Apart from the two silver medals claimed at the 1900 Paris Olympics, India's achievement in athletics at the mega-event is as good as nothing. However, the ever-determined young brigade is on a mission to break the trend once the 2021 Tokyo Olympics gets underway later this year.
Athletics has never been a strong suit for India at the Olympics, with a double glory at the 1900 Paris edition by Norman Pritchard helping the nation get off the mark. However, the tally has remained stagnant since then, despite 121 years passing us by, even though a couple of athletes came tantalisingly close to altering it. With the nation drawing close to yet another Olympics, the renewed hopes will lead to better results, but medal aspirations still look distant.
The ‘Flying Sikh’ a.k.a Milkha Singh finished fourth in the men’s 400m event at the 1960 Rome Olympics, while PT Usha secured similar results in the women’s 400m hurdles during the 1984 Los Angeles edition. It has been a waiting game since then, in search of India’s next track and field athlete who’ll break the trend as well as the jinx.
The current lot does give a glimmer of hope, but it boils down to stepping up where it matters. The race-walkers would lead the charge for India in track events in Tokyo, with as many as five entries clogging the list. However, with the 4*400 relay teams showing steep progress in the past few years, we cannot dare to take our eyes off them.
So far, seven Indians have qualified for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics in Athletics in track and road events.
KT Irfan (Men's 20km Walk)
KT Irfan is heading for his second appearance at the Games, leading the pack of race-walkers as the most successful of the lot. His brilliance attributes to the 10th place finish at the 2012 London Olympics, a result which seemed unachievable for an Indian, also creating a national record in the process. However, a send-off from the 2018 Commonwealth Games after violating the no-needle policy is a stain that has plagued his otherwise remarkable career.
The race-walker from Malappuram was the first Indian to secure a berth for the mega-event in athletics, when he claimed the fourth position finish at the Asian Race Walking Championships in Nomi, Japan, back in March 2019. What looks like his last shot at the spectacle, there are no half measures when he steps into the track. As part of his preparations ahead of the Games, Irfan has changed his technique to get better results.
Sandeep Kumar (Men's 20km Walk)
The race-walker missed out on a Tokyo berth by a whisker last year, with him falling shy of the Olympic cut by 34 seconds at the 2020 race-walking nationals. Subsequently, at a similar venue, earlier in 2021, the Haryana-based athlete breached the qualifying standards with his timing of 1:20:16, thus surpassing the national record set by KT Irfan at the 2012 London Olympics.
The 35-year old was part of the 2016 Rio Olympics, having finished at the 35th spot in the men’s 50km race-walking event. Also hailing from a farmer’s family, Olympic aspirations looked bleak in the initial stages, but, after joining the Jat Regiment Center in 2006, Sandeep slowly immersed into the groove. This might well be his last chance to put India on the world map as far as race-walking is concerned, while his decent form in the build-up does give him loads of confidence.
Rahul Rohilla (Men's 20km Walk)
Rahul Rohilla is the fifth Indian race-walker to have qualified for the 20km event at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. With a splendid outing at the nationals back in February 2021, he followed the footsteps of Sandeep Kumar and KT Irfan to book a ticket for the mega-event in Tokyo, which is set for a July 23 start. His achievement caught the attention of Union Sports Minister Kiren Riijiu, who personally felicitated Rohilla after the feat. Even though he is one of the rookies in the squad, we cannot overlook him altogether when the quadrennial event gets underway in the Japanese capital.
Priyanka Goswami (Women's 20km Walk)
The story of Priyanka Goswami's qualification mirrors that of fellow Indian race-walker Sandeep Kumar, with the former just missing out in the nationals last year. which left her in a state of remorse. However, her gut feeling reminded her that qualification was round the corner. But, little did she knew that a pandemic would stretch her anxious wait for an entire year. However, at 2021 nationals, the Meerut-based athlete scripted her name among the Indian contingent for Tokyo in a no-nonsense manner, with a national record timing of 1:28:45.
As a school student, Priyanka tried her luck in gymnastics, but her tryst with the discipline lasted for only one month. Attractive rewards offered in athletics tempted her to flex her muscles in running activities, which eventually led to race-walking. With several national titles under her belt, it’s time she steps into the big game, with her targeting a time of around 1:27 cometh the Tokyo Games.
Bhawna Jat (Women's 20km Walk)
It was in the 2020 race-walking championships that Bahwna Jat secured a Tokyo Olympics berth by clocking 1:29:54, creating a new national record back then. Hailing from a regressive village in the remotest corner of Rajasthan, she defied odds and local conceptions before conquering race-walking events. Having practised at wee hours of the day to avoid criticisms from conservative elders in the locality, her success is all the sweeter.
Having taken up the sport back in 2009, while training on a 200m mud track, the road has been far from walkable, but Bhawna has found a way through. From overcoming financial struggles in a family of farmers to seeking support from money lenders to fund his training, she terms Olympic qualification as ‘breathtaking.’ With numerous national titles already decorating her trophy cabinet, international glory awaits and what bigger stage than the Olympics to make it happen.
Avinash Sable(Men's 3000m Steeplechase)
The 6km walk from his home to school was the only distance he covered during his teens, without knowing that he would dedicate his life to the track several years down the line. After serving for the Indian Army in the highlands of Siachen Glacier and Sikkim and the deserts of Rajasthan, his accidental debut in the 2015 inter-army cross country race was heavily influenced by his colleagues. However, that was the spark that led to the rest of his career.
Having switched to steeplechase, later on, he was growing in stature under the watchful eyes of Amrish Kumar. With a few years of intense training, the 2019 Asian Athletics Championships silver medal in Doha was on the cards for sure, which also earned him a ticket to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Avinash successively improved his timings and kept on breaking his own records, with him scripting a new national record at the Federation Cup, earlier this year. With a great build-up, Sable is giving high hopes ahead of the Olympics.
Muhammad Anas, Vismaya, Krishna Mathew and Noah Nirmal (4*400m Mixed Relay)
India’s 4*400m mixed team qualified for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics by virtue of making it to the finals of the 2019 World Athletics Championships after finishing third in the second heat of the semi-finals. The squad consisting of Muhammad Anas, Vismaya, Krishna Mathew and Noah Nirmal scripted a timing of 3:16.14s to reach the final, trailing only Poland and Brazil in the semis. However, India’s past record suggests that they are capable of much better, with the mixed tea, grabbing top honours at the 2018 Asian Games with a timing of 3:15:71. With the men’s 4*400m team yet to make the cut due to lack of tournaments, the entire spotlight is on the mixed team.