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IX Asiad flame burst into brilliance at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi

By on November 27, 2019

first_imgEvery once in a while an event occurs that lifts a nation above mediocrity; that captures for a split second in its history, the heights of collective human endeavour; that wipes out in one bold stroke, all the myths and misconceptions. Such a moment comes but rarely and never lingers,Every once in a while an event occurs that lifts a nation above mediocrity; that captures for a split second in its history, the heights of collective human endeavour; that wipes out in one bold stroke, all the myths and misconceptions. Such a moment comes but rarely and never lingers and few are the nations that are so visited.Rajasthani dancers add colour to the Asian Games opening ceremonyBut last fortnight was undoubtedly India’s turn when the curtain went up on the biggest sporting event in Asia. Even before the stunning and brilliantly-orchestrated opening ceremony on November 19 had ended, it was evident that this was destined to be India’s finest hour. Never had a nation stood so proud, never had its mettle been tested so severely and never had its technology and hospitality reached such dizzying heights.As a birthday gift to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, there could have been no better. And it was unquestionably no less than she deserved, if only for the fact that it was her gamble to go for the Games in an incredibly encapsulated time span of just two years.India’s track star Gita Zutshi takes the oathAnd yet the moment the giant Asiad flame burst into brilliance exactly on the scheduled second in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, all doubts and fears vanished into the winter air. By the time the Games reached the half-way mark, it was already obvious that it was to be a spectacular success.Right from the opening fanfare, everything worked with as much precision as the high-tech Seiko timing equipment loaned to India for the Games. Even the weather appeared to accede in acknowledgement. The minute the first chords of the opening ceremony were struck, the sun burst through the clouds to bathe the massed athletes and the gaily-caparisoned performers in a benevolent “glow.advertisementFrom then on, there was no looking back as the war cries of the Akalis and their threat to disrupt the Asiad were rudely elbowed out by the spectacle unfolding in 17 state-of-the-art stadia. It was a headiness that could not be denied; a triumph for the organisers that could not be taken away and a day that will linger long in Indians memory. For the millions of Indians watching the drama unfold on their hastily-imported colour television sets, the controlled efficiency, the well-oiled security and the perfect meshing of gears in the gigantic Asiad machinery was as pleasantly surprising as it was to the foreign athletes. As one spectator was overheard remarking after watching the proceedings for a week: “‘If only they could run the country like this. India wouldn’t have a care in the world.” The truth of that statement could not be denied.As a diplomatic and public relations coup, the Games had no rival since Independence. The paeans of praise poured in from all sides, including, significantly enough, from the members of the various international sports federations who were on hand to make a critical assessment of the conduct of the Games.Equally unrecognisable was the city where it was all happening. Delhi had been spruced up like it was on its first date. Smoothly metalled roads, freshly-painted road signs, fly-overs bedecked with banners and greenery, music in the parks, traffic jams and hold-ups almost non-existent, flags and fountains fluttering in the crisp November air and ancient, crumbling monuments artfully lit at night. But above all. what most Indians were witnessing was a tantalising glimpse of what the country and its people were capable of achieving.A MOVEABLE FEASTShot put Gold Medallist Bahadur Singh making his recordbreaking effort and Valsamma on the victory standEventually, it was the athletes who really mattered and all thestadia in the world could not take away from their performance. Evenbefore the Games entered its second week, there were moments permanently etched in the mind’s eye. The pixie-like Wu Jiani the 16-year-oldChinese gymnast attending her first Asiad stunned the jam-packed stadium into awe-struck silence with her grace and fluidity. On the balancingbeam, she was a poem in motion, gliding through her exercises withunmatched perfection, and back-flipping with an ease that made a mockery of the