Palakeezhunnikirshnan (PU) Chitra, if you have got past the first name, is probably the most underrated Indian athlete at the Asian Athletics Championships. Yet, hers was the most impactful performance by an Indian at the Doha Asian Championships.
On the final day, in the 1,500m gold that she won beating Bahrain’s Gashaw Tigest and Yavi Mutile to script the tale of an unsung, yet over-performing, athlete. But we come to that later, as India had a fruitful, 4th and final day on track with one gold, three silvers and a bronze taking their championship tally to three golds, seven silvers and seven bronze, a total of 17 medals; a far cry from Bhubaneswar 2017 when they won 12 gold, five silvers and 12 bronze for a tally of 29 medals!
Apart from Chitra, Ajay Kumar Saroj fought back in the 1,500m to clinch a silver; Dutee Chand had a photo-finish for a bronze while the men and women’s 4x400m relay teams bagged a silver each.
In the first lap of the 1,500m, Tatyana Neroznak led with Tigest and Yavi following. Chitra, at that point, was in 4th spot, a position she clung on to as the second lap went by.
Tigest, a former U18 World Champion and silver medallist at the 2018 Asian Games where Chitra had bagged a bronze, seemed strong. Yavi Mutile with golds in the 3000m steeplechase and 5000m was in the hunt for a 3rd. In the last lap, it seemed that the Bahranians would kick in with 200m to go.
But following in their wake, Chitra saw the sprint come in and she held on to their tails. On the bend, Tigest was in the lead and then on the straight Chitra powered past Mutile and in the last ten metres caught, and passed, Tigest.
Tactically, it was a well-run race. Mutile lost pace on the final stretch and Tigest couldn’t take on Chitra in the final 10 metres. She was also the only Indian athlete to retain her 2017 Asian title.
“The idea was to hang in till the last 50 metres and I realised I had the strength to take them on,” said Chitra. “In the last 10-20 metres, they got weaker and I was able to beat them to the line.”
In the men’s 1500m, Saroj was in line to repeat his 2017 gold-medal performance. Like in the heats, Kyrgyzstan’s Musulman shot out and took the lead. Normally, in the heats and semi-finals, such tactics pay as you need a fast time to go through. But a final is usually a battle of wits and staying power within the lead group. With two laps to go, Saroj was still not in the first six. Bahrain’s Rotich had taken the lead followed by Qatar’s Khamis Muhand and Musaab Ali.
With just a lap to go and with 300m left, Saroj made his move and went past three on the outside to hit the first four. In the last 50 metres, Saroj passed the Qataris and a Bahranian, but Rotich was a few metres ahead. On the line, Saroj had a photo-finish with Musaab Ali, both finishing with 3:43.18. But the silver went to Saroj. It was a strong finish by him and one can only imagine the result if that kick had come in slightly earlier. But Saroj was happy with the silver. After the semi-finals yesterday, Saroj had planned to stay in the opening group and that’s exactly what he did on the last lap.
At last, things worked according to plan for Dutee Chand in the 200m final. The 100m had been nothing short of a disaster for the Odisha athlete. Despite breaking the national record twice in two days, a flat performance yielded only a 5th place. In the 200m final, Dutee seemed relaxed. It was a quick start with the third-best reaction time for Dutee. In the middle, she relaxed keeping her explosive finish for the last 30 metres or so. And that helped as she finished powerfully in a photo-finish of 23.24, tied with the Asian Games gold medallist Edidiong Odiong. As the scoreboard flashed Dutee’s name in 3rd spot, her face lit up. In the stands, her coach Nagpuri Ramesh was happy that she finally won a medal in an event which is not her strong point. “We did analyse what went wrong in the 100 final and I told her after watching the replay that due to anxiety she had forced herself in the middle period to run faster,” said Ramesh. “In the end, she didn’t have enough strength in the last 30 metres to overtake or pip them on the line. Today, she had the power.” The gold went to the brilliant Salma Naser of Bahrain, the 400m silver medallist at the 2017 World Championships in London. Naser was also a double gold winner at the 2018 Asian Games. In the 200, her timing of 22.74 was a championship record.
In the 5,000m final, India’s Abhishek Pal and Murli Gavit gave it their all but were over-powered in the final stretch of the last lap. They had conserved energy through the ten laps as the front pack kept exchanging the lead between the Japanese and the Bahranians. With three laps to go, Abhishek and Gavit moved into the opening pack at 5th and 6th spot. That was a good position to go in for the final assault in the last lap. It exactly went that way with Rop Albert and Birhanu Balew, both from Bahrain, sprinting down in the last 200m. That unsettled the pack at the back. The Japanese who had fallen away suddenly woke up, sprinted down the stretch and caught up with the Indians. Hiroki Matsueda went past a tiring Gavit and then Hazuma Hattori went past both the Indians, desperate to reach the finish line for at least a medal. Balew, meanwhile, had won gold with Rop taking the silver. Hiroki had the bronze and the other Japanese Hattori clinched 4th spot. Such was the intensity and pace in the last 50 metres that in finishing 5th and 6th, Gavit recorded a personal best of 13:48.99 and Abhishek had a season’s best of 13:56.09.
In the last two events of the final day – the women’s 4x400m relay and the men’s 4x400 relay, India won silver medals. India can consider themselves unlucky as without Hima Das, it was always a difficult proposition to take the gold. Yet, they put themselves into a brilliant position in the final lap. Poovamma and Saritaben Gayakwad, running the 2nd and 3rd legs had given India the lead and when the baton was handed to Vismaya, the difference for India was almost 10 metres with Bahrain down to 4th spot and Salwa Naser having to reel in almost 50 metres plus. And then started the most extraordinary run seen in the Asian Championship. Naser crossed the Lankans, then the Japanese and with almost 150 metres left, overtook Vismaya and held the lead till the finish. From 4th to gold was simply brilliant by Naser who won four golds here at the Asian Championship — the 200, 400, 4x400 relay and the 4x400 mixed relay. In 2018, Naser had won six Diamond League golds in the 400m; in the upcoming World Championships here at the Khalifa in Doha and then the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Naser will be one athlete to contend with.
India (three golds, seven silvers and seven bronze) slipped to 4th spot with the top three being Bahrain (11, 7, 4) China (9, 13, 7) and Japan (5, 4, 9). Indian athletics attention will now move to the World Championships and the race to qualify for Tokyo Olympics 2020. At the Khalifa, as the lights go off and memories stored, Indian athletes would remember the exhilarating performances and the true nature of the challenges ahead.
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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2019 13:09:38 IST