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March 30, 2022

India’s World Leader: Introducing Avinash Sable

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When India’s Neeraj Chopra surprised the world this summer with an Olympic gold medal in the javelin, the athletics community burst into rapturous celebration over the possibility of tapping into a market of 1.3 billion potential fans. Chopra immediately became a celebrity and has since amassed 5.7 million followers on Instagram — a level of popularity that is unheard of for anyone in the sport not named Usain Bolt, especially from a country that has only won one Olympic medal in athletics in 121 years.

Well there’s a new Indian star in the making — this time on the track.

Gopal Saini held India’s national record in the steeplechase of 8:30.88 for 37 years. And then Avinash Sable came along. Born in the Beed district of Maharashtra, a region known for villages so dry that those living there routinely go a day without water. Of all the events in the sport, there is poetic beauty to the one Sable’d eventually dip his toes into.

Sable only discovered running six years ago while serving in the Army. Since then, he has broken the steeplechase national record on seven occasions and also set the Indian half marathon record of 1:00:30. In 2020, he was India’s only distance runner to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. And although he finished just short of making the final, he set a personal best of 8:18.12.

Last Wednesday, at the India Grand Prix in Thiruvananthapuram, Avinash opened his season in the steeplechase winning by 20 seconds in a world-leading time of 8:16.21 — it was 87 degrees with a dew point of 75. Imagine what that converts to in Monaco!

Athletics is proud to call itself a global sport, and yet it seems every major meet is held in the United States or Europe. I’m not necessarily suggesting Thiruvananthapuram be upgraded to Diamond League status right away (although it’d be something to eventually aspire to). But of the 146 meets in the World Athletics Continental Tour, there isn’t one in India. If even just .01% of Neeraj Chopra’s Instagram followers show up to watch a home meet, then it will be about as packed as an average SEC football game.

The idea however is not to sell out one stadium one time because of Neeraj Chopra’s celebrity, but to capitalize on this chance at capturing the next generation. This isn’t just the case for India, either. When any nation has a budding star who transcends the sport and catapults their way into mainstream popular culture it becomes an opportunity. When athletics has the attention, then resources and investments need to be made to seize the moment, specifically emphasizing youth programs and outreach.

You know how the old saying goes: If you have a guy who can throw a javelin far, sell out one stadium. But if you teach millions of kids that throwing javelin is cool, then you’ll sell out stadiums for a lifetime.

This is why I am so excited about Avinash Sable — because maybe it doesn’t have to just be the javelin.

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