laid-down laws of gravity. A perfect 10 was the only choice thejudges were left with. Her three golds – one of them in the team event – and two silvers were greeted with unusual enthusiasm. And finally, when she waved both her tiny hands above her head before leaving theIndraprastha Stadium for the last time, the entire crowd rose as oneperson to give her a standing ovation.When India Today finallymanaged to track her down at 5.30 a.m. at the airport where the gymnasts were waiting to catch the flight home on the day after the competitionended, she looked forlorn and child-like. Wearing a smart off-white suit and clutching an airline bag she looked anything but a superstar, just a sleepy 16-year-old anxious to be home. But she was deadly serious andmature about her sporting commitments: “There is a lot of work to bedone still. I must train harder and reach world standards.” she said,choking her words carefully. “We Chinese value perfection.” she added,as she disappeared into the departure lounge with that famous two-handed wave that had captured the hearts of millions who watched her perform.advertisementIn fact, the Chinese team with its cheerful vitality, wide grins andenviable aplomb stole the show. Their medals tally was impressiveenough: but it was totally overshadowed by the sheer joy of being youngand healthy and alive which they displayed. It was sport at its mostpoignant and best. The tears of victory, the impulsive embraces, thegraciousness in defeat and the warmth of their exuberance left behind abrightness that dimmed the glitter of their gold medals. In fact, theChinese supporters, their red coats complementing the red-and-yellowleotards of their gymnasts, need not have waved their little flags sovigorously, so readily did the Indian-dominated audience take theChinese team to its collective heart, particularly the doll-like girls.For once, in an international sporting event as big as the Asiad politicstook a seat in the last row. The bearded Iranian gold medal-winningweightlifter Ali Pakizehjam clasped hands with the Iraqi bronzemedallist Mohammed Yasin banishing in that moment of emotion-chargedtriumph the fact that their countries were locked together in aprotracted and self-destructive war. At the Talkatora swimming poolvictory stand. South Korean swimmers linked hands with North Koreanmedallists in a rare moment of fraternity and friendship.Stiff Competition: Right from the first day of the competition, it was clear that Asiad’82 would boil down to a battle for supremacy between the two giantsJapan and China. By the end of the first week, the two had swappedplaces at the head of the medals table with tantalising frequency. Japan dominating the swimming and China taking the diving, table tennis andgymnastics honours. The final battle would evidently be fought in thetrack and field arena; but even before the focus shifted, there wereclear indications that China would finally break the Japanese medalsstranglehold.Said Wu Zhonguan, the slim, elderly andearnest-looking deputy leader of the Chinese contingent: “The promotionof sports fits into our political ideology. Our first priority was tolay down the foundations of a healthy society, and it is paying offnow.”But the Chinese were clearly outclassed in swimming, withJapan winning 16 gold. 11 silver and six bronzes in 23 of the 29 eventsdecided in the first week of competition. Said coach-cum-manager ShinjiHigashimaja: “Our goal was 25 gold medals, the same as Bangkok, and wegave the swimmers the confidence that they required to win.”advertisementThe onlymajor upset in their calculations was the 200 m free-style where theyfailed to pick up a medal. The gold was claimed by William Wilson, 18,the freckle-faced student from the Philippines in a time of 1 m 57.41sees. Said Wilson: “The gold was reward for two years of hard work inAmerica. I was unlucky to miss breaking the record.”The medalsbattle again turned China’s way after the table tennis events, whichthey made virtually a clean sweep of winning six of the seven golds. But the scene-stealer at the table-tennis event was the hyped-up YoshidoSaito, Japan’s number six. Saito caused a sensation when he demolishedthe number one seed, Guo Yuehua of China in the quarter-finals, not somuch by technique but by psychology. Bouncing up and down like ajack-in-the-box, uttering his famous war cry ‘whenever he won a point.Saito pressurised the Chinese superstar into abject submission.The two Koreas, particularly the Democratic People’s Republic (DPR),diligently dogged the footsteps of the two leaders – a tribute to thecareful planning and build-up that sport enjoys in those countries. Infact, one of the few world records