India managed to bag its highest medal haul at the London Olympics in 2012. Pundits who saw India's performance in London had anticipated the dawn of India rising as an Olympic sports powerhouse. Even the Athletics Federation of India had predicted a double-digit medal figure for India in Rio 2016. All expectations fell flat when the time came and it was only left for PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik to win a medal each at Rio.
The lead up to the upcoming Tokyo Olympics has similarly seen a lot of hype around Indian track and field athletes and one of the most decorated athletes today among the fraternity is Hima Das. The star Indian sprinter ran her first competitive race in more than a year when she marked her return in the Indian Grand Prix II in February 2021.
A magical start for Hima Das
Hima, the supremely talented sprinter from Assam was breath of fresh air for India, which is long-starved of a world-class medal in athletics. In 2018, Hima attained the unbelievable feat of winning a gold medal at the World U-20 Championships in Finland - the first for India. The video of a lanky 18-year-old racing to the finishing line was a tear-jerking moment of celebration. However, which could have been the start of a magical journey was marketed like India's ultimate glory.
Hima Das at 2018 World U-20 Championships in Finland
The concept of hero-worshipping is nothing new in India, and as we gave Das a celebrity status, we created a hype around her which can cause irreparable damage. A medal in the Olympic games or the world championships is considered the pinnacle of success for an athlete, which is what we expect from Hima. However, we fail to realise that she is still a work in progress, who is far away from her goal.
5 golds and the out-of-proportion glitter
One of the greatest phases of Das' career was when she won five gold medals in as many meets in a matter of a few weeks in 2019. Over a hundred news articles and a zillion of social media posts were written on her achievements. However, the competitions Hima participated in were in the lower rungs on the World Championship ranking points system, introduced in 2019 by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). She isn't yet ready to challenge the best in Tokyo Olympics. Hima's best performance since her return this year was in the finals of the 200m race in the 24th Federation Cup, where she clocked 23.21 seconds.
She ran faster only once earlier in this distance -- when she clocked 23.10 seconds in the 2018 National Inter-State Athletics Championships in Guwahati. Hima, however, failed to qualify for the Olympics as the qualification mark stands at 22.80 seconds. After her streak of gold medal-winning performance in Europe, she had suffered a lower back injury was forced her to miss the World Championships in Doha in September 2019.
After that COVID-19 pandemic struck and the entire domestic calendar was wiped out, no Indian athlete could take part in any event abroad. Even on her return, Hima had lost in the heats of Federation Cup, where she came behind Dhana Lakshmi.
A long way for Hima
The hype and expectations created around Hima are making her unnecessary pressurised. It's not only her fans but the PR is driving the hype, building her fame for actions which she shouldn't be in the news. From her contribution to relief funds to appointment as DSP, and a long list of brand endorsements - her stardom keeps on growing but only as a celebrity, not an athlete.
Hima Das wins women's 200m contest at 24th Federation Cup 2021 in March
She is a still long way from coming close to the best athletes in the world. In her present pet event of 200m, Hima is ranked 91st in the world. She is not even the best in India with Dutee Chand and Archana Suseentran ranked 32 and 82 respectively. Praises on social media aren't helping. Tweets from the nations' most powerful can only add to the hype and push fans to want miracles from her. We should simply stop celebrating and focus on her training. We have to accept the fact that there's is still a high probability Hima Das won't be participating in the Tokyo Olympics. Given her potential and age, Hima's reckoning may come during the 2024 Olympics in Paris, but till then we have to make sure she does not fade away under the pile of popularity and fame. We need to stop this hype.