The concept of a continental athletics championships for the Asian nations was visualized in the 1950s but it took decades to take firm shape. Thanks to the efforts of a set of committed officials including India’s late Sardar Umrao Singh, the championships finally got off the ground in 1973 at Marikina, part of the Manila Metro in the Philippines.
With 17 countries for the inaugural edition of the championships, the Asian athletics family has grown into 45 countries as Bhubaneshwar gets set to host the 22nd edition of the meet. India is hosting the championships for the third time after having conducted it in New Delhi in 1989 and Pune in 2013.
In recent years the Asian championships have not attracted the best in the continent. This time too some of the big stars are missing for the meet in Bhubaneshwar. But an Asian championships at home is an occasion to enjoy, to take stock of the current Indian scenario and also to go back in history and learn about the most outstanding athletes who won laurels for the country in the past.
Who all were India’s champions? What kind of success India has had through the years?
Here’s all you need to know:
The 20th century
Manila, 1973: With China yet to join, Japan was the natural leader in continental athletics. Japan topped the medals tally with 19 gold, eight silver and eight bronze medals and India followed with a tally of four gold, six silver and six bronze medals.
India achieved a rare distinction in men’s shot put at Manila by filling up the podium. Jagraj Singh (17.00m), Gundeep Singh (16.37m) and Bahadur Singh (15.75m) were the proud medal winners for a country that has had a good tradition since then in this event.
Triple jumper Mohinder Singh Gill who had registered a national record of 16.79m at Fresno, USA, in 1971, was well below his best in Manila at 15.96m and yet easily won the gold. Ming-Chi Chen of Chinese Taipei was at 15.31 for the silver.
India’s T. C. Yohannan, who would set a national long jump mark of 8.07m to win the Asian Games gold next year in Teheran, was third with 14.96.
Hammer thrower Ajmer Singh (60.42m) and decathlete Vijay Singh Chouhan (7245 points) won the other two gold medals for India.
Seoul, 1975: India doubled its gold tally from the first meet in the next one in the Korean Capital. It was the 800m specialist Sriram Singh who set the tempo, winning a grand double and also anchoring the 4x400m relay team to a brilliant gold in a close finish with Japan.
Sriram took the 800m in 1:47.8 and won the 400m in 47.03s. He was to make the Olympics final in Montreal in the 800m next year and finish seventh in a national mark of 1:45.77 that stands even today.
Distance runner Hari Chand (10,000m), steeplechaser Harbail Singh, long jumper Yohannan, shot putter Bahadur Singh and discus thrower Praveen Kumar – who was to play the character of Bhim years later in the television serial ‘Mahabharat’ – were the others who added to India’s golden tally.
Tokyo, 1979 and 1981: Two successive editions in Tokyo were not as productive as the preceding ones for India since the gold collection dipped to three and five in the two meets. In both the country occupied the third positions in the medals standings with China coming behind Japan.
The consolation was that the Indian women opened their gold tally. West Bengal sprinter Rita Sen claimed the 400m in 1979 while Haryana’s Geeta Zutshi claimed the 800m gold two years later.
Rattan Singh (1500m) and Hakam Singh (20km walk) were the other gold medal winners in 1979 while A. Rajan (800m), Gopal Saini (5000m), Sabir Ali (decathlon) and Chand Ram (20km walk) added to Indian gold count along with that of Zutshi in 1981.
Saini clocked 8:30.88 for the silver in the 3000m steeplechase behind Japanese Masanari Shintaku, one of the best middle distance and distance runners from Japan. That splendid national record by the Rajasthan athlete has not been bettered to this day.
Kuwait, 1983: The Indian slump continued for one more edition and this happened to be the year in which China forged ahead in the overall standings winning 16 gold medals to Japan’s four.
Quite significantly, it also marked the beginning of a golden era for Indian athletics. Kuwait was where PT Usha made her Asian championships debut, having already competed in the Olympics (1980) and the Asian Games (1982) by then.
Usha won the 400 metres in 54.2s, a prelude to her dominance over the one-lapper and the intermediate hurdles in Asia in subsequent years, while Capt. Suresh Yadav (1500m) added one more and walker Chand Ram successfully defended his 20km title.
Jakarta, 1985: True to expectations, PT Usha came up with an unparalleled feat of five gold medals including one in the 4x400m relay at the Asian championships. There were five more from others and a tally of ten gold medals made it the most successful Asians for India.
Read more about Usha’s exploits here.
The team of Usha, Shiny, who also won the silver in the 400m, Pushpa Nachappa and Vandana Rao easily beat Japan for the 4x400m relay gold. To add to Usha’ collection were gold medals in the men’s 1500m (Bagicha Singh), shot put (Balwinder Singh), hammer throw (Raghubir Singh Bal); women’s 800m (Shiny Abraham) and Asha Aggarwal (marathon).