bettered or equalled during the Games was by South Korea’s Kim Jin Ho in the women’s archery event, whileweightlifter Yang Eui of North Korea narrowly missed the world record in the 56 kg class, held by the eventual gold medallist, Wu Shude of China who failed to better his own world mark.Despite the massiveinjection of money into sports, the Middle Eastern countries were notfaring too well in the medal standings, except for the throe Kuwaitiwomen medallists, the only outstanding performances were in football and weightlifting, with Iran having a slight edge over the rest. But asBahram Afsharza-deh, chef de mission of the Iranian contingent,explains: “Every Iranian is a soldier of Islam whether in the playground or the battlefield. Ayatollah Khomeini has said sports are to beencouraged so as to make people think well and be healthy. This is whywe promote wrestling, weightlifting and other Islamic sports. Boxing and fencing and other sports that lead to bleeding and other severeinjuries are not Islamic sports. Nor is chess, for it torments themind.”Miraculous Transformation: But easily the mostencouraging performance in the medals race was that of host India. Itwas as though they had undergone a miraculous transformation. Never hadthey looked so superbly fit and confident. All the months of expertcoaching and rigorous training schedules finally struck pay dirt.Star of the track, Lydia de Vega winning the 100 mIronically, India’s medal rush started with the events that are beingheld for the first time at the Games. India’s medals tally opened with a bang when the all-army equestrian team of Raghubir Singh, Captain G.M.Khan and Prahlad Singh galloped off with the gold, silver and bronze inthe three-day event, one of the rare occasions when the Indian flag wasto go up on all three poles behind the victory stand.The Indianspicked up another gold in the team standings. catapulting India to fifth place in the medals table and wound up the competition with a thirdgold in the tent-pegging with Major Brar’s flawless performance. Said an exultant team manager “Billy” Sodhi: “I have been telling everybody for the past year that we were going to do well. It is a credit to ourriders that they have done so well, in spite of the fact that the others had better horses. Give us 20 of their horses and we will show what wecan do.’*But the equestrians who finally stole the limelight were three pert and pretty girls from Kuwait. Riding their expensive horsesin the show jumping event, they outclassed their male counterparts totrot away with all three medals in the event. The gold and silver wentto two sisters. Nadiaal-Mutawa, 19, and her 18-year-old sister Gemilawhile the bronze was taken by Barah al-Sabah. All three are students inKuwait and seemed overwhelmed by their unexpected success. ‘”We werehoping to do well but not as well as we did,” said Nadia interruptingherself with the occasional giggle. This is the first time that allthree have participated in an international event and also the firsttime that three women have won all the top placings in a mixedinternational. How did it feel to beat a field of fancied men? “Verygood.” they giggled in unison.Another First: The Indianequestrian success was almost matched by another Asiad first – golfing – with India powering its way to three medals – one gold for the teamtitle and Captain Lakshman Singh’s and Rajiv Mohta’s gold and silverrespectively in the individual competition as they pipped the fanciedJapanese at the post.China’s star gymnast Wu Jiani excuting her perfect ’10’ on the balancing beamIndia’s golden hour, however, was in theJawaharlal Nehru Stadium where the track and field events got off themark. In three incredible days, India’s track stars toppled the twoKoreas from their golden pedestal, pushing India up to third placebehind China and Japan. It was an inspiring effort that took them toheights they had never reached before.Chand Ram, the 20 km walknational champion, struck first gold for India, and also had thedistinction of winning the first gold medal to be decided in the trackand field events. The tall Rajputana Rifles soldier set up a mile-eating stride and maintained his lead right through to finish in therecord-breaking time of 1 hr 29 m 29 secs – 21 seconds, ahead ofsecond-placed Chuntang Wang of China. Said an elated Ram while busilysigning autographs after the race: “I was determined to win the firstgold for India in athletics. and also I wanted to show that I was better than Wang who was disqualified at the Tokyo meet last year.”Ram’s moment of triumph, was however. sadly marred by the typically officious attitude of M.L. Jadam, an official from the Amateur AthleticFederation. While Ram was enjoying a well-earned cold drink after hisgruelling race, it was virtually snatched from his hand by Jadam whoordered him to go up to Rajiv Gandhi and “take his blessings”.Still elated from his victory. Ram readily agreed and walked up thestairs to where Rajiv was standing and folded his hands. But Jadam,typical of his tribe, felt that was not enough. Grasping Ram roughly bythe shoulder, he virtually pushed him down on his knees and whispered”touch his feet”. Sycophancy, it appeared, will never take a back seatto sport.Ram, however, was literally dwarfed by the burlyman-mountain, shot putter Bahadur Singh. 