CWG 2018

CWG 2018 athletics: Neeraj Chopra delivers, Hima Das offers hope as India put in a par performance

It’s been a long time since a runner from India has shown as much promise as Hima Das has done lately.

The Indian athletics contingent at Gold Coast ended with the same number of medals that the previous contingent had ended with in Glasgow: three. The medals were also the same, a gold, a silver and a bronze.

Neeraj Chopra’s gold medal in Javelin Throw made him only the fourth individual in the history of the Games to win a track and field gold, while Seema Punia and Navjeet Dhillon won silver and bronze in the Discus Throw event.

There were other impressive performances to write about: Jinson Johnson and Muhammed Anas with new national records in the 1500 and the 400 metres, Hima Das finishing sixth in the women’s 400 metres.

Not the most auspicious start

Athletics didn’t have the best of starts, even before the Games began, when long jumper Sreeshankar M and high jumper Siddharth Yadav were forced to miss the Commonwealth Games, due to the Athletics Federation of India’s inability to seek accreditation for the two athletes in question.

The build-up to the selection of the relay teams was hardly ideal as the AFI initially selected a provisional list without non-campers Muhammed Anas, MR Poovamma and Arokia Rajiv, only to hold frenzied discussions at the last minute and include the trio.

While in Gold Coast, triple jumper Rakesh Babu had a sub-par qualification round but managed to sneak into the finals, only to be removed from the Games Village for a breach of the Games’ no-needle policy.

KT Irfan, who had finished 13th in the men’s 20 km walk, was also asked to leave for the same reason. If the run-up to the Games was less than ideal, the Athletics contingent’s stay there was hardly any better.

Field delivers but track surprises

In a field where his best throw of 2017-18 was the second highest, Neeraj was always expected to do well and he lived up to the expectations, especially after Olympic gold medal winner Julius Yego flopped.

Seema Punia won a fourth Commonwealth medal at a fourth different Games, truly a remarkable record but in truth, all the competitors in the Discuss Throw were competing for silver in the presence of Australia’s Dani Stevens. World junior medallist Navjeet Dhillon, having struggled in the transition between the junior to senior levels, delivered with a bronze with her last throw.

India won all three of it’s medals in the field events, but it was at the tracks where the country witnessed some of the most memorable performances in recent years. It started with Muhammed Anas, who became the third Indian man, after Milkha Singh and GS Randhawa, to make the Commonwealth final in a track event.

He broke his own national record on his way to an unlikely fourth in the final, and reckoned he could have gone faster after the race. For a man who had to request the AFI to put his name in at the last moment, his selection was vindicated. Jinson Johnson, primarily a 800 metre runner, out-did himself by first coming close to the AFI’s qualifying standards in Patiala and then by breaking Bahadur Prasad’s 22-year-old national record in Gold Coast.

There is one athlete however, who now becomes an absolute must-watch at the Asian Games.

The rise of Hima Das

We have to talk about Hima Das. We just have to. Here’s a woman who was a football player, playing for some local clubs in Assam, one who had never heard of athletics before 2016. One day, she decides to participate in the Assam state championships, no training whatsoever and comes second in the 100 metres.

Medals at the school nationals, Asian youth nationals followed as Hima won the gold in the 200 metres test event in Jakarta in February. Originally chosen for the 4 X 400 relay, Hima had been running that distance for less than half a year and her first competitive race at 400 metres, by all accounts, was the Federation Cup in March.

She stunned the field, including Asian Games bronze medallist MR Poovamma, taking first and going under AFI’s mark of 52 seconds. Brought in as a relay specialist, Hima, put in as a last-minute addition by sprints coach Galena Bukharina, had run her first-ever 400 metre heat in a time of 53.13 and had finished the final in 51.97 seconds.

At Gold Coast, she did even better, 52.11 followed by a personal best of 51.53, followed by another dramatic improvement of 51.32 seconds.

Sample this: Just three months after her 18th birthday, Das, who had been running 400 metres for less than six months did the following...

  • Finished joint-fifth fastest at the Commonwealth Games, her first-ever international senior meet.
  • Run in a final where everyone else was at least two and a half years older than her.
  • Clocked the fastest 400 metres time by an Indian in a year since Nirmala Sheoran’s 51.28 seconds in Patiala, May 2017.
  • Clocked the second fastest time in the 400 metres by an Indian in 14 years!
  • Clocked the second fastest time by an Indian ever overseas, after KM Beenamol’s 51.21 seconds in Kiev, 2000.
  • Clocked the fifth-fastest time ever by an Indian in the 400 metres after Manjeet Kaur (51.05), KM Beenamol (51.21), Nirmala Sheoran (51.28) and Chitra Soman (51.30).
  • Clocked the 18th fastest time of the year and the fastest time by an Asian woman this year.
  • Comfortably beat the gold medal effort of 51.59 seconds from the 2014 Asian Games.

Much like Deepak Lather in weightlifting (keep an eye out for him!), the good news is that Hima will get closer to world standard and her timings will only keep plummeting as the power in her legs increase and her technique improves. The fact that she has done all of this at 18 is astonishing, remarkable and <insert your own adjective here because we’ve run out of superlatives>.

The quarter-miler from the Dhing district of Assam is unpredictable, there’s no telling what she could achieve and how far she could go, perhaps the first time in the history of Indian track that unpredictability of one’s timings is a good thing. Bukharina reckons she could shatter the 50 second mark. That may or may not happen, Hima might just plateau later, but keep this up and one thing is for sure; Manjeet Kaur’s 14-year-old national record is gone, long gone. It surely is a case of when and not if.

The under-performers

After the exploits of Hima, we come to the athletes who couldn’t come close to their personal or seasonal bests. The men’s shot put and the women’s long jump were huge disappointments, Tejinder Pal Singh, Nayana James and Neena Pinto not coming close to replicating their Federation Cup efforts.

Tejinder’s best effort of 19.42 was a metre short of his best and the best that Nayana and Neena could muster among themselves was a 6.19 metres, way short of James’ season best of 6.54.

The relay teams were hamstrung by injuries and absentees as Amoj Jacob crucially picked up an injury in the final as the men did not finish. The women’s team, effectively a second-string one without Jisna Mathews, Nirmala Sheoran and Juana Murmu struggled in the first two legs, leaving Hima and Poovamma too much to do.

For Tejaswin Shankar, the inability to clear 2.27 metres, after doing it in the US and in India, will sting but at 19, this was his first-major meet after missing both the world junior championships and the Asian Athletics Championships. This failure will serve him well and will be an important motivator, as the Asian Games comes round.

Manish Rawat did well in the 20 km walk, finishing a creditable sixth while Purnima Hembram set a new personal best in the heptathlon, finishing seventh with 5834 points.

Overall, the athletics contingent did not improve on its medal tally for Glasgow but performances in track were indicators that a young contingent might be improving. The right verdict for Indian athletics at Gold Coast is that it was an on-par performance with a positive outlook for the Asian Games.

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