Asian Games: Neeraj Chopra headlines the act, but new stars are born
Athletics and shooting taken together have accounted for 60 per cent of India's medals tally, the highest ever at the Asian Games
A few days before the Asian Games in Hangzhou got underway, PT Usha, the iconic Indian athlete and president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) reminded all and sundry during an interview that her sport carries a legacy of reaping the highest number of medals from the showpiece event.
Well, the legacy flourished in China — often braving some dubious supervision (first Jyothi Yarraji and then Neeraj Chopra) where the 68-member athletics squad accounted for 29 medals, including six gold, 14 silver and nine bronze, bettering the previous best of 20 medals in Jakarta in 2018 and notching up the highest collection in any discipline, with shooting coming in second with 22 medals.
At the time of writing, India have 83 medals, comfortably overtaking the tally of 70 in the last edition of the Games. Speculation has begun about whether they can cross the 100-medals mark, something which is still possible on paper with India in the running for 18 more medals in the last three days in squash (one), wrestling (six), hockey (two), archery (three), cricket (one), kabaddi (two), badminton (two) and bridge (one).
A closer look at the breakdown reveals that athletics and shooting taken together have accounted for 60 per cent of India's medals tally. Neeraj Chopra, the world and Olympic champion, stayed true to his mission of retaining the gold he won five years ago, with his season’s best throw of 88.88 m, though this was easier said than done.
The other gold medallists from India in athletics were Annu Rani (women’s javelin), Tajinderpal Singh Toor (men’s shotput), Avinash Sable (men's 3,000 m steeplechase), Parul Chaudhary (women’s 5,000 m) and the quartet of Muhammad Anas, Amoj Jacob, Muhammad Ajmal and Rajesh Ramesh (men’s 4x400 m relay), accounting for the six top podium finish.
As the medals continued to rain down for the athletes, Tejaswin Shankar (men’s decathlon) and the mixed 4x400 m relay team of Muhammad Ajmal, Vithya Ramraj, Rajesh Ramesh, and Subha Venkatesan reset the national record in their respective events. Vithya also grabbed the spotlight when she equalled Usha’s national mark in the women’s 400 m hurdles after almost four decades.
There was no dearth of drama, not to mention some serious competition from compatriot Kishore Jena before Chopra emerged as the showstopper in the javelin final. If one thought the decks were clear for the world champion once Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem pulled out at the eleventh hour, it was not quite the case.
It had been always Chopra’s gameplan to give his first throw his best, and on Wednesday, when the spear crossed the 85 m mark, there was an air of anticipation that he may have finally breached the 90 m mark. However, no scores showed up on the board for the next 15-odd minutes as Chopra took up the issue with Games officials.
"I had to throw seven times. I have never seen anything like this before. There was something wrong. They did not measure my throw and by the time the next guy threw, they lost my mark,’’ Chopra explained during his interaction with the media later. It was a clear goof-up by the Chinese officials, who also declared Jena’s throw a foul before declaring it legal.
Jena, in fact, led the table for a while with a heave of 86.77 m in his third throw, before Chopra bettered it with his fourth. It was a classic case of a pacemaker pushing a star runner to improve his timing, and Chopra would be happy that it came from a fellow Indian.
"Mujhe pata tha bhai saab mar hi denge (I knew big brother would go past me),’’ Jena told the media later. The takeaway from the story, however, is that even Chopra cannot take gold for granted!