Can We Please Take a Moment to Cheer for Hima Das?

Sports

Can We Please Take a Moment to Cheer for Hima Das?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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ays after Saturday’s super-eventful second leg of the Ashes Test at Lord’s, and the Premier League’s controversial 2-2 draw between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspurs, the shock for sports fans is just about wearing off. After flooring Aussie batsmen Steve Smith with a bouncer to the neck, causing him to have a delayed concussion, English bowler Jofra Archer was seen laughing, leading to outrage from cricket fans. Smith retired hurt on 80, failing to make a ton for the first time in the series, while Archer has since clarified his apparent smirk and expressed concern for Smith’s condition. But even as this sporting drama was unfolding, the Premier League saw its own plot twist. Champions Man City were tied with the Hotspurs when they managed to score a last-minute injury-time goal — only to cut their celebrations short. The goal was ruled a handball because the VAR caught a glimpse of the ball brushing a player’s arm in the buildup, and subsequently disqualified. 

It’s not surprising that emotions of football and cricket fans alike are running high. The debates on whether Test batsmen should wear compulsory neck guards, and the legitimacy of the Premier League’s strict new handball rules have raged on for the past couple of days. 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. The 19-year-old Assamese track star has quietly picked up six gold medals since in as many weeks during a round of international athletics events in Eastern Europe.

On July 2, when Team India was beating Bangladesh in the ICC World Cup, 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. Das went on to win 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. She picked up a second 400m gold at another Czech meet. Yesterday, she clinched the 300m gold at Athleticky Mitink Reiter, also in the Czech Republic. 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. Last month, 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.

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Still a teenager, Das already looks like she’s racing towards the Tokyo Olympics next year.

KALLE PARKKINEN/AFP/Getty Images

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 someone who had no idea what the Commonwealth Games were until a few years ago, Das has come a long long way. 

Das trained on a muddy turf often without proper shoes, before bagging her first medal – a bronze at a state meet in Guwahati.

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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