Mihir Vasavda at Asian Games: Jyothi Yarraji, 100 metre hurdles silver medalist on dramatic disqualification before winning medal: I had to stand up for myself

Jyothi Yarraji might not have noticed it, but on an evening where she was involved in an almighty battle against the Chinese sprinters, successfully protested the decision to reinstate the home-favourite and faced a barrage of questions from the state media over the controversy, the young Indian sprinter got support from the unlikeliest of sources – the gold medal winner from China, Lin Yuwei.

In an auditorium brimming with Chinese journalists, Yarraji was pressed about her decision to challenge the technical officials’ call to disqualify her from the 100m hurdles final for an alleged false start.

They even probed her about the protest that followed, which saw the fastest hurdler in the line-up and gold medal favourite Yanni Wu getting disqualified after the race finished.

Yarraji quipped: “It is important for every athlete to stand for herself. So I did that.”

Sitting to her left, Lin Yuwei looked at Yarraji, smiled and broke the tension-filled air with an applause.

It was a rare moment of camaraderie after an evening full of confusion, controversy and tempers flying from both sides. First, Yarraji and Wu were disqualified from Sunday’s showpiece event, then got reinstated. A frenetic sprint followed, where the Chinese athlete ‘won’ the silver before she got officially disqualified, and the Indian – who originally finished third – got upgraded to second spot.

Freedom Sale

“I could have ran faster,” Yarraji said. “But the controversy threw me off a bit.”

The drama started after Wu, starting in lane 4, jumped the gun at the start of the race. She was shown a red card but to Yarraji’s astonishment, even she was given the marching orders.

According to World Athletics rule 16.8, ‘any athlete responsible for a false start shall be disqualified,’ with a note adding that ‘when one or more athletes make a false start… the Starter should warn or disqualify only such athletes who, in their opinion, were responsible for the false start. This may result in more than one athlete being warned or disqualified.’

However, Yarraji argued that her hands were firmly on the ground when the Chinese athlete took off the blocks and hence, it did not classify as a false start. She presented her case forcefully to the technical officials and after nearly 10 minutes of arguments, it was decided to allow both athletes to run under protest.

The hushed silence inside the stadium turned into wild celebrations when the crowd saw Wu returning to her mark. What followed was a race that lived up to the hype.

The 100m hurdles is one of the strongest events in Asia and nearly half of the starters have run a sub-13 race, indicating the high level of competition.

The battle for the podium places was always going to be between Yarraji and the two Chinese runners, with just 0.3 seconds separating them from their season best times – Wu has clocked 12.76 seconds this season, Yarraji has 12.78 while Yuwei’s best is 12.79.

There were no false starts when the gun sounded the second time and the Indo-Chinese runners began gingerly.

Yuwei’s reaction time was slowest, at 0.161 seconds, with Yarraji, too, being slow off the blocks. But while Yuwei burst forward, the Indian was fourth around the half-way mark but she then got into her stride.

James Hillier, Yarraji’s coach at the Reliance Foundation, had pointed out before the race that the 24-year-old’s strongest suit is her endgame. Yarraji’s ‘naturally good tendons, speed endurance and hurdle-rhythm endurance’ give her an advantage towards the end of the race.

“She has longer legs, too. The shorter girls are better at the start because they are quick with the legs so just her natural qualities allow her to be better at the end of the race. If she keeps close till the end, I have full confidence that she will win a medal,” Hillier had said.

His prophecy came true. Yarraji’s strides got longer and the rhythm got better as the race progressed. By the time they reached the penultimate hurdle, she had closed down the gap with the leaders and beat the Japanese sprinter Yuki Tanaka for what, at that point, felt like a bronze medal.

Within minutes of the race concluding, the Athletics Federation of India lodged a written protest with the organisers, demanding that Wu be disqualified as she had false started.

“The rule says whoever is leaving the ground first will be disqualified. Jyothi was still on the ground (when Wu dashed off), so they cannot say Jyothi left the ground. The other girl was almost one and half step ahead of her,” Anju Bobby George, a World Championship medallist who is now the federation’s vice-president, said.

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Soon after, Wu was disqualified and Yarraji promoted to the silver medal spot. Curiously, Wu and the rest of her teammates seemed oblivious to the decision. The hurdler continued giving interviews, with the Chinese athlete draping her country’s flag while giving interviews and posing for photos.

It was only when the athletes came forward for the medal ceremony did the people inside the stadium get to about the last-minute reversal.

Standing on the podium with the silver medal in her hands, Yarraji could finally afford to smile. She knew she’d have to fight for this medal. And she did, literally.

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