Asian Games: Hoping for a field day on track
India's athletes will be hoping to use the Asian Games as a springboard to success of the world stage
By sheer volume, athletics stands a cut above the rest in terms of medals by sport for India at the Asian Games. The 254 medals by India’s track and field athletes are more than four times that of the next best (wrestling, 59), and only behind Japan (586) and China (462) among countries with most medals at the continental showpiece.
This, even before India had a poster boy on the global athletics stage whose presence was as visible in commercials back home as in competitions. Before India had a bunch of faces at the World Championships compared to a sparse sighting. Before India had a steady pool of athletes competing among elite fields instead of a trickled stream.
From the 20 Indian track and field medallists and eight champions at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games was Neeraj Chopra, a 20-year-old potential star-in-the-making javelin thrower. Leading a bigger pack of track and field medal hopefuls at the 2023 Hangzhou Asian Games is Chopra, a 25-year-old Olympic and world champion who reached for the stars and grabbed it in unprecedented fashion.
This Asian Games will not just be about Chopra, though (well, his javelin final, where he is likely to be joined by more compatriots, will still be the most-anticipated event). It will also be about other competitors in other disciplines for whom the event presents an opportunity to leave their mark not just in the medals record but also Indian athletics’ current upswing.
“Asian Games has been a happy hunting ground for Indian athletes, and will continue to be,” said Adille Sumariwalla, president of the Athletics Federation of India and former sprinter. “We’ve slowly moved up. You saw the results at the 2022 Commonwealth Games (Indians won eight medals in athletics, up from the three in 2018). At this Asian Championships, we had 27 medals. At this Worlds, we had a gold, people breaking Asian records and running and jumping in the finals.”
The jumpers have been a bit up and down, however. At last year’s CWG, triple jumpers Eldhose Paul and Abdulla Aboobacker earned a rare 1-2 finish for India with 17m-plus jumps. Neither has managed to cross that mark this season so far or progress to the Budapest World Championships final last month. The latter's season best of 16.92m was enough for gold at the Asian Championships in Bangkok in July.
Long jumper Murali Sreeshankar brought home a silver from that meet with an impressive 8.37m before a below-par 7.74m at the Worlds made him return from Budapest without a spot in the final. Which Jeswin Aldrin secured, finishing 11th in it with a best effort of 7.77m. Both will seek to regain their spark in Hangzhou with a touch of silverware.
So will Avinash Sable, India’s 2022 CWG silver medallist 3000m steeplechaser who, by his serial national record-breaking standards of the last few years, has had a quiet season headlined by a sombre exit from the Worlds heats in a slow, tactical race. “Sable is capable of some great things. These are tactical races, and you do make mistakes. But he is in very good shape,” Sumariwalla, the 1980 Moscow Olympian, said.
Sable's fellow steeplechaser, Parul Chaudhary, has raised the bar this season by consistently lowering her timings. Coming in with a new personal best of 9:29.51 at a Los Angeles meet in May, Parul clocked a new national record of 9:15.31 in a world class 3000m steeplechase final to be among India’s promising performers at the Budapest Worlds.
That select group was led by four men who rewrote the Asian mark in relay. The 4x400m men's quartet of Muhammed Anas Yahiya, Amoj Jacob, Rajesh Ramesh and Muhammad Ajmal came second in a blistering 2:59.05s behind USA in the heats, made it to the final for the first time and signed off fifth (2:59:92).
Although with some changes in personnel, all of India's three 4x400m relay teams secured medals at the 2018 Asian Games and the 2023 Asian Championships, including the mixed team gold in both. The country’s other five gold medallists from the Asian Championships — India finished third with five more medals (27) but two fewer gold than China — were Parul, Aboobacker, Asian Games defending champion Tajinderpal Singh Toor (shot put), Ajay Kumar Saroj (1500m) and Jyothi Yarraji (100m hurdles).
“All events that delivered at the Asian Championships should deliver here (Asian Games) too,” Sumariwalla said. “Of course, you will get an odd failure, but you’ll also get the odd surprise.”
Chopra’s gold five years ago, coming as did it with a stunning season best throw of 88.06m, was least bit surprising given the big strides the youngster had already made at the 2018 CWG and 2017 Asian Championships. The Asian ascendancy though did act as a significant springboard for the Indian’s rising footprints at the world level.
The current young crop brimming with potential — the likes of Yarraji and Asian Championships silver medallist long jumper Shaili Singh — will hope this Asian Games does something similar for them.
"For Indian athletes, the Asian Games is one of those stepping stones that you should step on to go into the bigger stage,” Sumariwalla said.