We have rarely had cause to use the two phrases “collective excellence” and “Indian athletics” in the same sentence. But the ongoing Asian Games have made us do that. Apart from a few occasions — in the 1960s when Milkha Singh and Gurbachan Singh Randhawa briefly coincided, and in the mid-1980s and early 2000s when Indian women contingents sparkled, led by PT Usha and KM Beenamol respectively — athletics offered us cases of individual brilliance, of heartwarming solo triumphs against all odds. But on Sunday, three young runners blitzed their way to three silver medals. The emergence of explosive young talent is such an exciting prospect. Something is hovering in the air. Could this be the dawn of a new era for Indian athletics?
Hima Das, the only Indian to win at an under-20 junior world championship, broke the national record twice (in the heats and the finals) on her way to the silver medal in the 400 metres. This is her first season in the big league, and, as she matures and gets more exposure, she will surely do even better. Muhammed Anas, 23, picked up a silver in the men’s 400 m, the first Indian man to do so since 1982. Dutee Chand, at the centre of a global battle against gender testing, fell 0.02 seconds shy of winning the gold in the 100 metres sprint. No Indian has won a 100 metres medal at the Asian Games since 1998, when a bronze had been won. The legendary Usha was the last Indian to win a silver medal in the 100 metres, arguably the most glamorous of track and field events, in 1986.
Traditionally, Indian athletes have not quite burned up the track. Body types, endurance, training, have stood in the way of exemplary performances. This group of young athletes is blessed with raw talent. That is perhaps most evident in the case of Das, who turned her attention to athletics only three years ago and propelled herself to win a world junior championship earlier this year. But greater exposure to international events, more scientific training, better physiotherapists who help athletes recover faster, and sheer will and resolve (most evident in the case Chand, who did not allow the public battle against arbitrary gender profiling distract her from the business of performing as well as she did) have all contributed to this upsurge at the ongoing Asian Games. All three winners will only get better. Anas picked up his silver without even clocking his personal best. Chand is improving her timings. And it is a matter of time before Das is able to bring to the senior circuit the thrill she offered us on the junior one. The biggest test: the forthcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. If Indian athletes are to make a mark in track there, it would be historic.
First Published: Aug 27, 2018 18:16 IST