36 taking part in his lastAsiad. Singh emulated his gold-winning performance at the Bangkok Gameswith a throw of 18.53 m and in the bargain avenged his defeat at thehands of the favourite, Kuwait’s Mohammed Al Zinkawi, at last year’smeet in Tokyo. Zinkawi’s coach struck one of the few discordant notes in the Games when he accused Bahadur Singh, after the event, of havingtaken drugs to improve his performance. But it was all too obviously anemotional reaction to the toppling of the favourite, and nobody took his outburst very seriously. As for Bahadur, he was quite content to endhis athletics career in a gold-tinged blaze of glory. “I have hadenough,” said the burly gold medallist, “now I am switching to coachingso that the tradition of Indians winning shot put medals at every Asiadshould continue.”Chinese world record holder Wu Shude winning the weightlifting goldIndia’s medal challenge accelerated on the nexttwo days, spurred on by the wildly-cheering 40-50,000-strong crowd. Thedisappointment at long distance medal hope Shivnath Singh burninghimself out too early and finishing fifth was soon forgotten as CharlesBorromeo, 23. lived up to his earlier prediction to India Today that hewould finish the 800 m in less than 1.47 minutes. Running a superbtactical race, Borromeo forged ahead in the last 150 m to give India its ninth gold with almost contemptuous ease. Said Borromeo aftercompleting his victory lap to a standing ovation: “The race went exactly as planned; but the support of the crowd helped a great deal. Now mynext goal is the Olympic gold in 1984 at Los Angeles.”What waseven more heartening, in the context of Indian sport, was theunprecedented sight of India’s gold medal winners being mobbed byautograph hunters, till now the exclusive preserve of cricketers andfilm stars. At the Shivaji Stadium, the scenes of jubilation when theIndian women’s hockey team cake-walked to another gold medal wereunprecedented. Their victory lap before a jam-packed stadium and themedal presentation by Rajiv Gandhi were moments of triumph thattranscended the mere winning of a medal. It was a nation rejoicing inthe moveable feast that the team had provided right through thetournament, even diverting Mrs Gandhi from her busy schedule to bepresent at the final whistle.Said a visibly-excited captain.Eliza Nelson: “We are proud to have won the gold the very first time the tournament has been introduced.” Coach Balkishen Singh credits thevictory to the strenuous practice the team underwent for the past 18months.Said he: “We were worried about our defence, where we were relatively weak; but it was hardly tested.” That is substantiated bythe fact that the Indian women slammed in a total of 37 goals in thetournament, conceding just one. Meanwhile, their male counterparts werestorming their way into what looked like a predictable clash withtraditional rivals Pakistan in the finals, an event for which ticketswere sold out well in advance.Similarly, in weightlifting, GianSingh Cheema. the powerfully built pub-owner from Birmingham, earnedIndia its first ever medal in the Asian Games weightlifting competitionwhen he took two bronze medals in the 100 kg category. Other Indianweightlifters missed out on the medals but most of them bettered theirown national marks which was compensation enough. In fact, this year,Indian lifters have bettered national records an incredible 69 times, atribute to the planned training programme they have been on for the last 18 months.Overt Signals: Elsewhere, there were equallyovert signals that Indian sport is finally coming of age. In swimming,for the first time in international competition, there were Indianswimmers in almost every final that took place. In fact few peoplerealised that Khazan Singh and Ranajoy Punaja’s fourth-placing makesthem the fourth-fastest in Asia. Says Singh; “We could have done evenbetter with more training and protein rich diets.” Swimming coach Bernad Johnke echoed these views and pointed to the fact that most of theIndian swimmers improved upon their national