A few days before the start of the track and field competition at the Asian Games, Adille Sumariwala, the president of the Athletics Federation of India, had indicated just how confident the team was. “Asian Games has been a happy hunting ground for Indian athletes, and will continue to be,” Sumariwalla, himself a former sprinter, had said in an interview.
This has generally been true, with athletics historically being one of the top two contributors of medals to India’s overall tally. This continued in Hangzhou, too, with Indian athletes winning 29 medals — of the 107 overall won by India. As a sport, athletics was the biggest individual contributor to India’s total.
This was also the second most medals ever won by India in track and field competition at the Asian Games — just behind the 34 won by India in the inaugural games in 1951 when there were just 11 countries competing.
There was enough reason for Sumariwala’s optimism. Over the last few years, India has steadily been performing across competitions. “We’ve slowly moved up. You saw the results at the 2022 Commonwealth Games (Indians won eight medals in athletics, up from the three in 2018). At this Asian Championships, we had 27 medals. At this Worlds, we had a gold (Neeraj Chopra in the men’s javelin), people breaking Asian records (men’s 4x400m team) and running (Parul Chaudhary in the women’s 3000m steeplechase) and jumping (Jeswin Aldrin in the men’s long jump) in the finals,” Sumariwala had said.
While the result in Hangzhou was on expected lines, there were performances that stood out even among the shower of medals with athletes breaking fresh ground. A couple of national records were broken.
Vithya Ramraj won a bronze in the women’s 400m hurdles but what was even more impressive was the fact that she had clocked a 55.42 second time in the heats. That time equalled the national record set by PT Usha back at the 1984 Olympics. Tejaswin Shankar, who won silver in the men’s decathlon with a total of 7666 points, also broke the nearly 12-year-old national record of 7658 points set by Bharatinder Singh.
Fresh ground was broken by Parul Choudhary who claimed a gold in the women’s 5000m race. Although Choudhary, who holds the national record in the 3000m steeplechase didn’t come close to the national record in the 5000m, her win was the first for an Indian at that event, ever since its introduction to the Asian Games program in 1998.
Despite India’s overall performance, the results weren’t an absolute improvement from previous years. Although India finished with their best ever medal haul, they only won six gold medals, down from the eight they had won in 2018.
Furthermore, with athletics being a measurable sport, just a handful of results were what could be considered world class or good enough to make the top six of a world-level competition. Although Avinash Sable’s time of 8.19.50 in the men’s 3000m steeplechase was a new games record, it was nowhere near the 8.10.00 he had set as a target at the start of the year.
Parul Choudhary’s gold medal timing of 15.14.75, would be nearly 10 seconds slower than the time that clocked by the last qualifier to make the final of the women’s 5000m at the 2023 World Championships (15.05.24). Tajinder Toor’s 20.36m throw in the men’s shot put was nearly 40 cm short of the last qualification mark (20.74m) to make the final at the World Championships.
The India relay team’s time of 3.01.58 in the men’s 4x400m was a couple of seconds short of the time the same team had clocked in Budapest just a month before.
Apart from these blemishes, there is much to praise about India’s overall results. Neeraj Chopra proved once again just why he’s the best javelin thrower in the world. Having already won all the major competitions — Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, World Championships and Olympics — the 25-year-old is now well underway to repeating that conquest, if his 88.88m throw to claim his second Asian Games title is any evidence.
Annu Rani turned around what had been a dismal year so far for her with a season’s best of 62.92m that won India it’s first ever Asian Games gold in the women’s javelin throw. Annu not only beat the Chinese Olympic champion — Liu Shiying — to the Asian gold but also registered a throw that would have placed her in the top 5 at the World Championships earlier this year.
While much of the attention of course went to India’s gold medallists, there were a couple of performances that ‘only’ won silver but which will be equally significant going into an Olympic year.
Murali Sreeshankar finished just 3 cm behind 2022 World champion Wang Jianan and while a gold might have been ideal, his jump of 8.19m was the best ever registered by an Indian at the continental games.
After a disappointing result at the World Championships, Sreeshankar’s jump was just what he needs to get his confidence up while going into the Olympic year.
The athlete who perhaps announced himself in the biggest way possible was Kishore Jena.
In what is only his first international year, the 28-year-old’s new personal best of 87.54m in the javelin saw him finish behind Neeraj but it is a throw that would keep him in the mix for a medal at any world level event.