Why don’t Indians do well in track and field at the Olympics?5 min read . Updated: 23 Jul 2016, 11:37 PM IST
For Indian athletes competing in Rio, the modest target should be rewriting decades-old national marks
One of the more agonizing questions an Indian sports fan must ask herself every four years is this: why don’t Indians do well in track and field events at the Olympics? I mean, Indians have brought home Olympic golds in shooting and hockey, silvers and bronzes in tennis and boxing and wrestling and badminton—but our record in track and field remains abysmal.
There’s P.T. Usha and Milkha Singh, both of whom were beaten to fourth place in their respective Olympic races by agonizingly small margins. But look beyond them and there’s almost nobody.
It’s a question worth asking, After all, tiny Jamaica produces the fastest runners in the world. Kenya, Ethiopia and fairly tiny Morocco produce distance runners seemingly by the truckload. Finland and England, Australia and South Africa and even New Zealand have all had Olympic champions in one or more track and field disciplines. Why, among our billion-plus people, have we not found any such?
While you struggle to answer that, consider what’s almost more discouraging to our medal prospects than our lack of medal-winners—the Indian records in nearly every track and field event.
Usha ran a memorable 400m hurdles race at the 1984 Olympics, the first Games that featured this event. She crossed the finish line so in lock-step with two other runners that you and I would not be able to tell them apart (take a look for yourself, Usha is in lane 5). Joint bronzes would have been my amateur suggestion. Sadly for Usha, she was judged to have finished fourth—in 55.42 seconds, one-hundredth of a second behind the woman who took bronze.
Yet, here’s the thing: 32 years later, that time Usha registered in Los Angeles remains the Indian record for the 400m hurdles. Say it again: for more than three decades, no Indian woman has run that race faster than Usha did in LA.
It’s not just that, either. In 1984, the world record in the event had been better than Usha’s mark for six years already. Today, the world record belongs to Russia’s Yuliya Pechonkina, the 52.34 seconds that she set in 2003—more than three seconds better than Usha’s mark, than India’s best. That’s a big difference. How big? At those speeds, Usha would have finished about 23 metres behind Pechonkina.
Take another case. Shivnath Singh, arguably the best distance runner India has produced, holds the Indian men’s record for the marathon: 2 hours and 12 minutes. I have never run the marathon, but I follow it on and off and know something about the timings. So, 2:12 sounds to me like the excellent time it is.
Even so, when Singh set it, the world record had been better than his mark for more than 10 years. And when he set it, the world mark was 2:09:05.6, nearly three minutes ahead of Singh. Today, it has been pushed all the way to 2:02:57, more than nine minutes better than Singh’s Indian record. Again, that’s a big difference: had they run the marathon together, Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto, who set the world record in Berlin in 2014, would have finished nearly 3km ahead of Singh.
And Singh set that Indian record in... 1978, six years before Usha’s 400m hurdles record. That is, it has remained unbroken for 38 years.
Yet, if you are searching for the longest-standing Indian track record, not even Shivnath Singh’s mark qualifies. That distinction belongs to another Singh, the fine middle-distance runner Sriram Singh.
At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Sriram qualified for the final of the 800m race. The field included Ivo van Damme, the rising Belgian runner, and Britain’s Steve Ovett, who would win gold in the event at the Moscow Games, four years later. There was also Rick Wohlhuter of the US—in keeping with the theme of this essay, his 1974 1km mark is still the American record in that event, the longest-standing US track-and-field record.
It was a tough, competitive race. In the middle of the pack through the first 400m, Sriram actually grabbed the lead for about 100m, running beautifully and hard. Only, he may have stepped on the pedal just slightly too early. The other runners soon passed him. Cuba’s great Alberto Juantorena won gold with a world record of 1:43.50. Sriram faded to seventh, finishing in 1:45.77—and yes, that remains India’s best in the event even today, 40 years later.
Apply the same analysis once more. Juantorena was about 15m in front of Singh at the finish. The world record today is 1:40.91 by Kenya’s David Rudisha, nearly five seconds faster than Sriram’s mark. That means Rudisha would beat Sriram by about 40m.
All of which suggests that India’s athletes have a formidable task waiting for them at Rio. For our Jinson Johnson to win the 800m, to take one example, not only would he have to run his personal best, not only would he have to beat Sriram’s 40-year-old Indian record, he would probably have to beat it by at least five seconds.
Even the remarkable story of Dutee Chand is unlikely to end with a Rio medal. Her Indian record in the 100m is 11.24 seconds. Compare it to Florence Griffith-Joyner’s world record (from 1988!) of 10.49 seconds.
In fact, Indian records in track and field are consistently 5% or more behind world records. At the Olympics, that’s a huge gap. Not even the hopes of all us Indians can bridge it.
My point here is hardly to bemoan Indian athletes and their performances. Instead, it’s to suggest that we fans remain realistic about their chances in track and field at Rio. They will certainly not win medals. But they might take the steps Indian athletics needs, to produce future medal contenders. They might set new Indian records.
Maybe even break ones that have stood for decades.
Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.
His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun
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