This was the first time since the arrival of China in the championships in 1979 that India had taken the second place in the standings, behind the Asian giants.
Singapore, 1987: Usha once again came to India’s rescue as the team took three gold, three silver and three bronze medals to come fifth in the medals standing.
New Delhi, 1989: On home turf India had to do better than in the previous edition. And they did, winning eight gold medals and coming second behind China in the medals tally.
Usha led the charge once again. Having gone through a painful, disappointing 1988 Olympics in Seoul, because of a foot injury, she looked more determined than ever before to reclaim her position as the No. 1 medal-winning, record-setting athlete in the country. She was also smarting under defeats by Ashwini Nachappa in the 200 metres.
Usha could manage only the silver in the 100m (11.74s) behind Chinese Zhang Chihua (11.65s) but she had her revenge on Ashwini in the 200m, winning in a national record time of 23.27s. Ashwini too was happy to have won an individual silver in the Asians in a time of 23.54s
Predictably Usha took the gold in the 400m, the only opposition coming from team-mate Shiny Wilson (nee Abraham). In the end, the latter was well behind as Usha won in 51.90s, her best at home, with Shiny in 52.40s. There was no stopping Usha in the 400m hurdles either. The Indian women’s 4x400m relay team (Usha, Mercy Kuttan, Shiny and K. Saramma) also won comfortably, leaving second-placed China more than four seconds behind.
Shiny was awarded the gold in the 800m after having initially finished second to Chinese Sun Sumei. A doping disqualification left Chinese without a medal and Shiny with the gold.
From the men’s side, Bahadur Prasad, one of the finest middle distance runners India has produced, romped home in the 1500m, with Ram Niwas making it a one-two for the home nation. Prasad also had the silver in the 5000m.
Steeplechaser Dina Ram and shot putter Balwinder Singh, bronze medallist in the previous edition, swelled India’s gold tally to eight, a number that has not been matched so far.
Kuala Lumpur, 1991: The Indian slump started again from this edition of the championships in the Malaysian Capital. Shiny Wilson, mother of a baby girl now, provided the lone individual gold medal, winning the 400m in 53.46s. Motherhood seemingly provided the Kerala woman with extra power and strength though she was on the heavier side.
Emotionally torn, leaving her child back home, Shiny was all the same highly competitive in winning her first 400m title in the Asians. She was also part of the 4x400m relay team that retained the gold. The others were K. Saramma, Ashwini Nachappa and S. Dhanalakshmi.
Manila, 1993: For the first time since 1979 when the Indian women got among the gold medals, India had a blank in gold from its women in Manila. The two gold medals that the men claimed came through Bahadur Prasad (5000m) and the late AjitBhaduria (discus throw).
India’s stranglehold over the women’s 4x400m relay, started by the Usha-led foursome in 1985, was broken by China in convincing fashion, 3 33 76 to 3 36 06.
Jakarta, 1995: Jyotirmoyee Sikdar brought home the lone gold medal for India in the women’s 800 in one of the poorest shows by the country in the biennial championships. There was one silver through the women’s 4x400m relay team plus four bronze medals, too.
Fukuoka, 1998: Usha returned to the track after motherhood. There could be no individual gold for the ‘track queen’, but there was one notable timing, that of 23.27s in the 200m that equaled her National record clocked in the 1989 Delhi Asian meet. That fetched her the bronze behind two Chinese sprinters. She did her part admirably in helping India win its first ever 4x100m relay gold (44.43), its only success in the shorter relay so far in the championships. The team included Saraswati Dey, Rachita Mistry and E. B. Shyla.
In the 21st century
Jakarta, 2000: The total tally of 21 medals achieved at the same city in 1985 and in New Delhi in 1989 was equalled. Coming as it did about a month before the Sydney Olympic Games, the best in the continent were missing Jakarta. China did have a decent team but Japan, not for the first time though, preferred to allow their best to concentrate on Olympic preparations.
The Indian medals were thus no great surprise. Shot putter Shakti Singh (19.77m), discus thrower Anil Kumar (58.47m) and javelin thrower Jagdish Bishnoi (76.81m) provided the men’s gold medals.
On the women’s side, high jumper Bobby Aloysius surprised herself by clinching the gold at a modest 1.83m. Discus thrower Neelam Jaswant Singh (60.75m) and the 4x400m relay team added to the gold collection.
Anil Kumar, having done 61.30m at home was able to reach 58.47m but that was good enough for the gold in discus. Jagdish Bishnoi was also below his personal best that season, of 79.67m, but took the gold with 76.81m.
