Murali Shreeshankar’s long-jump final was turning pear-shaped. Four tries in and well off the medal mark, memories of his effortless qualification attempt- a smooth 8.05 metres on the first try- seemed distant and misleading. The lanky Palakkad local, odds on for gold, was off-rhythm at Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium. The bristling lad began with a modest 7.60 metres, improving the mark with identical jumps of 7.84 metres on successive tries, the second of which caused much consternation.
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With the distance already set for a podium spot- Bahamas’ Laquan Nairn’s 8.08 metres and South Africa’s Johan van Vuuren’s 8.06- Murali’s anxieties were piping to the fore. All seemed in place technically- the rapid run-up, the leap and landing- bar the result. Still, the twin tries of 7.84 metres kept him in the fray. Three cracks were all he had left. It’s all he could ask. The fourth try was near-perfect, and to many observers, including Shreeshankar, it was perfect! Building a heady momentum with his run-up, he took off from the board, scything through air, his legs imitating the blades of a rotating turbine; he landed beyond the 8-metre mark, perhaps even the 8.08 set by the Bahamian Nairn.
But he’d never know, and neither would we. About to wheel away in celebration, the laser-assisted line judge flagged red. Replays suggested he was a centimetre beyond, but the eyes told a different story. Shreeshankar ran to the nearest official- a picture of madcap energy versus the woman’s easy calm- asking, “how’s that long?” Mouthing off in his native Malayalam, all we could pick up was “millimetres”. Clean to the naked eye, out by the line-calling laser, it felt like a dagger blow to the tyro.
Composing himself, he lined up for a fifth try. Thankfully, the pacesetters were fading: Nairn and Van Vuuren failed to breach 8 metres with subsequent attempts. So up stepped Murali, a bubble of nervous energy mixed in with a sense of injustice. He’d go through the same drill- run, leap and land- that got him the national record, a place in the final and now hopefully a medal. Flying further than he had (bar the crossed-out effort), Shreeshankar levelled Nairn’s 8.08. There was a brief moment- all bubbling anticipation, half-knowing that he’d done it just right but still unsure if he’d done enough- before the distance flashed on the screen. The loud cheers of the Indian contingent-including his father- who sat behind Murali, announced its success.
It was still shy of gold, but it was a medal nonetheless. He’d throw himself to the far reaches of the sand-pit for it, but another red flag followed, without the controversy of the previous one, of course. After a litany of sixth and seventh-placed finishes across tournaments, the silver was a relief for Murali:
“I’ve been waiting for a medal (at a global meet) for a very long time. I was seventh at World Indoor and World Outdoor, sixth at World Juniors, fourth Asian Indoors, sixth at Asian Games. Every time I was (finishing) sixth or seventh, so I was really happy with the silver.I have been waiting for a global medal for a very long time, but I kept missing out. This is a small step towards my big goal in the 2024 Paris Olympics and I’m working towards that,” he said to PTI.
Not easily deterred- as was evident in the final- the youngster has been picking off wisdom from the sport’s established stars:
“Every athlete has gone through it. (reigning Olympic champion) Miltiadis Tentoglou told me in Greece that even ‘I too came seventh, sixth and even fourth multiple times’then he went to win the gold (in Tokyo). It’s a step by step process,” he added.
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The fifth attempt holds an uncanny charm in Murali’s career. In the Inter-State Championships in June, he set a meet record on his fifth try, also ensuring a Commonwealth Games berth. Built for the long haul, Murali hopes the Birmingham silver will lead to further glory, not least in Paris.