Mihir Vasavda at Asian Games: Avinash Sable leads from start to finish, wins steeplechase by a country mile

THE EUPHORIC wave, he knew, wasnโ€™t for him. Avinash Sable saw himself on the big screen, heard the roar that echoed inside the giant bowl that the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre is, and glanced towards Jianan Wang, the Chinese long jumper for whom the packed stands cheered.

As he waited for his race to begin, Sable was in no illusion about his fame. But he was self-assured about his prowess. โ€œI knew I was faster than all my competitors, and I wanted to run a fast race,โ€ he said.

And fast he was. By a country mile.

The Indian steeplechaser ran a Games record time of 8 minutes, 19.5 seconds to win Indiaโ€™s first athletics gold medal of the Hangzhou Asiad, a staggering 4.25 seconds faster than the second-placed Japanese Aoki Ryoma.

Sableโ€™s gold was the first of a busy โ€“ yet glorious โ€“ evening where Indian athletes finished on the podium in each of the 8 medal events that took place.

Track and field on a Games night is like an orchestra where the sounds of instruments, each sounding so different, blend beautifully to form the perfect symphony. Rich, expressive and full of emotions.

The stage for this musical is the sprawling field of play. The instruments, athletes. Jumpers stretching their limbs and lunging in one corner; throwers rolling their arms; distance runners and sprinters jogging up and down the track. All warming up for their act to begin.

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On Chinaโ€™s National Day, the Indian anthem played twice as shot putter Tajinder Toor defended the title he won five years ago with some flourish.

โ€œMy wife asked me to bring her gold,โ€ he laughed. โ€œOnly gold.โ€

He very nearly could not. Outright favourite to win the title, Toor had a wobbly start. The 6โ€™4โ€ giant could not land a legal throw in his first two attempts, as Bahrainโ€™s Mahmoud Abdelrehman raced into the lead with a first throw of 19.67m.

When Saudi Arabiaโ€™s Mohamed Daouda Tolo and Chinaโ€™s Liu Yang managed bigger marks of 19.93m and 19.97m in their third and fourth attempts, respectively, it looked game over for Toor, especially after he fouled his fifth throw.

But in his last attempt, he mustered all the strength he could to hurl the iron ball a massive 20.36m away to run away with the gold medal.

India clinching the first two gold medals of the evening got the Chinese spectators restless and their athletes responded to pressure, winning four titles โ€“ in menโ€™s long jump, womenโ€™s discus throw, heptathlon and womenโ€™s 100m hurdles.

The Indians made their rivals work extra hard. Murali Sreeshankar, who like Toor was slow off the blocks, recorded a jump of 8m or more in each of his four valid attempts to keep pushing Jianan Wang before ultimately settling for a silver.

Asian games Indiaโ€™s Avinash Mukund Sable celebrates after winning the menโ€™s 3000-meter steeplechase final event at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023. (PTI Photo)

In discus, Seema Punia finished behind two Chinese throwers who were a class apart, especially gold medallist Feng Bin, who threw a Games record 67.93m, nearly 10m more than Punia whose best was 58.62m.

As the action kept alternating between track events and field, Ajay Saroj exploded in the final 200m of an exhilarating 1,500m run to beat his teammate Jinson Johnson in the race for a silver medal. Saroj lay flat on the track after his sprint to the finish line as the Indian duo managed a silver-bronze finish.

Like Saroj, Harmilan Bains shifted gears towards the end to claim the 1,500m womenโ€™s silver while Nandini Agasara won the heptathlon bronze. The night ended with Jyothi Yarrajiโ€™s controversial but scintillating run to clinch the 100m hurdles silver.

Few, though, dominated their event from start to finish as strongly as Sable.

Often falling into the trap of running the race set up by his opponents in terms of pace and strategy, and with the World Championship failure still haunting him, Sable course-corrected in a field where he was the tallest figure.

Moments after the race began, he went around the outside to overtake the pack and ran the race on his terms.

โ€œI did not want to repeat the same things I had done before,โ€ he said. And so, he took off. By the half-way stage of the 7-lap race, Sable had opened up almost a 200m gap between him and the rest.

He realised how far heโ€™d run ahead of the others only when he looked at the giant screen after five laps. โ€œI noticed I had a big lead. Thatโ€™s when I relaxed a little,โ€ Sable said.

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He strolled past the finish line with a time that was way below his national record of 8 minutes, 11.40 seconds. But Sable wasnโ€™t obsessed with that mark.

He came into the race with the simple goal of winning it, timing being secondary. As he crossed the tape, the chant, โ€˜Indo, Jiayou!โ€™ โ€“ โ€˜Come on, India!โ€™ reverberated around the stadium.

He looked at the big screen. The euphoric wave, he knew, was for him.

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