Rio de Janeiro: Lalita Babar opened a new chapter in India’s athletics history in the Olympic Games by becoming the first woman after three decades to enter the final of a track event when she shattered the national mark to reach the 3000M steeplechase medal round.
Lalita, hailing from Satara district of Maharashtra, qualified for the women’s 3000m steeplechase final after finishing fourth in the qualifying heat 2 with a new national record time of 9 minutes, 19.76 seconds while the holder of that mark, compatriot Sudha Singh, was eliminated after a poor run in heat 3.
The 27-year-old Lalita, who had won the bronze medal in the event in the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, two years ago, emulated ‘Payyoli Express’ P T Usha by entering the final. Usha, who runs a running academy now, was the first Indian woman to achieve the distinction when she made the finals of the women’s 400m hurdles in 1984 at Los Angeles before missing the bronze by a fraction of a second.
Lalita, in fact, finished with the seventh-best time in the heats by clipping nearly seven seconds off the existing national mark standing in the name of Sudha (9:26.55), clocked in Shanghai in May. The top three in the three heats gained automatic qualification while Lalita made the grade as one of the six fastest from among the rest. Had she ran in the third heat she would have qualified as the winner of that race.
Sudha, on the other hand, performed far below her best to finish a distant 9th in heat 3 in a poor 9:43.29 which gave her the 30th spot out of 52 in the qualifiers. Lalita will be seen in the final of the gruelling race on August 15. She, in fact, had clocked 9:27.09 at New Delhi in the Federation Cup in April, her personal best which was the then national mark that was obliterated two months later by Sudha.
The third Indian athlete in fray in today’s athletics action, Nirmala Sheoran, looked totally out of depth in the women’s 400m preliminaries in which she finished a distant 35th overall after ending up sixth out of seven runners in heat 1 in 53.03 seconds.
Incheon Asiad gold medal winner and holder of the continental record, Ruth Jebet of Bahrain, clocked the best time in the heats, 9:12.62, while destroying the field in heat 1. Sofia Assefa of Ethiopia (9:18.75) and Gesa Felicitas Krause of Germany (9:19.70) stood behind Jebet in second and third positions to be automatic qualifiers.
In heat 2, Lalita was upstaged by Beatrice Chepkoech of Kenya (9:17.55), Emma Coburn of USA (9:18.12) and Habiba Ghribi of Tunisia (9:18.71), all of whom ended up as automatic qualifiers.