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Asian Games: Record Haul of Medals Energises India’s Track & Field Contingent for Tokyo 2020

Before the Asian Games began, an internal assessment by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) predicted a 20-medal haul for the country. By the time the track and field events wrapped up in Jakarta and Palembang, the medal count had climbed up to 19. The AFI’s precision is to be lauded.

Suprita Das | News18 Sports

Updated:August 31, 2018, 9:12 PM IST
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Asian Games: Record Haul of Medals Energises India’s Track & Field Contingent for Tokyo 2020
Indian athletes Sarita Gayakwad, Hima Das, Vismaya and Poovamma Raju celebrate after winning the Gold medal in the women's 4x400m relay event at the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Image: AP)
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Before the Asian Games began, an internal assessment by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) predicted a 20-medal haul for the country. By the time the track and field events wrapped up in Jakarta and Palembang, the medal count had climbed up to 19. The AFI’s precision is to be lauded.

Let’s get the numbers out of the way first. The total tally of 19 medals (7 gold, 10 silver, 2 bronze) is India’s best performance since the 1978 edition in Bangkok, and the third best overall performance. The numbers are a pittance of course when compared to table toppers China, and even the likes of Qatar and Bahrain, who’ve bagged the bulk of track and field events. Yet, it’s been the story of the Games without a doubt, after the opening week was dominated by the teenage shooters who made it to the podium.

(Image: PTI) (Image: PTI)

There have been some firsts – like first time gold medals in javelin throw and heptathlon. And some highs that have been experienced after decades – like the 800m gold after 32 years, the 1500m gold the first medal in the discipline after 20 years, the triple jump gold after 48 years. It is important however, to not be content with this continental glory. Not to deny to the athletes, but the field in several of the disciplines was fairly weak. And if one had to handpick just one genuine world class performance from amongst all the medallists, it would have to be Neeraj Chopra’s personal best of 88.06m en route to gold.

(Image: Manoj Tiwary/ Twitter) (Image: Manoj Tiwary/ Twitter)

Having said that, there’s a fundamental shift in the approach to competition, which has been on display at these Games, and has made a difference.

“This is a generation that’s learning and living in a time of plenty,” says former athlete Ashwini Nachappa. “And the youngsters have adapted to that reality very well. There’s no sense of inferiority that was there in Indian athletes of the past. Look at Hima Das before a race, she looks like she owns that place.”

Attitude apart, the federation deserves immense credit for its planning for these Games thoroughly. For instance, for the first time, the middle and long distance runners were sent outside India for training. A 17-member team travelled to Thimphu in Bhutan for high altitude training. Usually, they train in Ooty or Dharamsala.

“The training centre in Thimphu was at a height of more than 2500m, while here in India we were training at 200m," says 1500m gold medallist Jinson Johnson.

The short distance runners trained under former Olympic bronze medallist Galina Bukharina in the Czech Republic, while the quarter milers meanwhile went through an intense five-week training programme in Poland. Neeraj Chopra meanwhile trained at the Olympic Centre in Finland.

The mix of domestic and foreign coaches seems to have worked, but the biggest challenges for the federation is streamlining the system of coaches, which it has just about started working on this year. 400m runner Nirmala Sheoran, for instance, was not traceable earlier this year. Her coach could not be contacted either.

(Getty Images) (Getty Images)[/caption]

Similarly, before the Asian Games, all the federation knew was that discus thrower Seema Punia was somewhere in the US, but that’s about it. Earlier this year, the federation brought in a strict rule that barred athletes who skipped national camps from competing in selection tournaments for the Commonwealth Games and Asiad. The decision was made after the federation got the impression that non-campers may be on performance enhancing substances. The athletes were told they could bring in their respective coaches to the national camp.

The holy grail, of course, remains the Olympics, where India has never won a medal. In Neeraj Chopra, who is inching close to breaching the 90m mark, and Hima Das, who at the Asian Games became the first Indian to run sub-51 seconds in the 400m, India have two world class athletes. But there’s plenty to be done in terms of improving the infrastructure available here in India, and making exposure trips a part of the annual calendar and not just before major competitions.

The progress has been painfully slow, but as this week in Jakarta has shown, the building blocks are very much in place.
| Edited by: Madhav Agarwal
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