In the absence of the Japanese, again, at Colombo in the next edition, Bobby won another improbable medal, a silver with a height of 1.84m.
Bobby had done 1.85m at Fukuoka and still finished fourth.
Colombo, 2002: A scratch combination of 4x400m women’s relay team got the only gold for India on the last day of the meet in Sri Lanka. There were five silver and four bronze medals also.
With the Asian Games in Busan to follow being of greater importance some of the top athletes were held back at home in order to prepare them better. The strategy worked to a great extent.
Manila, 2003: For the first time since the championships started, India finished without a gold medal. So far this has been the only time that it has had this dubious distinction. India slipped to the 14th position as a result.
Incheon, 2005: India improved its medal collection. All the four gold medals, however, came from the women’s side showing up a declining trend among men.
Manjeet Kaur and S. K. Geetha made it a one-two for India in the 400 metres; Soma Biswas and Susmita Singha Roy completed another one-two in heptathlon and long jumper Anju George and the women’s longer relay team contributed the other two gold medals, rather expectedly.
It was Anju’s first foray into the continental championships.
“I had to skip 2002 because it came just after Commonwealth Games and before Asian Games,” said Anju.
“In 2003 we were too tired after the World championships (where she took a historic bronze) and the European tour to look at the Asians,” said husband Bobby George the other day.
Anju took the gold at Incheon with 6.65m. “I was looking to gather points for the World Athletics Final which we managed.”
Yet, Anju was not too happy with her performance having by then jumped 6.83m in the Athens Olympics the previous year and having had several other 6.70-plus jumps.
Amman, 2007: The Jordanian capital was a last-minute venue as replacement for Lebanon which had to cry off because of the uncertain security situation at that time.
The top Chinese and Japanese stayed away from the championships, leaving countries like India, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kazakhstan to share the spoils. China topped the medals chart once again, but with a meagre gold tally of seven compared to second-placed India’s five.
Renjith Maheswary’s triple jump gold in a wind-aided 17.19m was the highlight of the Indian performance. Chitra Soman (400m), Sinimole Paulose (1500m), women’s 4x400m relay team plus Navpreet Singh, in shot put were the others who won the gold.
In a wind-swept women’s long jump competition, Anju George lost by a centimeter in the last round to Kazakhstan’s Olga Rypakova, 6.66m to 6.65m, both wind-aided.
Guangzhou, 2009: India was back to a solitary gold medal, won by shot putter Om Prakash Singh. Kavita Raut (10,000m), Sudha Singh (3000m steeplechase), Joseph Abraham (400m hurdles) and the women’s 4x400m relay team provided the four silver medals that India gained.
It was for the first time in three editions that India’s hold on the women’s 4x400 was broken by China. India had won the gold in this event from 1985 through to 1991, in 2000 and 2002 apart from 2005 and 2007.
Tintu Luka, Usha’s trainee, was devastated by the sixth-place she had in the 800m in a poor 2:07.61 on her debut in the championships.
China was at near full strength for this edition with Japan too fielding a strong team, making it difficult for countries like India to win medals.
Kobe, 2011: India once again had a lone gold medal in the championships that saw for the first time after China’s entry in 1979, Japan topping the medals standings. Japan was at full strength and China had a fairly good team. India’s solitary gold was won by long jumper Mayookha Johny who also claimed the bronze in the triple jump event.
Sudha Singh (3000m steeplechase) and Vikas Gowda (discus) added silver medals to India’s kitty.
Pune, 2013: If one thought India would repeat or come close to its home performance in 1989, it was a mistake. Pune, a last-minute replacement for Chennai, saw India manage just two gold medals.
With a total of 17 medals India was only sixth in the standings, a disappointing placing to a country that had done reasonably well at the Olympics the previous year.
Vikas Gowda took his first Asian discus title in the absence of Iranian Ehsan Hadadi while the women’s 4x400m relay team regained the gold.
Wuhan, 2015: There was an improvement for India in the medals standings, climbing to third behind China and Qatar with a gold haul of four and a total of 13. Gowda retained his discus gold.
Lalita Babar posted a national record of 9:34.13 in winning her first Asian title in the 3000m steeplechase on debut. This was the prelude to her splendid performance at the Beijing World Championships more than two months later, another national record in the heats (9:27.86) and an eighth place finish in the final.
Tintu Luka finally made up for her disappointments in previous years by winning the 800 metres in an Asian leading 2:01.53.
The fourth gold came India’s way through shot putter Inderjeet Singh, who set a championship record of 20.41m. The big man’s record in 2015 had been so impressive (with an entry into World championships final) that one rated him to make the Olympics final next year in Rio. Instead he was caught for doping and was still engaged in fighting his case as the Bhubaneswar Asian championships comes along.
What awaits the Indian athletes?