By Kahini Iyer
Days after Sunday’s double whammy of the ICC World Cup final and Wimbledon, the shock is just about wearing off. After sending Virat and Co packing, the underdog Kiwis went neck-and-neck with series favourites England, while 37-year-old Roger Federer fiercely faced Novak Djokovic in the battle of the GOATs. No one knew which channel to flip to, as the tense cricket game went down to a Super Over, and the tennis players found themselves playing a 12-12 tiebreaker, the first in Wimbledon history. In a heartrending finish, the scrappy Black Caps tied the Super Over only to lose the Cup only because they hit fewer boundaries, and stalwart Federer fell to his own unforced error.
It’s not surprising that emotions of tennis and cricket fans alike are running high. The debates on sharing trophies and titles raged through the week and probably for the first time in recent history the runners-up were celebrated more than the victors. But now that the frantic buzz is finally dying down, there is a soothing balm for recovering sports fans — and her name is Hima Das. While we were all busy wringing our hands over India’s exit and the misfortunes of Kane Williamson, the 19-year-old Assamese track star quietly picked up four gold medals in 15 days during a round of international athletics events in Eastern Europe.
On July 2, when Team India was beating Bangladesh, Das was sprinting ahead on her own, winning the 200m at the Poznan Athletics Grand Prix in Poland. Five days later, she took another gold at the Kutko Athletics Meet in Poland. As of yesterday, Das won two more 200m races at athletics meets in the Czech Republic, first at the Kladno Athletics Meet and then at the Tabor Athletics Meet, shaving milliseconds off her time with each new victory. Talk about living up to the title of India’s Golden Girl.
Yet somehow, in the middle of consistently crushing the competition, the 19-year-old has managed to spare a moment for her home state of Assam, which is ravaged by devastating floods. On Tuesday, she donated half her monthly salary toward relief efforts. Despite her success, Das is not exactly a high-paid athlete. It’s all the more remarkable that a budding sportswoman like her chooses to spend her hard-earned money giving back to the community she comes from.
Clearly, Das has not forgotten her roots: A small-town called Dhing in the Nagaon district of Assam. Born to rice farmers, there is little doubt that she understands how a natural disaster wreaks havoc on poor families. She herself grew up unable to afford equipment or training grounds, and put on her first pair of spikes only a couple of years before she burst to global attention by winning a 400m gold in the 2018 IAAF World U-20 Championships. It’s a feat that no other Indian athlete has achieved.
As recently as 2016, Das wanted to be a footballer. But it was her teacher who suggested that athletics was a more viable choice. Das trained on a muddy turf often without proper shoes, before bagging her first medal – a bronze at a state meet in Guwahati. Das has improved by leaps and bounds in a mind-bogglingly short time, rising to the rank of a world-class youth champion despite not having the same facilities as her competitors. For some who has no idea what the Commonwealth Games were until a few years ago, Das has come a long long way.
India’s leading hope in track and field events, Das is making sports history with every sprint. Last year, she clocked 50.79 seconds in the 400m dash at the Asian Games, setting a new record for India. If she continues cutting her 200m time, Das will no doubt set a record there, too. Right now, the Dhing Express is unstoppable both on and off the field. Today, she has become one of the faces of a broader movement for Indian women athletes.
Along with her fellow runner Dutee Chand, wrestlers like Sakshi Malik and the Phogat sisters, and the women’s cricket team, Das has proved time and again that women’s sports are no longer a feel-good, equal rights alternative to the “real” thing. Even as our beloved Men in Blue, armed with decades of gung-ho talent development and the BCCI’s duniya bhar ke paisa, came back empty-handed, it’s women like Das who have brought home medals and sporting glory.
Plus, Das has done it all while being largely overlooked by her government and the rest of us. If a fistful of gold medals is what she can achieve alone, imagine what she could accomplish with a fraction of the attention we lavished on last Sunday’s games. Still a teenager, Das already looks like she’s racing towards the Tokyo Olympics next year. Will we finally be there to cheer her on?
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