Upswing in athletics

Upswing in athletics

This has been an extraordinary month for the Indian athletics. It all started on August 7 when javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra did the unthinkable, capturing a historic first track and field Olympic gold medal for the country. While Chopra, a prodigious talent since he triumphed in the World U-20 Championships in 2016 with a world junior record-breaking hurl of the spear, was tipped as a medal contender in Tokyo Games, not many expected him to stand atop the podium given the competition he was up against and the lack of competition he had endured in the build-up owing to Covid-19 lockdown and travel restrictions.

As the country was still hungover with Chopra’s success, more laurels followed. A bunch of teenagers, with rarely seen fire in their bellies, defied the odds to win three medals at the World U-20 Championships in Nairobi — the same platform that skyrocketed Chopra into instant fame. First the quartet of Bharat S, Priya Mohan, Summy and Kapil bagged a bronze in the 4x400M mixed relay. Race walker Amit Khatri followed it up with a silver before Shaili Singh sent all into raptures by clinching a silver in long jump, missing the gold by just 1 cm. 

The success of the relay team on the opening day of the meet even drew appreciation from the great Sebastian Coe, the president of World Athletics. “This is what you need at the start of the championship. Congratulations to your 4x400m mixed relay team, fantastic performance in the heats as well,” the double Olympic 1500M gold medallist was seen telling the Indian athletes. “I loved watching you guys perform and this is a sport and country that is really making great progress. You had great triumphs in Tokyo. Now this is your moment to shine on the stage and then it's your chance to go for the Olympics.”

Indian athletics has enjoyed its sporadic moments of success but never so many world-level medals in a single month. Chopra, also the reigning Asian and Commonwealth Games champion, is here to stay while 400M runner Hima Das, a former U-20 World Champion and another promising talent, will be looking to upgrade her Asian Games silver in the continental bash next year at Hangzhou when she recovers from her hamstring injury that quashed her maiden Olympics dreams this year. Then there’s the upcoming Kamalpreet Kaur who made it to the final of women’s discus throw in Tokyo Games and finished a creditable sixth. Add the kids from the recently held U-20 World Championships and the talent pool is quite healthy, something which Athletics Federation of India would be delighted to harness it further.

This is a far cry from when the country struggled to produce world-class athletes. Barring a handful of truly world-class athletes like Milkha Singh, the four-time Asian Games champion who narrowly missed out on a Olympics medal in 400M at the 1960 Rome Games, long-jumper Anju Bobby George, India’s lone World Championship medallist (bronze), PT Usha, dubbed the ‘Queen of Indian track and field’, or discus thrower Vikas Gowda, high quality talent has never been in such steady supply.

So what has brought this sudden change of fortunes in Indian athletics? Firstly, it has to be the improved training and coaching facilities. While athletes from the previous generations generally struggled to get good training facilities and access to world-class coaches, situation is a lot different now. The two main training centres — SAI centres in Patiala and Bengaluru where a majority of the athletes reside and practice — have been immensely upgraded although the lack of an indoor all-weather track is still a matter of concern. Secondly, they don’t have to struggle anymore to be trained by expert foreign coaches with Sports Authority of India not only loosening its purse strings but prompt in getting their requests met. Thirdly, athletes don’t have to worry about training abroad with SAI being quite considerate. 

“Training abroad and access to world-class coaches for sure has made a big difference,” opined Ashwini Nachappa, a prominent sprinter in the 1980s and now actively involved in the administration of sport. “Ever since Neeraj won the U-20 title, he has been groomed well under foreign coaches and his progress has been steady. Athletes also now can train abroad for months without having to worry much about finances. While AFI will take credit, SAI’s role must be acknowledged. That apart, athletes nowadays have far batter access to nutrition too. Potential medal winners get the best of nutrition and supplements and that shows in their performance.”

Robert Bobby George, the husband-coach of Anju and the man who spotted and groomed Shaili, feels the fearless mindset of the current generation is a major factor. “Earlier athletes, barring one or two, would freeze at the international stage. The self-belief was not there. But that’s not the case now. The mental block has gone. Athletes genuinely believe they can win medals at the world stage as seen in Neeraj and Shaili or even Amit. We would win medals at Commonwealth and Asian level but not at world stage, primarily because of lack of self-belief. It’s not there anymore. And that change in attitude is a huge thing.”

Robert felt smart work, rather than only hard work, is important to cultivate the young talent who have shown good promise. “Some may downplay the U-20 performance saying US was not there but there was still a lot of top talent in action there. Not many Indians have excelled at age-group levels for a variety of reasons. So three medals is a very good achievement. What we need to do is be smart about training them. Pure hard work will only get them to a certain level, hard work combined with smart work is what will take them above it. Things like a structured training schedule, rest, recovery, rehab, nutrition, competition selection…all of them need to be managed properly to attain success at the global level.

“Take Neeraj as an example, an injury ruled him out of Rio Olympics but he’s been smart about where he wants to train and under whom he wants to train. Kids like Shaili, who of course trains under me, and Amit and others have the potential. This is the age when the best practices needs to be taught to them. They have the hunger and passion and under right guidance they could mature into fine athletes in the future.”

Barring cricket which always attracts the largest viewers and sponsors in the country, other sports bank on a ground-breaking moment to take off. The profile of shooting changed after Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s silver medal at 2004 Athens Olympics and Abhinav Bindra’s gold at 2008 Beijing Games, badminton grew wings with the exploits of Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu, wrestling owes its resurrection to Sushil Kumar and Vijender Singh and MC Mary Mom have made boxing popular. 

“This is great chance for AFI to step on the marketing and drive the sport forward that has been lagging behind for decades,” said Ashwini. “You’ve got a face in Neeraj and there are a bunch of kids, who if looked after very well, can be international medal winners in the future. I’m delighted to see the emergence of such fresh talent. Enhance district-level participation, improve facilities there, boost coaching at the grass root and elite level, involve corporates who are interested in improving the sport…AFI has a fair amount of work to do. This is the right time.”

The iron is hot and if the AFI can strike it right then the country can dream of continued success in track and field.

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