It is difficult to hear what Ajay Kumar Saroj is trying to say. This is moments after the medal ceremony of the men’s 1,500 metres and the gold medalist has been informed that he has to attend a press conference. He has never faced journalists and isn’t ready for blinding flashlights. He seems reluctant to take the stage. Coach JS Bhatia tries to put him at ease. It raining heavily and Saroj waits at a corner of a portico as another athlete is still in the media room. It’s clear that the 20-year-old has stage fright.
Yet, an hour earlier in front of thousands of home fans, Saroj showed no sign of nerves as he took the final curve. He was trailing Qatar’s Jamal Hairane, an Asian Games bronze medalist in the 800 metres and an Asian Junior Champion in the 1,500. To the amusement of the fans, Saroj started celebrating. About 200 metres away from the finish line, Saroj had some catching up to do. Had he faded away on the final stretch, it would have been embarrassing. Maybe, he would have got a shouting from his coach too. But this was Saroj’s day.
To a resounding cheer from the crowd, Saroj overtook Hairane. He raised his arms again – this time asking the fans to keep cheering him as he crossed the finish line. By virtue of winning the gold at the Asian Athletics Championships, Saroj has now qualified for next month’s World Championships. His timing of 3:45.85 wasn’t his personal best, but he wasn’t worried. Hairane finished second (3:46.90) and Moslem Naidoost of Iran won bronze (3:48.53).
Coach Bhatia admitted that he was a tad nervous when he saw Saroj celebrating. “It is not every day you see an athlete celebrating before winning. I was a little worried because he wasn’t even in the lead. But such was his confidence today. He beat an Asian Games medal winner,” Bhatia said.
The coach says the youngster is not known to express his emotions but on Friday evening he got carried away by the crowd support and by the anticipation of bagging a World Championship berth.
“I knew that I had enough in my legs to give a final burst even if he (Hairane) pulled away from me in the last 100 metres. The atmosphere was electric and to run in front of a home crowd at such a big event really got me excited. I had never planned to celebrate so early but I knew I would win this race,” Saroj says.The athlete is hoping to better his personal best (3:43.27), achieved at the Indian Grand Prix in New Delhi, when he participates at the World Championships. “I know the competition in London will be at a much higher level. I may not get a chance to celebrate like this,” Saroj says candidly.
Though, this was his first real brush with limelight at the senior level, as a junior he was always seen as a special talent. His father, Dharampal Singh, an army man, was first to spot Saroj’s potential. He encouraged his son to move to Lucknow, from Allahabad, to train under coach Bhatia. “He is from a family of runners. His brother and sister are also my students. But among all the siblings he has emerged as the most successful,” Bhatia says.
When it comes to his turn to address the media, Saroj strolls in along with the coach. Expectedly, one of the first questions is about what seemed at that point in time like premature celebrations. Saroj mumbles something before staring blankly getting used his new life as a Asia star.
Chitra too grabs berth
In the women’s 1,500 metres, India’s Chitra PU produced a burst in the last 200 to get past China’s Geng Min and Japan’s Ayako Jinnouchi and clinch gold. Chitra (4:17.92) also earned a World Championships berth as all gold-medal winners at the Asian Championships are assured of a ticket to London. Min won silver 4:19.15 and Jinnouchi took the bronze (4:19.90).
Relay team disqualified
The Indian men’s 4×100 relay team was disqualified after one member of the quartet crossed his lane during the exchange of baton in the final leg. The Indian team of John Anoorup, V K Elakkiya Dasan, J Debnath and Amiya Kumar Mallick finished the race ahead of Korea in a photo finish but was later disqualified. It was a smooth race for the Indians till the first and second leg but the problem occurred during the exchange of baton between Debnath, who ran the third leg and Mallick.
The exchange took a little bit longer than usual and while taking the baton from Debnath, Mallick, who also competed in the individual 100m dash, had crossed the lane. The Indians were running in the third lane while the Koreans were on the fourth lane in th second heat. The Korea team was declared to have won the heat in 40.18 seconds. The other heat was won by China in a fast time of 39.06 seconds. Chinese Taipei qualified for the finals with the second best timing of 39.40secs while Thailand had the third best time of 39.48 seconds. “During practice, baton exchange has been smooth but today it so happened that it (baton exchange) was not smooth and there was a mistake,” Anoorup said.