July has been a mixed bag of sports glory and disappointment. In cricket, India failed to make it to the finals of the 2019 ICC World Cup after losing badly to New Zealand. In athletics, two Indian sprinters, Dutee Chand and Hima Das, brought glory and ignited hope.
Dutee Chand won the 100m race at World University Games 2019 in Napoli, becoming the only Indian to win 100m at a global event, clocking 11.32 seconds.
Hima Das has won five gold medals within 20 days. In various meets across Poland and Czech Republic, she competed in four 200m and one 400m races, and won each and every one of them. Five gold medals in 20 days are no mean feat.
From President to Prime Minister to sports and film celebrities, everyone took to social media platforms to congratulate the two women athletes. Congratulatory posts flooded Hima’s Twitter feed. She was tagged as India’s ‘golden girl’ and India’s next potential Olympic medalist.
Videos of their races were tweeted and shared by celebrities, sportspersons and politicians. In the frenzy, people praising Das shared an old video, from the U20 World Championships last. Even after people realized their mistake, they did not remove the old video, saying “Hima Das is still awesome”.
The buzz on the social media proved one thing: we are desperate for international glory and tug at anything that comes our way, especially in sports. But hoping for an Olympic medal from the 19-year-old Assamese woman based on her recent performance underlines our ignorance of the sport – and that is as damaging as apathy.
The sprint runner nicknamed the Dhing Express – because she was born in a village near the Dhing town in Assam – holds the Indian national record in 400 metres with a timing of 50.79 seconds that she clocked at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia. She is also the first Indian athlete to win a gold medal in a track event at the IAAF World U20 Championships.
With this background in mind, it is obvious for people to erupt into celebration on her winning five gold medals in 20 days. Of course, it needs to be celebrated. Of course, it is an achievement. But to call her ‘queen of Indian athletics’ and saying ‘Olympic medal coming our way’, is building too much hope on wrong platform.
Two things are important to put her success in perspective: one, that these races the International Association of Athletics Federations doesn’t recognize the events as ‘world standard’; and two, even her best timing in 200m put her at 128th in the world. Her best performance in 200m was at Tabor, where she finished the race in 23.25 seconds, but that doesn’t get her a position in the top 100 in the world.
Also, the fact that two meets in Poznan and Kunto were club level athletes from Poland and few from Thailand. No athlete had a personal timing better than Das so it was kind of obvious that she will maintain her supremacy over them. It would have been shocking if she didn’t.
And, most importantly, she is yet to qualify for the September World Championships, the real test, before the Tokyo Olympics. For the Olympics, she needs to clock 22.80 seconds. This means she will have to break the national record (22.82 seconds) and improve drastically on her best timing so far: 23.10 seconds.
For 400m, her pet event, she won in an all-Indian race, clocking 52.09 seconds, which is far more than what is needs to qualify for the Olympics. But she has achieved 50.79 seconds in Asian Games, which is better than the Olympic qualifying 51.35 seconds.
Apart from the timings, she will also have better competition at the world events, running with athletes from USA, Jamaica, Europe and China.
The media runs away with small glories – and wrong ones!
A couple of years ago, the Indian Under-17 football team beat a lower-tier side of the Italian league. The India media went gaga over it. The headlines read: Indian U-17 team defeats Italy U-17.
This was far from truth.
The team India beat was not the Italy U-17 national team but in fact Italy Lega Pro U-17 Representative, a side comprising youth players from clubs in Lega Pro and Lega Pro 2, the third and fourth-tiers of Italian football.
Das’ victories could be compared with this. She ran with athletes who aren’t world standard in events that aren’t world standard.
Make no mistake, her achievement is important for her and the praise that she got also, but we shouldn’t be blinded by them. Our praise will only put more pressure on her to perform. She will run in a far more competitive field, and imagine the possible scrutiny that could come her way should she fail.