Amidst setbacks, India's Gomathi fights back in Asian athletics in Doha
In the wake of a series of setbacks in the second half of 2016, her father's passing, her coach Gandhi's sudden demise and an injury - the 800m runner came back to storm Asian athletics in Doha
She may not know it, but M Gomathi firmly wrested the spotlight and trained it on Indian track and field sport twice over in the past fortnight. First by winning an unexpected women's 800m gold medal in the Asian Athletics Championships in Doha last month and then by speaking about the hardships that she had to face in the past few years to make her dream come true.
At a time when PU Chithra became a repeat winner of the Asian Championships women's 1500m and shot putter Tajinderpal Singh Toor lived up to expectations by being the only Indian to win a men's gold medal in Doha, Income Tax employee Gomathi stole everyone's thunder by revealing that her father had once partaken a meal kept aside for cattle so that she could eat a proper meal.
Not alone in adversity
It was not the first time an Indian track and field personality was drawing such attention. There was a time when sprinter Dutee Chand claimed that she did not have a spare pair of spikes. Not much later OP Jaisha accused officials of not ensuring that she had water to drink during the marathon in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
M Gomathi goes past China's Wang Chunyu during the final stretch of the women's 800m final at the Asian Athletics meet in Doha last month. Pic/G Rajaraman
Of course, India loves a fable and Gomathi forced sports lovers and countless others to admire her story. Yet, if you idolise her because she said her late father, N Marimuthu, had eaten food meant for cattle, then you are walking into a trap that storytellers lay for you. Even if you gawk at the different coloured spikes that she wore during the race, you are only skimming the surface.
It would be more appropriate if we admire the effort that the half-miler cranked up to win the race in Doha — one in which few expected her to emerge winner. She clocked a personal best of 2:02.70 with a gallant run through the second lap after being pushed to sixth place at the half-way mark. It was a race fuelled by self-belief and determination and won by sticking to a simple plan.
On the back straight, she went past a pair of Sri Lankan runners and moved to third place with 200m left. Running on the outside, Gomathi could sense Kazakhstan's Margarita Mukasheva and the leader Wang Chunyu losing pace. And she willed herself to sustain her charge till the gold was won. Gomathi's achievement becomes special as she has achieved this at the age of 30, and on her third attempt in the Asian meet. She joined Geeta Zuthi (1981), Shiny Abraham Wilson (1985 and 1989), Jyotirmoyee Sikdar (1995) and Tintu Luka (2015) as Indian winners of the race in the championships.
Let us try and understand what an 800m race calls from an athlete. For, bridging the sprints and the endurance events, it is acknowledged as one of the most demanding on track. It is a tricky race that asks the athletes to get their pace right — running the first lap too quickly or too slow can be counter-productive — so as to seem the best athlete is dominating the rivals on the home stretch.
Truth is that every runner experiences a loss of power in his or her muscles; lungs bursting, forcing the athletes to gasp for breath desperately. The body can lose form and shape when the athlete is nearing the finish line, the arms flailing desperately and the head bobbing from side to side. The aches that an athlete can feel during this race are said to be unique to the half-milers.
This was third time lucky for Gomathi, who had finished seventh in the Asian Championship in 2013 and fourth in 2015. Having trained outside the National camp, she had to come through a confirmatory trial in Patiala to prove that her Federation Cup showing (a personal best of 2:03.21) of March 16 was not a mere flash in the pan. For someone who had clocked 2:08.59 in September last, this was vast improvement.
During the confirmatory trials on April 16, she requested her friend, quarter-miler MR Poovamma, to pace her and she was able to complete the distance well inside the 2:05.00 stipulated as the standard. She did not need such support on the track in Doha as she drew from the energy and intensity of the race to deliver a stunning victory.
For someone who discovered sport only as an under-graduate student in Holy Cross College in Tiruchirapalli, she had to undergo a spell in the wilderness in the wake of a series of setbacks in the second half of 2016 — her father's passing, her coach Ramakrishnan Gandhi's sudden demise and an injury. With coach JS Bhatia's help, she came back. And how!
It is just as well that she had not only trained well for the big-ticket event but also chose to keep her mind in the present and be aware of the tempo of the race rather than on her own poignant return to the Indian team. It is when the past assumes greater importance than the achievement that India's apathy to sport, by and large, comes through.
There is no doubt that she would not have got the eyeballs, which she eventually has, with just the Asian gold medal.
And, for that alone, Indian track and field sport can be thankful to her. It is not her fault that the wispy athlete shared her back story, especially to show her gratitude to a helpful father. It is ours that we are so taken in by that to overlook the enormity of her achievement.
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