Rio 2016: Lalita Babar passes the test of big Games success
Medal is the tangible measure of success at the Olympics, but with India not managing one in the first 10 full days of competition in Rio, how do you judge performances?
Considering that it is the global arena, a simple yardstick is to see whether our athlete is more than a fleeting presence on TV as the event unfolds.
Yes, win or lose, in badminton, tennis or hockey, the cameras will remain focused on the players, but that is not the case if you are a track and field athlete, where winners dictate coverage.
A day after the nation rose to cheer gymnast Dipa Karmakar as she fought to finish fourth in the vault, Lalita Babar produced a brave run in the 3000m steeplechase final on Monday. The 27-year-old broke the national mark when she ran in 9min 19.76sec to come fourth in her heat and qualify for the final as one of the six fastest losers.
Although that had given her the distinction as India’s first woman finalist in an individual Olympic track event for 32 years --- after PT Usha came fourth in the 400m hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Games --- the runner from Maharashtra’s arid Satara region showed great maturity in finishing 10th in the final.
In a race where Bahrain’s Kenyan-born Ruth Jebet destroyed the field with her front-running, Babar was calm. She didn’t hit the front at the start and that helped her avoid the initial jockeying, unlike in the 2015 World Championships where she led for the first few laps only to find the pace too hot to handle.
In Rio on Monday, the top three went clear with over three laps left. Babar was part of the second bunch and eventually came home at 9:22.74, a creditable effort considering that Jebet’s winning time was 8:59.75 and running any faster would have been suicidal.
Babar is part of India’s slowly expanding set of doughty women distance runners. The group includes marathon runners OP Jaisha, who came 89th braving acute dehydration on Sunday, and Kavita Raut, who finished further down.
Sudha Singh, India’s second entry in steeplechase, was eliminated after coming ninth in the slowest of three heats.
The prize money in India’s road circuit is a motivation for athletes. The experience helps the runners toughen up though opinion is divided over whether track athletes should push themselves too far on the road as chances of injury are high.
In Rio, Babar, who won steeplechase bronze in the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, benefitted from her high mileage in training and held her own against the world-class field.
At the Airtel half-marathon (21km) in Delhi late last year, Babar had run a superb 1hour 10minutes. Thus going forward, with the stamina and race sense Babar has, she will gain if she works on improving speed.
With the World Championships to be held next year and then the 2018 Asian Games, Babar can look forward to raise her showing in steeplechase. Beyond that, she can even switch to marathon, which may pay rich dividends.
Then she can, four years down the line, try and turn that lingering TV visual of her into something more tangible.