The final few strides were ridiculously quick. The finish seemed surreal. There was disbelief. No, not because of the result. One of the two athletes touching the tape in a photo finish was not a Kenyan. The man in blue was shaking his head as if in frustration. If only he were a fraction of a second faster! In such races, the slenderest of margins separate the gold and silver.
Saturday was such a day. Country's one of the most consistent performers, Avinash Sable, almost dislodged Kenya from the throne. The 3000m steeplechase exponent from India, despite making a desperate lunge towards the end, finished second with another national record — his ninth since he started competing in this discipline — to win silver. The clock read 8:11.20s. Kenya's Abraham Kibiwot, who finished fifth at the World Championships, managed to maintain his lead with the timing of 8.11.15s.
Just to put the silver in perspective and how Sable managed to break the dominance of Kenyans, Worlds bronze medallist and former double Worlds and Olympic champion, Conseslus Kipruto, finished sixth. The other Kenyan, Amos Serem, was way behind Sable in third with a timing of 8:16.83s. Since the 1994 Games when Canada won bronze, this is the first time Kenya failed to sweep the steeplechase event.
So when Athletics Federation of India president, Adille Sumariwalla, said, "Avinash has broken the national record again and he has shown he can run as good as Kenyans", the words reflected Sable's feat.
Ever since Sable descended from the treacherous Siachen Glacier to the tracks where he started pursuing athletics, he had always shown traits of a champion. He is so focused that whatever task he is given, he works steadfastly to get it done. He has one of the best work ethics. "You give him a task and forget about it. He will ensure that he gets it done," Amrish Kumar, the coach who introduced him to steeplechase and trained him until the Tokyo 2020 Olympics last year, used to say.
Sable, who had a disappointing World Championships during a tactical race, broke from the Kenyan and threatened to dislodge them from their perch. Just after the last water jump, Sable tried to nudge forward but somehow Kibiwot managed to hold on. Assessing his run, thousands of miles away, coach Amrish said he managed to stay out of the box and outran the Kenyans. He did not fall behind and one reason was that he had self-belief.
Battle-hardened after spending time in the Army and braving extreme conditions in places like Siachen where the temperature drops below -50 degrees Celsius and a village in Rajasthan where it shoots above 50, Sable started training in 2017. And his inter-state timing in Guwahati in 2018 was 8.49.25s.
In the last four years, he has broken the national record nine times. "We started breaking the national records from 2019 and in Tokyo 2020, we brought it down to 8:18.12s," said Amrish. Sable started breaking national records in 2018.
His national records since the 2018 Open Nationals in Bhubaneswar reads 8:29.80s; 8:28.94s Federation Cup, March 2019 in Patiala; 8:25.23 in heats during the World Championships in October 2019 and then 8:21.37s in the final. In 2021, 8:20.20s at the Federation Cup Athletics Championships in Patiala. Then there were 8:18.12s in Tokyo 2020 and 8:16.21 at Indian GP in March this year, followed by 8:12.48s in Rabat and 8.11.20s now.
Sable shifted his base from India to Colorado Springs in April. The AFI hired a new coach, Scott Simmons, and he has been training with him in the US. Running with world-class athletes helped. "More exposure will help him improve his timing and also will give him confidence," said Amrish.
After the race, Kibiwot reportedly said, "I know the guy who was following me and I know he is not that fast. I was not afraid of him so that is why I controlled the race at the front."
Yes, he may not have known him before the race, but now with Sable threatening Kenyan bastion, he would be closely followed from now on.