How Indian athletes raised the bar at CWG
In the 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG), India won a quarter of its total medals in shooting. This is why the sport’s absence from the recently-concluded 2022 CWG in Birmingham was expected to dampen India’s medals tally. Yet, India nearly matched its 2018 haul, as other sports stepped up.
In the 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG), India won a quarter of its total medals in shooting. This is why the sport’s absence from the recently-concluded 2022 CWG in Birmingham was expected to dampen India’s medals tally. Yet, India nearly matched its 2018 haul, as other sports stepped up. One such was athletics, where India’s tally jumped from three medals to eight.
Data on national records — when they were set, and how many —indicates that this performance in athletics is not really a surprise. In recent years, Indian athletes have been prolific in recording the country’s best-ever showing. Nearly half the national records in both track and field disciplines have been set in the last four years, and 2021 was especially productive for Indian athletes in raising the bar.
Birmingham signals pure performance
India won eight medals in athletics in CWG 2022, including one gold and four silvers. Of the 17 CWG editions in which India has participated, it has won more than one medal in athletics only six times. The increase in medals has been notable this century. India’s best CWG haul in athletics was 12 medals in 2010, but this was when India was the host and it fielded a contingent that was about two-to-three times what it has fielded since. In the next two games, this number fell to three apiece. The 2022 return, of eight medals, is India’s second-best ever.
Field events, rather than track events, have been India’s strength. Of the 36 CWG medals won by Indians, 26 have come in field events. Within field events, the discus throw has been good for Indians (11 medals), followed by the triple jump (6 medals). India’s historic weakness in track events highlights the importance of Avinash Sable’s silver in the 3,000m steeplechase in 2022.
The 2021 build-up to 2022 shows
The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) puts out national records by the year in which they were set. Even today, a handful of national records in athletics go back a long way. For example, in men’s marathon, Shivnath Singh clocked 2 hours and 12 minutes in 1978. Among women, PT Usha’s time of 55.42 seconds in the 400-meter hurdles set in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when she missed a bronze by a whisker, still remains the best time ever.
Beyond those, however, Indian athletes have been blitzing past records. In 51 events across both genders, as many as 14 records are from 2021 alone. Further, in 30 of these 51 disciplines, the best ever mark by an Indian has been set in the last five years suggesting recency of performance. These records include the ones that are awaiting ratification and exclude performances at CWG 2022, which AFI is yet to officially notify.
The gains made over 2019
In what is another pointer that shows India’s recency of performance, 12 of the 14 records set in 2021 bettered records from 2002 till 2019. These gains in performance cut across the various disciplines that make up the wider sport of athletics, and cover both genders. Two disciplines (35km walk, men and women) are new and didn’t have older benchmarks.
If the records data from CWG 2022 were to be notified by AFI in this list, Priyanka Goswami’s silver-winning performance for the 10km race-walking would make the cut. As would Sable’s 3,000m steeplechase run, which also made him the first Indian to win a medal in the event. His silver medal-winning run stopped the clock at 8:11.20 minutes, an improvement of 3.5% from the national record set in 2019.
Kerala leads all states
At Birmingham, Kerala’s Eldhose Paul led India’s historic 1-2 finish in men’s triple jump and was followed by fellow Kerala athlete Abdulla Aboobacker. However, this wasn’t the only instance of Kerala’s dominance in the Indian athletics realm. Of 45 individual athletics national records as of February 1, 2022, 12 have been set by athletes from Kerala — the most by any state. Punjab follows with six records.
Indian athletes are carrying momentum, first from the 2021 performances and then from CWG 2022. Last year, at Tokyo, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra gave India its first Olympic gold in athletics. With some major events lined up next year, including the Asian Games and World Championships, can Indian athletes carry forward that momentum to greater heights?
Payoja Ahluwalia is a Hindustan Times-How India Lives data journalist fellow