record-breaking timingsduring the September Trial Games. Similarly, India’s fifth placing inthe men’s gymnastics team events is far better than any previousperformance and clearly promises much for the future.Indira Gandhi poses with the winning gymnasts after the medal ceremonyBut with the main focus having shifted to athletics, the real superstars were beingfeted at the impressive Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Pride of place, as far as India was concerned, went to M.D. Valsamma, the 400 m hurdlesnational champion. A month before the Games, she had confidently toldIndia Today that “all that lies between me and the gold are 10 hurdles,” and she proved that it was no idle boast. Having posted the best timing in the heats, she was clearly the favourite when the race started. Buther performance in the finals eclipsed all expectations.Stridingsmoothly and clearing the hurdles at just the right height, she hit theelectronic beam well ahead of the rest in the fantastic time of 58.47sees which was not just a new Asian Games record but an Asian record aswell, the only athlete at the Games to have achieved that distinction so far. Exulted the 22-year-old railway clerk: “I was certain of winningsince my timings were better than that of my competitors.” She is nowlooking forward to flying back to Kerala with her coach with the Rs 1lakh award promised to her by the Kerala Government if she won the gold.Disappointment: Another favourite, Geeta Zutshi, missed gold by the proverbial whiskerin the 800 m women and had to remain content with the silver. Said avisibly disappointed athletics coach, Joginder Singh Saini: “She kickedoff for her final burst too early.” But even so, Zutshi’s silver didlittle harm to India’s rapidly-swelling medal tally which was soonenhanced by two more silver medals from P.T. Usha in the 100 m andPremchandran in the 400 m on the third day of the athletics programme.Mrs Gandhi also seemed to revel in the proceedings. She was seen at various stadia, particularly where Indians were participating, lending herpresence to the proceedings, clapping as enthusiastically as anybodyelse. The crowds seem to acknowledge her contribution, and gave herstanding ovations. As one wag remarked: “If Mrs Gandhi held an electiontomorrow she would win hands down.” But the person who stole some of her limelight was superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Looking gaunt and subduedafter his brush with death, Bachchan revealed himself as a sportsaddict. He stayed in Delhi right through the duration of the Games,hopping from one stadium to the next and causing near-riots wherever hewent.Other VIPs were not so favoured. When it was announced thatHaryana Chief Minister Bhajan Lal would give out the medals ingymnastics, the crowd booed their disfavour. And when Lal, the formerwrestler waddled up to the dias with his paunch leading him by at least a foot, there was an embarrassing silence broken by fits of derisivelaughter at the comical sight he made compared to thesuperbly-conditioned gymnasts.India beating Japan 7-2on the way to the finals clash with PakistanHowever, the darling of the crowdsat the main athletics stadium clearly was the attractive and charmingFilipino sprinter, Lydia de Vega, 18. Her 100 m win earned her the title of the fastest woman in Asia and instant stardom. Said an elated deVega after the event: “I am proud to have won the first gold medal formy country in 20 years.” Lydia’s stardom was not restricted to thetrack. Back home, she is considered a national hero and has justcompleted her first film. In fact, the film, called ‘Gold Medal” basedon her life story, was released on the day the Games began. But for allher popularity back home, Lydia is surprisingly modest and unassuming.”Two favourite things are running and movies,” she says, “and I am glad I am doing well in both.” If she wins the sprint double as expected,Lydia is certain to return home a national treasure.”My successis all due to him,” says Lydia, pointing to her father, a retiredpoliceman, who chaperones the shapely (34-26-36) star to competitions in the Philippines and abroad and officiates as her coach.But asthe Games entered its second and final week, there were certain to beother heroes born each day. Rabuan Pit, the favourite for the men’ssprint double, was just one prospect, while the wrestling and boxing,the two events that started the last, are likely to further improve upon India’s medal tally, which, at the end of the first week, was alreadyheading for an all-time-record.- Dilip Bobb with Amarnath K. Menon and Sreekant Khandekarlast_img read more

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