Jaipur: Uttarakhand's Gurmeet Singh turned out to be the winner as a record number of seven Indian 20km race walkers bettered the Rio Olympics qualifying standards on a fast Jaipur course in the National Championships on Saturday.
While the Rio Olympics qualifying time was set at 1 hour and 24 minutes, Gurmeet clocked 1:21:24.57 to clinch the gold on the first day of the National Championships.
Tamil Nadu's K Ganapathi and Haryana's Sandeep Kumar finished second and third in 1:21:51.43 and 1:21:56.81 respectively.
National record holder KT Irfan (1:22:14.02) of Kerala, Manish Singh (1:22:18.89) of Uttarakhand, Devender Singh (1:22:40.60) of Haryana and Neeraj (1:23:34.02), also of Haryana, were the other four outside of a podium finish but who still went past the Rio Games qualifying time.
Ganapathi, Irfan, Devender and Neeraj were the four race walkers who crossed the Rio Games qualifying standard while Gurmeet, Sandeep and Manish have done so last year.
Now, there is a problem of plenty as only three athletes from a country will be allowed to take part in the Olympics in a particular event and nine Indians have crossed the Olympics qualifying time in men's 20km race walk, though two of them -- Manish and Sandeep -- have done so in both 20km and 50km events.
Manish and Sandeep may opt for 50km race walk as it's their main event. But still, the Athletics Federation of India will have to decide later on the three race walkers out of these nine -- or seven if Manish and Sandeep opt for 50km event -- for the Rio Games.
Out of the other two already qualified race walkers, Baljinder Singh of Punjab finished at eighth place with a time of 1:26:34.07.
Chandan Singh, who have also qualified for Rio Games last year, dropped out of the 20km race walk event as he wants to compete in the 50km event to be held on Sunday.
With the four men's 20km race walkers crossing the Rio Olympics qualifying standard on Saturday, the number of Indian race walkers who made the cut for Rio Games have swelled to 11 (with two from women's 20km event).
In the women's 20km event, national record-holder Khushbir Kaur (Punjab), who have already qualified for Rio Olympics, easily clinched the gold despite walking with pain in her right leg from the 11km mark. She clocked 1:34:52.70, which her coach Alexander Artsybashev described as her best ever timing in India, to win the race but she limped out of the finishing line due to pain.
Local girl Sapna, who have also qualified for Rio Games, finished second in 1:36:59.36, while Priyanka of Uttar Pradesh was third in 1:40:58.93.
No other woman race walker qualified for Rio Olympics from Saturday's competition, besides the already qualified Khushbir and Sapna.
The Olympics qualifying standard for women's 20 km race walk stands at 1:36.00.
Khushbir later said that due to the slope in the competition course, she was feeling pain on her right thigh from the 11km mark onwards but continued as she wanted to finish the race.
"I felt pain in my right leg from the 11km mark as the course has slope. While coming down (to the side of the road which has slope), you have the extra impact on the right leg and so the pain developed but I continued as I wanted to finish the race," said 22-year-old Amritsar girl Khushbir who qualified for Rio Games last year.
"It is a minor pain and it will go after a few days. I will be fully fit for the Asian 20km Race Walking Championships in Nomi, Japan, on March 20," she added.
Coach Alexander said that Khushbir had the same pain two years back in a race walk competition in Kochi where too the course had a slope.
"The same thing happened two years back in Kochi and this course like there (in Kochi) had a slope and she said she felt pain while her right leg landed on the side of the road which has a slope after the 10km mark. But I think it is just a minor one which will go away," said Alexander who has been with the Indian race walk team since 2011.
"Overall, I am happy with the performance of the race walkers as most of them have very good time in the season opener," said the Russian.
For Gurmeet, who led from start to finish, it was a bit of a disappointment despite winning the gold as he said that he could have gone below one hour 20 minutes on such a fast track and that would have bettered even the national record of 1:20.21 standing in the name of KT Irfan who finished fourth on Saturday.
"It was one of the best race walk courses I have competed in and no doubt the best in India. It's fast and smooth and the temperature (of around 20 degree Celsius) was ideal and I could have at least done my personal best (of 1:20.35 in 2011) and even gone below national record. I was doing fast in first 10km but I slowed down in the second 10km," he said after winning the 20km race walk event.
"But even with this timing, I am happy because it is the start of the season. As it goes, I think I can do below 1 hour and 18 minute ahead of the Olympics. I will not think that I cannot win an Olympic medal in Rio," he added.
The bronze winner in 2012 London Olympics had clocked 1:19.25.
National record-holder Irfan was, however, happy with his fourth-place finish and breaching the Rio Games qualifying standard but said that he will have to improve on the timing if he was to be among top three Indians to make Rio in August.
"I have no complaints as it was my first competitive race after my injury in the 2014 Asian Games. Coming up with a timing like this after a one-and-a-half-year layoff is heartening. But at the same time, I have to work harder and improve my timing to be among the best three Indians before the Rio Games," he added.