At the iconic Khalifa International Stadium, on the first day of the Asian Athletic Championships 2019, there was no dearth of drama for Indian athletics " a panic attack gave Avinash Sable (a silver medal at that); there was a heat run with such intensity that Dutee Chand broke a national record; a world champion, Hima Das, clutched her L4, knelt and lay prone. Meanwhile, Annu Rani believes she is out of the trough with a javelin silver and Parul Chaudhary " 4th with seven laps to go in the 5000m " clinched a bronze that had Sanjivani Jadhav's name on it. By the end, India on Day 1 had two silvers, three bronze and sat 5th in the medals tally with Bahrain leading with four gold and three bronze.
The enduring image was, however, of Hima Das in lane 5 with a good start. At the 100m mark, she clutched her back, a reflexive action that most wouldn't have noticed but by the time she hit the 200m mark, it was apparent the U20 World Champion, the Asian Games silver medallist and the national record holder wouldn't be finishing the race. At first, she knelt and then lay prone.
It was a scary moment. The race went on. Hima lay on the track for what seemed an eternity. It was after close to four minutes that help came in the form of the organisers. The word from the Athletic Federation of India was that she had spasms in her L4 and L5. The word is that she would be okay in a few days. Yet nothing is certain on her running the relays. For an athlete looking to build on her Asian Games success and the step towards becoming a force on the world stage, this is a setback.
Dutee, meanwhile, continued to surprise. Away from the glare of national camps, ensconced in Hyderabad, training under coach Nagpuri Ramesh, hers was the last heat of the morning session.
Kazakhstan's Olga Safronova had already run 11.30, her season's best. Liang Xiaojing, the 2014 Youth Olympic Champion then clocked 11.37secs. Now it was Dutee's turn to pick up the gauntlet.
Even though these were the heats, sprinters are usually like boxers, circling around, throwing punches, increasing the intensity, sprinting within reach of their capability, knowing the distinct line between fitness and fatigue. By the 50m mark, Dutee had slain the field. She didn't decelerate at that point. But steamed on and stopped the clock at 11.28. The national record of 11.29 which Dutee had set in 2018 at the Inter-State meet in Guwahati had been shattered. Elated on seeing the timing, Dutee said, "I will do my best in the final and I am hopeful of winning the final and picking up a gold."
At the Federation Cup in Patiala, where she won the 100m, Dutee had said she was confident of a good performance in Doha and that she felt strong and confident to finally pick up a continental gold in a major championship.
The women's javelin and the 5000m ran simultaneously. Both the events ebbed and flowed. Annu Rani's first throw of 60.22 would prove decisive. In the 5000m, Bahrain's Yavi Winfred and Bontu Rebitu would exchange leads in the last six laps. Initially it was Japan's Nozumi Tanaka who would set the pace and then slowly fade out. Nine laps in the race, Parul was 9th with Sanjivani Jadhav in 3rd spot. It looked promising. With five laps to go, Parul had pushed herself to 4th. It was a tremendous fightback to stay in contention. One lap late and Parul might have found the pace too excruciating. With two laps to go Sanjivani and Parul were neck-to-neck. It was only in the last lap that Parul shot ahead finishing with a bronze in 15:36.03; her personal best. Sanjivani ended in 4th spot with 15:41.12. On the javelin front, Annu Rani's first throw held 2nd spot as China's Lyu Huihui threw 65.83m for the gold and followed it up with five throws above 60m. India's other thrower, Sharmila Kumari, couldn't cross 55m, ending up a disappointing 7th.
Rani said she was confident of the podium though disappointed that she could have thrown closer to 63m and that would have made her happier. "It's my season's first championship and I wanted a podium finish which I got," said Rani. "This would give me a lot of confidence."
Parul, overjoyed, at climbing back into the race and eventually finishing with a medal said, "I set my own pace and never for a second I believed that a podium wouldn't happen. I waited and took my moment. I am so glad I picked up a medal, ran a personal best and there is confidence for the future."
Avinash makes hustle look flashy. With five laps to go in the 3000m steeplechase, the army man was floating away in 7th spot with Shankar Lal Swami in 10th. With Bahrain's John Koech sailing away in front, the gold anyway was gone. Japan's Kazuya Shiojiri and Iran's Hossein Keyhani held the other spots. With two laps to go, panic set into Avinash. The podium was vanishing. If there was a kick in the last lap by the two in front, he knew it was curtains. He was battling in from the rear. With two to go, Iran's Hossein was in his sights. With a lap to go, he was still in 4th spot but the kick was coming from the Indian. With a heart that pumped not from exhaustion, but sheer will power to corner that medal, Avinash moved up, went past the Iranian and then the Japanese to power into second spot and with a loud shriek cross the finish line.
The gold may have gone to Bahrain in the steeplechase but Avinash had enough glitter around his neck and ear in the form of a thick gold chain and an ear-ring. Flashing a smile that could power Doha itself, Avinash knew he had flirted with danger but like a true hustler proved there is no substitute for natural talent. He knew he had left it a little late. "With three laps to go, I was a bit worried as the others were not tiring," he said. "But I was confident about my finish and I wasn't tired. I went after them and with that final kick took the medal destined for me." It was an international senior debut for Avinash and now the man who trained on a football field in Ooty before coming to Doha dreams of many more last laps that would take him from silver to gold in future events.
Amrish Kumar, coach of Avinash, admitted it was a bit worrying in the last three laps. "But I felt he would give that final kick to put himself on the podium." Amrish feels Avinash can run 8:15. The qualification mark for the Olympic Games is 8.22. On the same track in Doha at the World Championship, the hustler may not end up on the podium. But a reward would be just and fair if those timings could improve by 8-10 seconds. Far-fetched? Not for Avinash the hustler.
In the day's last event, the 25-lap, 10,000m, Murli Kumar Gavit was 6th at the half-way mark. But he hung on. In the front, Bahrain's Fikadu Dawit and Hassan Chani led a 1-2. In the middle there were two Japanese and a Chinese, trying to edge into that 3rd spot. With five laps to go, Gavit swung into 3rd spot and hung there till the end. "The podium was a must," Gavit said. "I knew I was trailing. But there was strength in me to close the gap. The bronze was important." For Gavit, the timing of 28:38.34 was a personal best. Among 14 who would start the race, 11 would record personal and season's best.
Sandwiched in between the other races, Poovamma Raju picked up a bronze in the 400m; it would be her 3rd medal after two silvers in the 2013 and 2015 Asian Championships.
Monday promises much in a potent mixture of Dutee Chand, Rajiv Arokia, Jinson Johnson and Saritaben Gayakwad; it could be a 100m gold or a subtle late kick in the 800m " well, a double would make the day.