As Mariyappan Thangavelu, the 21-year old from the village of Periavadagampatti, some 50km from Salem in Tamil Nadu, prepared to hop 1.89 metres in his second attempt at the T42 high jump at the Rio Paralympics on Saturday, all eyes were on the Indian as the event was the only one going on at the Olympic Stadium at the time.
Thangavelu had done wonderfully well till that point and was assured of a medal as reigning world champion Sam Grewe of the United States, compatriot Varun Bhati and he were the only ones to had cleared 1.86 metres at the event. India had waited 12 days for its first Olympic medal, but had clinched its first medals at the Paralympics on the second day itself.
The 21-year old Thangavelu, whose right leg is stunted due to an accident at the age of five when a bus swerved off its course and crushed his leg below the knee, had qualified for the Paralympics with a distance of 1.78 metres. He stood there in the Olympic stadium in Rio, at 4 am IST, with a majority of the people back home fast asleep, looking to create history for himself and the nation.
He puffed his chest and pulled it in a couple of times, warming himself up, looking nervous but raring to go. His technique involved hopping on his left leg before taking a last step with his right and executing the Fosbury Flop. He has in the past, credited his jumping ability to his unusually large right toe, calling it his "god".
The bar wavered, but never fell off even as the commentator realised that this was a potential gold medal jump, exclaiming,"..It's over! Thangavelu at 1.89; chance in the gold medal position. A beautiful clearance!"
The home crowd, broke into loud cheers as a big green 'O' next to Thangavelu's name on the Omega scoreboard confirmed that he had indeed cleared the distance, justifying the 'rank 1' displayed next to his name.
The T42 disability refers to a track event (T) where the competitor is hindered by a lower limb affected by limb deficiency, leg length difference, impaired muscle power or impaired range of movement, according to the classification by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).
Thangavelu, one of three Indians in the field, had made eight of his nine jumps easily, clearing 1.83 metres easily. He took two attempts each at 1.86 and 1.89 metres, which he went on to clear. The Indian could not manage to clear 1.92 metres, with the Paralympic and World record standing at 1.96 metres, set by Arnold Boldt at the 1980 Arnhem Paralympics.
Grewe won silver with 1.86 metres, while Varun Bhati who cleared the same distance but having taken more jumps to do it, made it two medals for India, clinching the bronze. India's other medal prospect, Sharad Kumar, finished sixth with a best jump of 1.77 metres.
The Fosbury Flop is a high-jump technique invented by Dick Fosbury in his gold-medal performance at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, where the approach is defined by the run-up of five to six steps being run in a curve, allowing the athlete to lean into the turn, facing away from the bar.
This lowers the centre of gravity to be lowered, allowing for greater take-off thrust. There is an additional rotation of the jumper's body from leaning inwards to facing outwards with the legs initially tucked in and then stretched outwards, aiding clearance and enabling the jumper to land on his or her shoulders and back.