Elite runners from across the world braved the poor air quality and a surge in coronavirus cases to run in the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon in the capital on Sunday. It remains one of the country’s first major sporting events since the outbreak of the pandemic.
A total of forty-seven, including some of the world’s leading long-distance runners, ran the 21-kilometer (13.1-mile) course in the men’s and women’s event. There were also arrangements made for amateur participants who raced between Wednesday and Sunday to prevent overcrowding.
The entire route was sprayed with salt-treated effluent water to minimise the effect of the capital's annual toxic smog, which blankets Delhi in winter due to traffic and industrial pollution, crop stubble burning and cold temperatures.
The air quality index -- which monitors tiny PM2.5 and PM10 particles that get into the bloodstream and vital organs -- was at 244 and in the “poor” category, the Central Pollution Control Board said Sunday.
Doctors last week said it would be “suicidal” for runners to take part in the competition given the twin risks.
Ethiopians Amedework Walelegn and Yalemzerf Yehualaw claimed the men’s and women’s titles respectively. Walelegn won the men’s race with a course record of 58.53 minutes with last year’s champion Andamlak Belihu just a second behind. The previous best was 59.06 set by Ethiopia’s Guye Adola in 2014.
In the women’s race, Yehualaw won in 1.04.46 -- also a record, bettering the earlier mark of 1:06:00 by compatriot and defending champion Tsehay Gemechu, who finished fifth. Yehualaw, who finished second last year and third at the 2020 World Championships, also set the second fastest women’s time ever over the distance in 64:46.
Avinash Sable, who has qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in 3000m steeplechase, led the charge, finishing 10th overall in 1:00:30 -- the first time an Indian has run under 61 minutes over the distance and smashing the Indian half-marathon record by more than three minutes and the event record by more than four minutes. The 26-year-old Sable, who has qualified for the Tokyo Olympics and has been rewriting the national 3000m steeplechase records over the past couple of years, had last participated in a half-marathon in 2018 here, finishing second. Lack of competition this year had forced him to enter the ADHM and his decision to run an aggressive race paid off.
According to official Athletics Federation of India records, the previous national record (1:03:46) was set by Kalidas Hirave while defending champion Srinu Bugatha held the ADHM record with a timing of 1:04:33 last year. Bugatha came in second this time in 1:04:16 while Durga Bahadur Budha was third, clocking 1:04:19. Among the women, Sable’s training partner Parul Chaudhary, second last year, won in 1:12:18 while Sanjivani Jadhav (1:13:00) and Komal Jagadale (1:14:04) were second and third.
The Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 2020 “is a very significant moment for Indian sports since the pandemic began”, said Abhinav Bindra, brand ambassador for the event and India’s only individual Olympic gold medalist.
The event is a step towards resuming competitive sports in India and will be a benchmark for other sports to follow, he said. The race also took place as thousands of farmers, riled by new agricultural laws, staged a third straight day of protests, blockading some arterial roads into the capital.
Talking about the ADHM, Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju said, "It is an important breakthrough, the first sporting event in public space maintaining all the protocols for health and safety. I congratulate the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon organisers for a wonderful event.
"World champions, world record holders have taken part and top international runners are here. Indian record was also broken by Avinash Sable and his other colleagues have performed very well."
The minister said he wants more national and international events in the coming months since the Olympic qualification events are going to happen. "Olympic qualification matches are going to happen. So, I want more sporting events to take place now, of course, while following all safety measures. "I have already told National Sports Federations and the IOA to chalk out plans for different national and international events in India. And we are giving full support. "I think this lockdown period is over, we are starting with sporting activities. Delhi Half Marathon has become a very important international event. And support is coming from Delhi government and from sports ministry, we are fully backing this event, and any other sporting event," he said.