The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner
The most vivid moment for me at the Asian Games was on the first day of the track-and-field events, when unheralded Preeja Sreedharan and Kavita Raut delivered a magnificent 1-2 finish in the grueling 10,000 metres, taking gold and silver with personal best timings. They followed up later with silver and bronze in the 5,000 metre run.
As I scoured the news for the next few days, it was a pleasant surprise that there were a number of golds in track events: Sudha Singh won the 3,000 metres steeplechase, Ashwini Akkunji and Joseph Abraham won the women's and men's 400 metres hurdles in an unprecedented sweep; and the women's team in the 4x400 metre sprint, defending champions from 2002 and 2006, won again.
I remember the agony and ecstasy of the wins and losses of P T Usha a generation ago, and I have been a fan of track events since then. There is something inherently thrilling about a race: It is the primal sporting event. It is electric, immediate, and direct: there is nothing but raw human talent out there on display. No devices, no second chance, nothing -- it's man-to-man, or woman-to-woman.
I wonder if it is a cliche to suggest that running perhaps brings out something primitive in us -- the racial memory of trying to outrun a saber-toothed tiger or chase down a woolly mammoth. Incidentally, science suggests that long-distance running is a human specialty -- we can keep going at a steady trot for hours because of our efficient cooling systems, whereas the sprint kings of the animal world overheat quickly: They have no stamina.
But the sprint events in particular are the glamour events of the Games. Even the field events don't quite come close, because there is the delay -- for instance, in the jumps, each individual does their thing, then comes back for another try.
Somehow, the foot-race is far more thrilling. The spectator's adrenaline is pumping: and you are jumping up and down and screaming like an idiot, cheering like there is no tomorrow for your countryman or woman. This is what makes for true fan-dom.
And there's nothing to beat the sprints for high drama. Did anybody watch the women's 4x400m relay at the Commonwealth Games [ Images ]? It was thrilling, with the first two legs going neck and neck, but then Ashwini Akkunji put on a fine spell of acceleration to blow past a surging Nigerian runner, and anchor Mandeep Kaur made no mistake. Even though I watched the video after I knew the result, I was on my feet, cheering. That was the first athletics gold for India in the Commonwealth after Milkha Singh's [ Images ] 440 yard win in 1958 -- a long wait indeed.
I believe the Asiad saw a repeat of the same modus operandi, with the tall Ashwini reprising her heroics in the third leg. I have not yet been able to find a video, but I heard Ashwini powered ahead of the Kazakh runner Margarita (the 800 metres gold medallist), giving Mandeep a cushion to fend off the Kazakh anchor, Olga, the 400 metres gold medallist.
For my money, that makes Ashwini Chidananda Akkunji from Udupi, Karnataka [ Images ], left, centre, the best athlete of the Games: Two golds, and excellent teamwork. There is only one other double gold winner for India, Somdev Devvarman [ Images ] in tennis singles and doubles. And Preeja Sreedharan missed a long-distance double gold by a whisker, ending up with one gold and one silver.
But how come these athletes are not household names? Why are they not lionised, and how come they do not earn millions appearing in advertisements? I had barely heard of Preeja even in the Malayalam media. These are truly unheralded, unsung heroes. Preeja, I found, works for the Indian Railways. Joseph Abraham is in the army.
Why is that only the railways and the armed forces (they have an Operation Olympics [ Images ], which is beginning to pay dividends) are the only sponsors of anything other than cricket?
Why this disproportionate support for cricketers, who make a thousand times what a track-and-field medallist makes? There is no question this national obsession with cricket is strangling the growth of all other sports. Money talks, and if a gold medal brings in Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million), that will motivate athletes all the more.