July 2, Poznan: 200m gold (23.65 seconds)
July 7, Kunto: 200m gold (23.97 seconds)
July 13, Kladno: 200m gold (23.43 seconds)
July 17, Tabor: 200m gold (23.25 seconds)
July 20, Prague: 400m gold (52.09 seconds)
These are the timings of Hima Das, whose fame grew exponentially after winning five gold medals inside 20 days. In various meets across Poland and Czech Republic, Das competed in four 200m and one 400m races. She won each and every one of them.
Five gold medals in 20 days are no mean feat. When did an Indian athlete dominate track events as Hima Das has done in the past three weeks? Sure, the competition was not world standard, so what? Why should the medals not be cherished and raise hopes of an Indian athlete winning an Olympic medal?
India has been deprived of success in Olympic sports, and more so, in track and field events. When Dutee Chand won the gold medal at the World University Games in Napoli earlier this month, the congratulatory messages did not stop. Social media went abuzz with Chand and her achievements after she won the 100m gold with a timing of 11.32 seconds. The video of her race was tweeted and shared by celebrities, sportspersons and politicians alike.
Now, there is another video that went viral. It’s of Hima Das. It’s an irony that people praising her for her success have got this wrong. The video, circulated initially as the race where she won her fifth gold medal, is from the U20 World Championships last year. Das became a household name in the matter of hours.
On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, president Ram Nath Kovind and host of other politicians had tweeted about Das. Bollywood stars had done it a day before. A top journalist had shared it as well, captioning it with “goosebumps and tears.” Such emotions, triggered by an old video, show how much we care about trending topics and not necessarily our athletes or their achievements.
Realising their mistake, most of them added a second tweet clarifying that it was an older video but did not remove the one they had shared earlier because “Hima Das is still awesome.”
That shows how desperate we are for international glory. Despite knowing the wrong video was shared, they decided to keep it on their social media handles since it already had plenty of shares and likes. Viral stuff.
But what the viral gold medal tweets do not reveal are the timings of the Indian athletes. Das’ best effort in 200m during the four races was 23.25 seconds. However, that will still not get her a position in the top-100 in the world this year. The other 200m races hold little relevance as the one in Tabor places Das at 128th in the world.
The ones that competed in the two meets in Poznan and Kunto were club level athletes from Poland and few from Thailand. No athlete had a personal timing better than Das so it would have been a shock if she had failed to win.
The International Association of Athletics Federations has categories to rank the events based on level of competition and rank athletes participating in it. Two of Das’ five events were ranked an ‘F’, the lowest IAAF can rank a meet. The other three events the 19-year-old participated in got an ‘E’.
The world body doesn’t recognise the events as ‘world standard’.
For all her wins, she has not yet qualified for the September World Championships, which would have been her real test. Are we still thinking of winning a track medal at the Tokyo Olympics?
If there is still a glimmer of hope, a look at her competition in 400m – her pet event – should diminish it even more. The Prague race had two groups – A and B. The A group in which Das ran was an all-Indian race and she won with a timing of 52.09 seconds.
Das will have to clock 22.80 seconds if she wants to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics on the basis of her timing. That would mean that she has to break the current national record of 22.82 seconds and her personal best timing of 23.10 seconds. To qualify for the 400m at the Olympics, she will need a time of 51.35 seconds, which as she showed in the Asian Games [where she clocked 50.79] is something she is capable of achieving.
The pressure of a qualifying event, performing at the biggest stage, competing against top-class athletes from USA, Jamaica, Europe and China – these factors have not even been considered.
Make no mistake, Das needs all the support she can get and it is important to celebrate our athletes. The praise that she earned recently is important for any athlete but being blinded by the medals and the feeling of the tricolour begin unfurled at the podium can have a damaging effect too. Imagine the pressure of expectations the Assamese would be under when she will run in a far more competitive field, and the possible scrutiny that could come her way should she fail.
Hoping for an Olympic medal from Das based on her recent performances shows ignorance towards the sport which is perhaps just as damaging as apathy.
But before ‘fans’ of the sport start tweeting ‘Olympic medal coming our way, queen of Indian athletics and why is media not showing her’, they should consider one thing: no top-level sportsperson competes in five races over different distances inside 20 days.
But Das did.