Rohit Mahajan in Hangzhou
The bewilderment on the face of Jyothi Yarraji, as an official approached her and red-carded her for the women’s 100m hurdles final, signified agony. Her dream of a medal had vanished, and for no fault of her, she believed.
“I didn’t do a false start,” she said later. “I had to fight for what was right.”
The race had a false start, but not prompted by Jyothi — China’s Wu Yanni had jumped the gun, so she was disqualified. But an official then walked up to Jyothi and told her that she was out, too — she was in the next lane to Yanni’s, and had possibly reacted to the Chinese’s runner’s trigger movement.
After intense drama, during which the packed Olympic Park stadium buzzed with excitement and support for the home runner, both were allowed to run, subject to a review.
The rule is that if a runner makes a false start, only she/he is to be disqualified, because “when one or more athletes make a false start, others are inclined to follow and ... any athlete who does so has also made a false start. The starter should warn or disqualify only such athlete or athletes who, in their opinion, were responsible for the false start”. Such are the rules, but they were not followed strictly, and Jyothi was shown the red flag.
India immediately protested, and the sum of $100 that had to be offered as a fee for the purpose was readily proffered. The race resumed, with both Jyothi and Yanni back in it. This time, her mind in a whirl, as she admitted later, Jyothi’s start was slower than ideal. A 100m hurdles race starts and ends in a blur, but in the few tens of ‘middle’ metres of this burst, Jyothi made up for the poor start and finished third behind two Chinese runners, Lin Yuwei and Yanni. Bronze for Jyothi, then, but the Indian camp was upset because Yanni had clearly false-started. “Jyoti Yarraji was robbed in front of 80,000 people today!” high-jumper Tejaswin Shankar wrote on social media.
“Yanni, nice girl, was ready to move away,” said an indignant Anju Bobby George, the former long-jumper, as she explained why Yanni should have been disqualified, but not Jyothi. “Jyothi’s hands were on the ground, and she was still on the blocks when Yanni was off!” In such a scenario, only the false-starter, who may have triggered the others to follow her, should have been disqualified, she said.
The review process, meanwhile, continued, and Yanni was disqualified and Jyothi elevated to second, India’s final silver of the night.
By the time Jyothi held her press conference, she had got a silver, and thus was composed and gracious and thankful. But before that, immediately after finishing the race, she had been distraught. “It’s completely messy for me. I broke down… I was completely down and upset to suddenly see a red flag for me. I didn’t do a false start,” she said.
Among the media, there was some nationalist feeling; the Indians felt that she had been hard done by as part of a ‘plot’ to unsettle her; in the media conference, a Chinese journalist sought to know why she had lodged a protest. “I should stand up for what is right,” she said.
Adille Sumariwalla, AFI president and World Athletics official, said such things “should not happen in future”. “Controversy, what controversy,” he said. “Such things happen!”
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