixed relay as well.
Their collective effort kept a proud Indian legacy intact in the Asian Games—they have topped the particular stream in every edition of the event since 2002 edition in Busan, where a talented group of Jincy Phillip, Manjeet Kaur, Soma Biswas and KM Beenamol ran terrifically.
Silver for men
The men’s 4x400m team ran their hearts out to bag a silver (3:01.85s) with Japan (3:01.94s) finishing close on their heels. Qatar, who were the clear favourites to left everyone chasing their shadows with a sublime 3:00.56s on the clock.
For the Indians, Kunhu Muhammed began proceedings before the baton was passed to 2018 Asiad 400m hurdles silver medallist Dharun Ayyasamay. India seemed out of medal contention just when their fastest runner Mohammed Anas took over. But the Kerala runner maintained a steady pace and in his final stretch, took off to put India just behind the race leaders. It was now up to Arokiya Rajiv, who was part of the 2014 squad that finished fourth, to keep Japan at bay. Rajiv did not give up despite a stiff challenge from Shota Iizuka and ensured the silver was sealed.
Both India’s relay medals looked improbable just a few months back with Poovamma and Anas not being included in the provisional list. The Athletics Federation of India had “made it clear” that those athletes who did not train at the national camp in Patiala would not be taken in the squad. Poovamma and Anas preferred training with their personal coaches. In fact, Anas was given a deadline to join the camp after the Commonwealth Games, where he had bagged a gold, or face the axe.
During a meeting in March between 400m chief coach Galina Bukharina and Asian Athletics vice-president Lalit Bhanot, it was decided that India’s star non-campers must be brought in to prepare a strong squad. It has been reliably learnt that AFI general secretary CK Valson acted as the mediator and convinced the athletes to join the camp.
For Galina, a former Texas State University athletics coach who was taken on board in May last year, it has been a very fruitful stint so far. Under her guidance, both Anas and Hima are showing steady progress. She has also helped hurdler Ayyasamy to become the first Indian to run below the 49s mark. The Russian-American coach is expected to stay at least till the 2020 Olympics.
Seema settles for bronze
Defending champion Seema Punia settled for a bronze in the women’s discus throw. The 35-year-old managed a best distance of 62.26m, her best in six years, but that was just enough for a bronze medal. Asian champion Chen Yang of China hurled the disc to a gold-winning distance of 65.12 in her last attempt at the spacious GBK Main stadium.
Asia number one Chen, 27, was always the top contender in this event with a personal and season-best throw of 67.03m. She kept improving with her throws and was closely followed by compatriot Feng Bin, who grabbed the silver with 64.25m, which also came in her last attempt.
Seema’s best throw came in her third attempt, which was better than her gold-winning effort at the 2014 Incheon Games, where she had managed 61.03m. Chen was in the lead from her first attempt of 59.61m after Seema began with a 58.51m and looked unhappy with her effort.