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Mandeep Kaur wins the the women's 4x400m relay final for India in the 19th Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. India upset the odds to win the Commonwealth Games women's 4x400m relay gold medal on Tuesday, crossing the line in 3:27.77. Nigeria came second and England were third. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA *** Local Caption *** 397961-01-08.jpg
Mandeep Kaur wins the the women's 4x400m relay final for India in the 19th Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. India upset the odds to win the Commonwealth Games women's 4x400m relay gold medal on Tuesday, crossing the line in 3:27.77. Nigeria came second and England were third. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA  *** Local Caption *** 397961-01-08.jpg

Indian athletes get back on track

The sensation caused by four female athletes have got a nation focusing on a sport other than cricket.

Even Indians, who give sports that are not cricket nothing more than a cursory once-over, have watched it. Those that did not get to see it live have seen it on YouTube and marvelled at it.

The Commonwealth Games held in Delhi in October had the potential to be a huge embarrassment, with shoddy preparations and corruption dominating the headlines in the weeks before the event.

But with some last-minute papering over of the cracks, both in the stadia and the dodgy balance sheets, the event was a qualified success, and it gave Indian athletes a wonderful opportunity to showcase their talent.

No one did that better than the women's 4x400m quartet that had a capacity crowd on its feet long before the final metres of an epic race.

Manjeet Kaur led off powerfully and Sini Jose consolidated in a steady second leg, but the race was still in the balance when the baton was handed over to Ashwini Akkunji Chidananda.

What followed was the most remarkable minute (or 50 seconds, to be precise) in India's recent athletic history.

Ashwini did not just push home the advantage, she ran her rivals off their feet. By the time she had handed over to Mandeep Kaur, the race was as good as won.

A little over a month later, in Guangzhou, China, the golden girls did it again, seeing off Kazakhstan's challenge to win Asian Games gold. Again, the third leg from Ashwini was superb, though Mandeep still had some work to do on the final straight to ensure that the advantage wasn't squandered. For Ashwini, it rounded off a tremendous competition.

Having struggled to break 60 seconds in the 400m hurdles a few months earlier, the girl from a small village just north of Mangalore worked hard on her technique and stride pattern in the build-up to the Games.

In the semi-final, she ran 56.16secs and was just as quick in the final, reeling in her competitors and then vanishing from view over the final few hurdles. For a nation starved of success on the track, it was a moment to savour.

India's athletic tradition goes back longer than many imagine. Even if few have heard of Norman Pritchard and his two silver medals at the 1900 Olympics, there is scarcely a literate Indian alive who has not heard of Milkha Singh, the Flying Sikh, who won gold at the British Empire [Commonwealth] Games in Cardiff in 1958.

Two years later, at the Olympics in Rome, he won his semi-final and broke the existing world record in the final, only to be pushed into fourth place in one of the closest finishes seen in 400m history.

Four years later, in Tokyo, Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, his fellow Sikh, started poorly and missed out on his chance of glory, finishing fifth in the 110m hurdles.

The trail went cold for a while after that, with the likes of TC Yohannan - whose son, Tinu, went on to play cricket for India - unable to translate success in Asia to medals on the world stage.

Milkha Singh's exploits in an Olympics remembered primarily for the African breakthrough - Abebe Bikila won the marathon barefoot - were becoming a sepia-tinted memory by the time PT Usha, from the coastal village of Payyoli on the Malabar coast, emulated him at the Los Angeles games of 1984.

Usha was part of a golden generation of athletes from Kerala, but while Shiny Wilson and MD Valsamma found it difficult to be competitive outside of Asia, Usha, with a coltish physique perfect for sprinting, went one step ahead.

For the latter half of the 1980s, she had few peers in Asia, but it is for her Olympic feat that she is best remembered.

Few had heard of her when she lined up for the heats in the 400m hurdles, but by the time the semi-finals had been run, she was being tipped to go all the way.

Judi Brown-King of the United States was the favourite, while Australia's Debbie Flintoff-King was not quite the world-beating force that she would be four years later.

As it turned out, Usha was upstaged by someone as little known as herself. Her compatriots, Said Aouita and Hicham el Guerrouj, would dominate middle-distance running in the years to come, but it was Nawal el Moutawakel who pinned the Moroccan flag on to the athletics map with a run of elegance and power.

Usha faded badly and was pipped to the bronze by Romania's Cristina Cojacaru. The difference between the two? One-hundredth of a second, the width of a fingernail.

In the years that followed, as she proved incapable of living up to the expectations created as a 23-year-old, there was a tendency to denigrate Usha's Olympic achievement.

It came in a Games boycotted by the Eastern bloc, said some, in an event where the world-leaders were missing. Patent nonsense, of course, especially since subsequent investigations have revealed that the old Iron-Curtain countries owed their athletics success to a systematic programme of state-sponsored doping.

A quarter of a century on, and with the Olympics in London still 18 months away, Ashwini has the chance to go where Usha could not. Like her predecessor, she relies on her speed between hurdles as much as she does on technique.

A good season in Europe next summer and she could be perfectly placed to at least temporarily knock cricket off the front and back pages.

sports@thenational.ae

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