As the last day of the Rio Olympics wound down, India saw one of its medal hopes and fiercest competitors, Yogeshwar Dutt, crash out in the first round.
Many saw it as the end of India’s campaign and resigned themselves to a final medal count of two, but unbeknownst to them, one runner was scripting a story, not of medal success but of grit, in the men’s marathon.
A mere eight months after running his first full-length marathon, Gopi Thonakkal finished 25th in a field of 155 runners, clocking his personal best and finishing ahead of the other two Indian runners, Kheta Ram – just one place behind him in 26th – and Nitendra Singh Rawat, who finished 84th.
Thonakkal, who was a pace-setter for these two runners in the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) 2016, had only eight months to train after he had finished second among Indians at the SCMM and had bagged a spot in Rio. Thonakkal had achieved Olympic qualification on his debut.
Below their own best
Expectations were high of the track and road squad, given that India was sending its largest team of 29 athletes for a total of 14 events. Four years earlier, only seven athletes had participated in five track and road events at the London games.
As it turned out, the contingent that was more than four times the size of the one that set two national records in 2012 – Basanta Bahadur Rana in the 50 km walk and KT Irfan in the 20 km walk – qualified for the same number of finals: one. Lalitha Babar set a new national record, finishing 4th in her heat to qualify for the 3000m steeplechase final.
In 2012, apart from those two national records, Tintu Lukka had managed to set her seasonal best in the semi-final of the 800m after qualifying through her heats. Lukka finished sixth in her heats in 2016 and failed to qualify for the semi-final.
The primary reason for this sudden upsurge in the number of athletes from India was that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) relaxed its criteria for qualification timings, so that more athletes could make it to Rio.
Out of the nine track finals that Indians could have qualified for – the road events have no qualifying rounds – only Babar succeeded. All of the other 28 athletes, barring Thonakkal, Ram and Lukka – performed even below their qualifying levels.
Some were especially disappointing. The men’s 4X400 relay team, having run the second fastest time of the year for an Indian team prior to the Olympics, were disqualified for an improper baton pass after a review.
Kavita Raut finished the women’s marathon with a time of 2:59.29, almost 20 minutes slower than her qualification time of 2:38.38, a deviation of more than 10 percent.
As the tables below show, the extent to which most of the athletes performed beneath their qualifying levels is disappointing.
Walkers and runners provide a glimmer of hope
Now go back to the green rows in those tables. The road events provided a glimpse of what India’s potential is. Thonakkal and Ram were 55th and 68th, respectively, at the halfway mark, but recovered spectacularly to finish 25th and 26th, respectively. It was an incredible show of stamina and endurance, even if the hot and humid conditions favoured the Indians.
Racewalker Manish Singh Rawat also put up a strong performance in the 20 kilometre walk, finishing in 13th place in a field of 74, 1 minute and 44 seconds behind the bronze medal winner Dane Bird-Smith of Australia.
At the halfway mark, Rawat was seventh but slipped to 18th with two kilometres to go. The 25-year old came back strongly to finish 13th, jumping five places in the final tenth of the race.
Could any of them have won medals? Consider the difference between their finishing time and the bronze-medal winners'. Perhaps training and focus can close some of these gaps by 2020.
Rawat was the only one out of three Indians to officially finish the 20-km walk, as the other two, Ganapathi Singh and Gurmeet Singh were disqualified for racewalking violations. In the process, Rawat finished ahead of four former World champions, three Asian champions, two European champions and two Olympic medallists.
It was a remarkable achievement for the former waiter from Sattar, Uttarakhand, given the almost zero awareness about racewalking in the country. In London 2012, Irfan Kolothum Thodi had stunned the country when he finished 10th in the same event, setting a time of 1:20.21, exactly a minute faster than Rawat’s time in Rio.
But then, Rio gold medallist Wang Zhen of China had a time of 1:19.14, compared to his compatriot Chen Ding's winning tome of 1:18.46 in London. So London was a faster race than Rio, overall. In fact, Wang Zhen's winning time in Rio would have only brought him fifth place in London.
Rawat, Thonakkal and Ram each finished above the 80th percentile. On the one hand, this shows that they, as well as their discipline in general, hold possibilities. On the other, it also highlights how far behind world standards many of our other athletes are.