Such has been the impact of India’s track and field stars at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, where they won a rich haul of eight medals, people are still talking about how this was made possible.
For the normal sports fan who watched on television the incredible performances being produced by Indians in triple jump, 3000m steeplechase, long jump and even the 10km walk, this was new.
One had heard of a certain Neeraj Chopra being a sure gold medal shot at the Games. But then, here were names, hitherto unknown, who grabbed the spotlight with scintillating performances in the track and field arenas.
For the men and women who matter in the planning, strategising and execution in the Athletics Federation of India, winning these medals has not at all come as a surprise.
One must remember, athletics is one of the easier sports to follow. To anyone with the naked eye, watching an athlete run, jump, or fling the javelin is so elegant and majestic. And when you have athletes showing their ability in jumps, horizontal, vertical and the triple jump, there is so much variety.
For those who are well versed with sports science, peaking day in and day out in sport is impossible. So, the big challenge for the AFI was to select the right athletes for the World Championships in Eugene, Portland and the Commonwealth Games. Just a fortnight’s gap was not enough for rest, recovery and peak again. Yet, the Indian athletes who figured in the two mega events were able to do it.
The icing on the cake would have been Neeraj Chopra winning a gold medal. However, as he sustained a hamstring injury at the World Championship, there was no way he could compete in Birmingham.
“We will win more medals at Asian Games and World Championship” – Anju Bobby George
Speaking to Firstsportz, Anju Bobby George, who won a bronze medal in the 2003 World Championship in long jump in Paris said she was not one bit surprised with these performances. “We knew what our athletes were capable of and the expectation of medals was in double digits. Had Neeraj been competing, it would have been a sure gold. Likewise, in triple jump, it could have been a 1-2-3,” said Anju.
Anju is part of the think-tank in the Athletics Federation of India where president Adille Sumariwala and shrewd tactician Lalit Bhanot have been spending time on the drawing board. “We had long discussions all along. It is not as if medals came because of luck. There was detailed planning and working specifically on our best chances. We knew in technical events we had our best chances. And that’s why I am ready to stick my neck out and say when we compete next year in the Asian Games in Hangzhou and the World Championship next year, we will win more medals,” said a happy Anju.
What is that one factor which has made such a huge difference in the way Indian athletes today approach an international competition with such aura.”There is a paradigm shift between my time and now. When I was competing (around 2003-04) I hardly knew what my opponents looked like. Today’s Indian athletes know what the field is like, how big the stadium will be in which they are competing. And they have already seen the performance of athletes who they will be competing against, either live, or on television. The fear factor has gone,” said Anju. And that was saying a lot.
Anju is herself running an academy in Bengaluru for the long jumpers, where she is mentor and monitors their progress. For example, last year, her protege, Shaili Singh won silver medal at the under-29 championship in Nairobi. Athletes like Shaili are not an exception. Today, there are many young athletes with great talent and a strong work ethic performing well at the world junior championships.
Anju feels the best of Indian athletics is yet to come. “I must say the way the Indian government has been supporting us is very helpful. We are getting all the inputs we need. It is now for the athletes to perform and we are there to guide them,” she said.
For his part, AFI President, Adille Sumariwalla, who has been flying from one city to another, tracking the performance of the Indian athletes, is reasonably happy. “There has been immaculate planning. No words will suffice to thank the Sports Ministry for their unstinting support to athletics. Our coaches, physios and entire support staff have worked in tandem. And I must mention the role played by our planning head Lalit Bhanot,” said Sumariwalla.
From now till the next Asian Games, there is a gap of around 13 months. Someone like Murali Sreeshankar gets no rest as he will be competing in the elite Diamond League. For most of the other athletes, there will be celebrations in coming days. The reception at SAI centres in India has been rousing. After a short gap, they will be back in training at the camps, away from the glare of the public.
Looking ahead, one is excited about what India can do at the Asian Games in 2023. Yes, the Chinese and Japanese athletes plus the heavyweights from the Arab countries will be there. As Anju pointed out, the fear factor has been conquered. That’s a big plus.
As the Asian Games motto says: “Ever Onward.”
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