In Indian athletics, they are pretty much the band of sisters. At the Rio Olympics, Kavita Raut and OP Jaisha ran the marathon while Sudha Singh and Lalita Babar featured in the 3000m steeplechase.
Babar, who will receive the Arjuna Award from the President on Monday, produced the best performance among India’s track and field athletes. She broke the national record in the 3000m steeplechase in the heats before finishing a creditable 10th in the final.
It was the first time an Indian track athlete was in the final since PT Usha finished fourth in the 400m hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. As India fights to match formidable rivals in track and field, doughty women distance runners have emerged as a major force in Indian sport.
Babar ran 9min 19.76sec to come fourth in her heat and qualify for the final as one of the six fastest losers. The runner who hails from Maharashtra’s arid Satara town stayed calm as Bahrain’s Kenyan-born Ruth Jebet destroyed the field with her front-running on her way to gold.
Jebet, in fact, broke the steeplechase world record at Saturday’s Diamond League meeting in Paris, clocking a stunning 8:52:78.
The national sports prize will boost Lalita, who took bronze in the 2014 Incheon Asian Games and improved to gold at last year’s Asian Championships.
Lalita, whose front-running tactics at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing didn’t work, clocked 9:22.74 in the final. The time, though modest, showed her maturity in not being carried away by Ruth’s front-running tactics.
She is part of India’s expanding group of women distance runners. While there is more money in being active in the road circuit in the country, it also helps work on the stamina, which was a big factor in Babar not panicking in the Rio final.
In Rio, she benefitted from her high mileage in training. That showed in the Airtel Delhi half-marathon (21 km) late last year, where she ran a superb 1hour 10minutes.
With the World Championships to be held next year and then the 2018 Asian Games, Babar can look forward to raising her showing in steeplechase. Beyond that, she can even switch to marathon, which may pay rich dividends.