Tokyo show stokes optimism for India's 4x400m men's relay team
Gearing up for his race in Tokyo on Auguyst 6, Amoj Jacob's mind went back a few years to something that still haunted him. In 2018, running the second leg for India in the men’s 4x400m relay final at the Commonwealth Games, Jacob took the baton from Jeevan Suresh (who was third at the exchange), ran for a couple of seconds, pulled up and fell on the track. He remained grounded for the remainder of the race, hobbling off with the help of his team-mates after it ended in front of a packed audience.
At Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium, the setting was different, and so was the order. For the first time in any international competition of his career, Jacob was running the anchor leg—the final stretch that could potentially make or break a relay. Jacob feared a repeat of the CWG nightmare.
“There was pressure,” Jacob said. “The CWG injury was on my mind. There was a feeling that because of me the team should not suffer.”
The team did not suffer, instead, it soared. But few will have immediate recall of this quartet who ran the race of their lives, considering they did not make the finals, and because Neeraj Chopra's javelin gold and India's best medal haul at the Olympics overshadowed most everything else.
Yet, the Indian men’s 4x400m relay team rewrote the Asian mark at the Olympics, finishing fourth in Heat 2 with a timing of 3:00.25s. It wasn’t enough to earn a spot in the eight-team final, with the quartet of Muhammed Anas (who ran in 45.67s), Noah Nirmal Tom (45.06s), Rajiv Arokia (44.84s) and Jacob ending ninth overall among the 16 teams and the fastest to not qualify. Jacob, the youngest at 23, was also the quickest, running the final leg in 44.68s after overtaking the sprinters from Japan and France to fourth.
The raw emotion of narrowly missing out on what they had set out to do in Tokyo might have been of disappointment, but the four came back to India with a feeling of satisfaction. For Jacob there was more in store; he returned to his home in New Delhi to smiles and celebrations in the staff quarters of the Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar Hospital, where his mother works as a nurse.
The others can’t wait to get back to their families in Kerala. It’s been a long wait—a year and a half—that has tested their patience and perseverance to the limit within the boundaries of the National Institute of Sports, Patiala.
“Room, ground, room, ground…that has been our routine for a long time. For a few months last year, even the ground was out of bounds. To be stuck in one place without being able to go out was bad,” Anas said.
If such a long period of complete confinement is not bad enough, the quartet also did not manage to get any international competitions before they headed to Tokyo. Incredibly, the biggest race of their lives was also their first global meet since 2019.
“It had a massive impact. We went straight into competition mode in Tokyo after almost two years,” Arokia said.
The four were set to take part in the World Athletics Relays in May in Poland but the trip had to be shelved at the last second when the Athletics Federation of India failed to get a clearance for them when countries closed their borders for Indians amid the second wave. It forced them to continue staying put in Patiala, which had turned into their home for more than a year since the pandemic-induced lockdown last year. With nowhere to go, no competitions to run and their Tokyo dreams up in the air having not earned the Olympic qualification yet, they chugged along helplessly.
“When our World Relays trip was cancelled, we were heartbroken,” Jacob said. “We had aimed for qualification there. There were also no other international competitions or exposure trips. We were just sitting and training in Patiala.”
Jacob had an additional difficulty to endure--while he was confined, his mother was on the frontline of the battle against the pandemic. She suffered through Covid-19 twice, once last year and again earlier this year. On both occasions, Jacob was told by his family to remain where he was and focus on training, knowing what was on the line—his Olympic debut.
“My mom is very happy now,” Jacob said.
Like Jacob, none of the other three went home for over a year. “It was mentally disturbing. We would all feel bad, but we knew nothing is easy when it comes to the Olympics,” Arokia said.
It helped that all of them hail from Kerala (Jacob was born in Kerala but grew up in Delhi). They battled homesickness with games of cricket and making home food.
“We went to Tokyo with a mentality that whatever happens, we will give it our all. We just missed it (final) due to small issues. Maybe we would have done better if we had some competitions before the Games,” Jacob said.
Anas and Arokia concur. Both are experienced runners and were part of the 2018 Asian Games silver-medal winning team. Both believe the current bunch is the country’s most promising relay team yet.
“I have been around the national set-up for a decade, and this is the best team I have seen and been a part of,” Arokia said.
The Olympics show has only added to their optimism of creating some more firsts next year, with the World Championships the primary target.