If 23-year-old PU Chitra was intimidated by the two naturalised athletes of African origin running for Bahrain ahead of her in the 1,500m final, it would only be natural. The one leading the race going into the final lap was Tigist Gashaw, an Ethiopian-born runner, and a former World Youth Champion.
Just a few months ago, Chitra had finished third at the Asian Games, behind Gashaw who took silver and another African import, Kalkidan Befkadu of Bahrain who won the gold. Tag-teaming on the track is a tradition for African runners. Not many can match them stride for stride, especially in the final straight of a race.
On Tuesday night, Chitra, the defending champion, faced a similar challenge as she had during the Asiad. Gashaw was leading the race and in close second was Asian Games steeplechase winner Winfred Yavi, born in Kenya but racing for Bahrain. Chitra, though, was holding onto third place gamely but didn't look like she would gain a place going into the final stretch.
But to her credit, Chitra found an extra gear to first get past Yavi and then outrun Gashaw to win the gold with a timing of 4:14.56. Gashaw clocked 4:14.81 while Yavi took the bronze in 4:16.18.
Chitra's personal best stands at 4:11.55, so this performance wasn't her fastest but she would have gained immense confidence after beating two African-born runners at an Asian event.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has put in place tougher norms for athletes to shift allegiance. The talent pool in African countries, like Kenya and Ethiopia, has seen many of them move to richer Gulf countries in search of greener pastures but the IAAF has made granting full citizenship mandatory for athletes for such a switch. The new rules may make it tougher for Gulf countries to import athletes but a good number will still turn up at Asian events. This won't be the last time Chitra will face African athletes in a race and trumping a pair of them will make this race special for her. "Got a little nervous towards the end because I was next to the Bahraini runner (Gashaw). She beat me to third place at the Asian Games. I had to really push hard in the end," Chitra said after the race.
This was the third major gold for Chitra after the one in the previous edition and the first-place finish at the 2016 South Asian Games in Guwahati. For a daughter of daily wage labourers in Mundur in Kerala's Pallakad district, Tuesday's title-winning run was another feather in her cap. She began her athletics career with borrowed spikes and Rs 25 per day for her diet as a day-boarder at a government school.
While Chitra defended her title, India's Ajay Kumar Saroj (1500m) and the women's 4x400m relay teams failed to do the same. Saroj, who had won gold in 2017, clocked a season's best time of 3 minute 43.18 seconds to clinch a silver behind Bahrain's Abraham Kipchirchir Rotich, who clocked 3:42.85. The women's 4x400m relay quartet of Prachi, Poovamma, Saritaben Gayakwad and VK Vismaya finished second with a timing of 3:32.21, behind the Bahraini quartet who clocked 3:32.10. It was Nigerian-born Salwa Naser of Bahrain who made up almost 25 metres to come in from fourth place and beat India's anchor-leg runner Velluva Koroth Vismaya to win gold for the team.
There was disappointment as the Indian men's 4x400m team of Kunhu Mohammed, KS Jeevan, Muhammed Anas Yahiya and Arokia Rajiv, which had finished second in 3:03.28 was disqualified under rule 163.2 (causing impediment to an athlete by jostling or obstructing).
Sprinter Dutee Chand added a bronze in women's 200m to take India's medal tally at the championships to 3 Gold, 7 silver and 7 bronze. Dutee, who had finished fifth in the 100m final on Tuesday after smashing the national record twice, clocked 23.24 seconds to win the bronze in the women's 200m. After falling behind in the first 100m, she covered a lot of ground in the final 100m and got past three competitors at the finish line.
Naser of Bahrain took the gold in 22.74 while Olga Safronova of Kazakhstan was second in 22.87. The 23-year-old Dutee, who had won a 200m silver at the Jakarta Asian Games, still missed the World Championships qualifying mark of 23.02. She has a personal best of 23.00.
"I am really very happy. I missed a medal in 100m and the relay. I put too much effort in 100m, was not sure of the medal in 200m. Just did my best and I am happy," Dutee said.
In the women's discus throw, Navjeet Kaur (57.47m) and Kamalpreet Kaur (55.59m) came up with disappointing shows to finish fourth and fifth respectively.
India had won 29 medals (12 Gold, 5 silver, 12 bronze) in the last edition in Bhubaneswar in 2017, topping the medal tally for the first time. This time, Bahrain topped the medal tally with 11 gold, 7 silver and 4 bronze, followed by China (10 gold, 12 silver, 8 bronze) and Japan (5 gold, 4 silver, 9 bronze).
At a glance:
India’s medal tally: 3 gold, 7 silver, 7 bronze; Women’s 1,500m: PU Chitra (gold) 4:14.56; Lili Das (14th) 4:32.41; Men’s 1,500m: Ajay Kumar Saroj (silver): 3:43.18; Women’s 200 m: Dutee Chand (bronze) 23.34; Men’s 4x400m relay: Kunhu Mohd, K S Jeevan, Muhammed Anas, Arokia Rajiv (disqualifed): Women’s 4x400m relay: Prachi, Poovamma, Saritaben Gayakwad, VK Vismaya (silver): 3:32.21; Women’s discus throw: Navjeet Kaur (4th): 57.47m; Kamalpreet Kaur (5th) 55.59m. -(With inputs from PTI)