As another edition of the Olympics draws to a close, it is inevitable that India’s attention will be drawn to two categories of athletes: those who won medals and those who promised much but delivered little. Unfortunately, in India’s case, the list of the former is considerably shorter than the latter. We went into the Olympics with high hopes for our archers and boxers. Things haven’t gone according to plan.
But this Manichaean view of the results does little justice to some of the unfavoured Indian athletes who performed really well, but outside the medals. After all, we sent a squad of 83. Athletes such as Tintu Luka and Irfan Kolothum Thodi recorded good timings. Luka notched up a season’s best timing of 1:59.69 in the women’s 800m, finishing the 11th fastest in the semi-finals.
Kolothum Thodi set a new national record of 1:20.21 in the men’s 20km walk. He finished 10th. Vikas Gowda and Krishna Poonia both qualified for the finals of their throwing events as well.
There are two things worth looking at here. First, would any of them have won medals if they’d performed at their personal best levels? Second, how good are some of India’s national records? Would any of those marks stand up to London 2012 timings?
Luka’s national record, and personal best, of 1:59.17, would have easily got her into the finals in 7th or 8th place. Bahadur Prasad’s national record of 3:38.00 set in 1995 in the men’s 1,500m would have also qualified him for the finals in London. This is remarkable, given that Prasad?set the record 17 years ago.
United States’ Alice Schmidt leads Russia’s Mariya Savinova and India’s Tintu Luka across the finish line in a women’s 800-meter heat during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics, London, on 8 August 2012. Photo: AP
The legendary P.T. Usha’s national record of 55.42 seconds in the women’s 400m hurdles, set 28 years ago in Los Angeles, would have easily got her into the semi-finals. But no further.
What about the record that has to be the oldest standing in Indian athletics? At the Montreal Games in 1976, Sriram Singh set a new national record in the 800m for men that has remained unsurpassed since. Singh is a legend who deserves to be remembered more for his exploits. Unfortunately, his finest moments all predate the widespread television access in India; and, perhaps, that explains his relative obscurity. Thanks to YouTube, however, you can see a clip of the exhilarating Montreal 800m finals. For a few seconds, after the first lap, Singh leads the race before being overtaken by a breakaway group of the eventual medal winners. That day Singh set a time of 1:45.77. Thirty-six years on, his time is still good enough to at least make it to the semi-finals for the same event.
One would assume that our national records wouldn’t stand up to the marquee sprint events, what with the envelope being pushed on a monthly basis by the likes of Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake.
In fact, they don’t do too badly at all. The national record for the 100m sprint is 10.20, set by Anil Kumar Prakash in 2000. The slowest qualifier for the 100m semi-finals in London was Rondell Sorillo of Trinidad and Tobago at 10.22.
Rachita Mistry’s 11.38 seconds mark for the 100m women’s sprint would also have just about squeezed her into the semi-finals.
All this analysis goes to prove that on an exceptional day, several Indian athletes are good enough to compete at the Olympics level. All this nonsense about Indians being too small, too slow, too weak and too vegetarian is just that: nonsense.
We are often led to believe that our track and field athletes considerably lag behind international standards. This may not be entirely true. In fact, they stand on the fringe of respectability. Yet, for decades, they’ve been waiting for that organizational, infrastructural and technical nudge that pushes them across.
They still wait.