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Stars missing but Asian Athletics proves historic for India

India's top-of-the-table finish made the just-concluded Asian Athletics Championship a memorable one.

PTI | Bhubaneswar |

The absence of top stars took some sheen away but India's record-breaking medal haul and a maiden top-of-the-table finish made the just-concluded 22nd Asian Athletics Championship here a memorable one.

The four-day championship, which began on July 6 after a and ended on Sunday, was hit by the absence of some top continental stars, a perennial problem for which the Asian Athletics Federation has not found any solution yet.

Several athletes from China, Japan, Qatar and Bahrain, among others skipped the event to prepare for next month's World Championships in London, taking away some sheen off the championship which featured 562 athletes from 43 countries.

It was, though, not a new development given that the biennial event is held in the same year as the World Championship.

Asian Athletics Association President Dahlan Al-Hamad said “Bhubaneswar, you have raised the bar” during his speech at the closing ceremony last night. The compliment was perhaps directed at the near-flawless organisation of the event by the Odisha government and the Athletics Federation of India.

On the field of play, however, the quality of the competition was not of the highest standard with the hot and humid weather also affecting the athletes' performance. Only one meet record — by India's Neeraj Chopra in men's javelin throw — was created in the whole of four days.

However, the Kalinga Stadium, erected as a world-class facility in just 90 days with a brand-new synthetic track, was witness to India ending numero uno, ahead of superpower China, with 29 medals (12 gold, 5 silver, 12 bronze).

India fielded the highest number of athletes, 94, and achieved their best-ever performance, bettering the 22 medal haul (10 gold, 5 silver, 7 bronze) in the 1985 edition in Jakarta.

India snapped China's monopoly at the top, a constant since the 1983 edition, by leading the medal table from the opening day till the end.

But surely the host country's medal count would have been much less had the likes of China, Qatar and Bahrain sent their top athletes.

Bahrain, in fact, quietly pulled out of the event. Result sheets show that one Qatari athlete had DNF (did not finish) remark against his name on the opening day but none took part in the subsequent days.

Had the participation been better the gold medals India won in men's 5000m and 1000m, in 1500m (both men and women) and in women's 3000m steeplechase and men's 4x400m relay races would have been difficult if not impossible.

The African imports from Baharain would have been difficult to beat in middle and long distance races. Japan, which has some strong athletes for these events, also did not send their best.

The absence of Qatar's Asian leader Abdalelah Haroun made it easier for India's Muhammed Anas to win the gold in men's 400m sprint, though one cannot belittle the achievement of the Kerala lad.

Similar was the case of women's 3000m steeplechase in which Sudha Singh won a gold, with Bahrain's world record holder and reigning Olympic champion Ruth Jebet not taking part.

Likewise, Asian leader and world number four shot putter, Gong Lijiao (personal best 19.56m) of China skipped the event to prepare for the World Championships and India's Manpreet Kaur (personal best 18.86m) grabbed the gold with an effort of 18.28m.

In the men's 4x400m relay race in which India won a gold, the likes of Qatar, Japan and Saudi Arabia, the traditional heavyweights in this event, did not take part, making it easier for India to win the gold.

But in four events of men's javelin, women's 400m, women's heptathlon and women's 4×400 relay, Indians would have won the gold under any circumstance.

Nirmala Sheoran is the Asian leader in women's 400m and in the 4x400m relay she anchored to claim the gold on Sunday in the championship's final event, India has been a powerhouse for a long time.

In men's javelin, world junior record holder Neeraj Chopra beat Chinese Taipei's Asian leader Cheng Chao-Tsun — who finished sixth — to avenge his loss in the Asian Grand Prix meet. Swapna Barman also recorded an upset win over Japanese season leader Meg Hemphill in the women's heptathlon in a brilliant performance.

Lakshmamn Govindan was undoubtedly the star performer for India with two individual gold medals while Nirmala Sheoran and Muhammad Anas also claimed two yellow metals (one individual and one 4x400m relay) while home crowd favourite sprinter Dutee Chand bagged two bronze medals.

Ajay Kumar Saroj and P U Chitra picked up surprise gold medals in men's and women's 1500m race respectively.

However, Shiddhant Thingalaya (men's 110m hurdles), Ankit Sharma (men's long jump), M R Poovamma (women's 400m), Tintu Luka (women's 800m), Seema Punia (women's discus throw) and Anu Rani (women's javelin) failed to make a mark.