Just a little more than a month ago, when A.C. Ashwini cleared the 400m hurdles in a mediocre 59 secs at the Commonwealth Games, the national record holder P.T. Usha spoke about how the standard had fallen in the event.
But now, Ashwini is one of the big stars of the Asian Games with her surprise hurdles gold at Guangzhou and a fine run in the gold-winning 4x400 relay team.
Second in Asia
India finishing sixth overall in the Asian Games gives the country a nice feeling but the bigger story came in athletics where India finished second in the medals table in Guangzhou, behind Asian super power China. A story which almost passed away unnoticed.
The country which had just one gold, through the 4x400m relay women, at the last Asian Games in Doha in 2006 and from last year's Asian Championship, through shot putter Om Prakash, had five golds (apart from two silvers and four bronzes) at the Guangzhou Games which ended in a blaze of light and colour on Saturday night.
It is India's best-ever show at the Asian Games after China came into the picture in 1974 at Teheran. The last time the country finished second in athletics was 40 years ago at the 1970 Bangkok Games where it finished behind Japan with four golds.
Japan was the dominant country in Asiad athletics till the Teheran edition, topping the medals table in the first seven editions without a break. At the last Guangzhou Asian Championship, Japan finished behind China with 12 golds and there was talk that the country was slowly getting back on track but at the Guangzhou Asiad, Japan finished fourth with four gold, like Kazakhstan and South Korea. And Japan's pain has been India's big gain.
Surprisingly, none of India's four individual golds, hauled in by long distance runner Preeja Sreedharan, 3000m steeple chaser Sudha Singh, hurdler Ashwini and men's 400m hurdler Joseph Abraham, were expected.
The spotlight, and burden of expectations, had been on athletes like triple jumper Renjith Maheswary, middle distance runner Tintu Luka, shot putter Om Prakash and 400m runner Mandeep Singh, but none of them came up with the medal that mattered.
Women were the big reason behind India's impressive show, bringing ten of the team's 11 medals and also four of the five golds, Joseph Abraham being the only male to get a yellow.
Incidentally, the medals were brought by India's small town girls, who fought through poverty and poor facilities to rise to the fore.
Preeja's story is a classic case. Her father died when she was very young and her elder brother had to discontinue his studies after the eight standard and work as a carpenter at Rajakkad in Kerala's hilly Idukki, a district which is loaded with talent but which often goes unnoticed. And her mother had to slog in nearby homes on daily wages.
The Japanese are a major force in distance running, its big star, the 10,000m Asiad defending champion Kayoko Fukushi, is among the top ten in the world list this year but she could only finish fourth in a race won impressively by Preeja and followed by Kavita.
Kavita, who also won the Commonwealth Games bronze, is from a tribal belt near Nashik and took to running only because it could be done barefoot without spending a penny.
And Ashwini, who began hurdling only about six months ago and also figured in gold-winning runs in the 4x400 relay teams both in the Delhi Commonwealth Games and at Guangzhou, is from a farming family from a small hamlet in Karnataka's Udupi District.
Not many gave them a chance of winning golds in Guangzhou but they proved that they had the will and the power to carry the country forward when the going got tough.
Keywords: Asian Games