Sreeshankar vs Aldrin: A battle for the ages, a national record that only won a silver

Murali Sreeshankar and Jeswin Aldrin pose after conclusion of their long jump event. Jonathan Selvaraj

High drama at the Federation Cup event in Kozhikode today saw a new national record in the long jump - but that wasn't good enough to win gold. And the winning jump wasn't deemed a national record.

Murali Sreeshankar had set a new national record in long jump but it was Jeswin Aldrin who won gold in a contest that will go down as perhaps the most intense in domestic Indian track and field lore. Aldrin had the bigger jump of 8.37m - one centimeter more that Sreeshankar's best of 8.36m on the evening, but officials ruled that he had been aided by a tailwind that had gusted at 4.1 m/s. According to the rules of the IAAF only jumps recorded with a tailwind of less than 2.0 m/s are eligible to be counted as a record so Sreeshankar's mark despite being the (nominally) lower one will be the new national record since it was set with a wind assistance of 1.5m/s.

The two had pushed each other seemingly to the limits of their abilities as jumpers. Sreeshankar, as the reigning national record holder and a Tokyo Olympian, is the undisputed numero uno of the sport in India. He'd stamped his class with his very first jump of 8.16m which put him into a clear lead. Aldrin, a 20-year-old from Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu, has been expected to be Sreeshankar's challenger but only in a couple of years. His first jump of 8.01m suggested he would make the competition competitive but that there was still some way to go to jump with the big dog.

In his second jump of the competition, Aldrin turned all pre competition predictions on their head. He sprinted down the runway, found the board, flew through the air and landed close to the edge of the sand pit. 8.37m, the officials announced - the most ever achieved on Indian soil. Indeed it was Sreeshankar's national record of 8.26m that Aldrin had seemingly blown past. The mark was remarkable enough that officials didn't just accept the number given by a laser distance measurer but also chose to manually check the mark with a measuring tape which confirmed the extraordinary effort. Sreeshankar looked very likely to be losing his first domestic competition in over two years.

A few minutes later, it seemed like Sreeshankar had raised his own fist in celebration. He took off from well behind the board but landed about the same distance into the sand pit as Aldrin had done. His exhilaration of having seized back his record turned to dismay as the track officials announced his jump was just a centimeter shorter than Aldrin's at 8.36m. "The competition isn't over," yelled his father and coach Murali from the stands.

There would be further drama as officials announced that Aldrin's jump had a wind assistance of 4.01m and hence wouldn't be considered for a national record. Sreeshankar's mark, though a centimeter less, came with a tailwind of 1.5 m/s and was thus 'legal'. "It was just luck. The entire evening there was a lot of wind and I was just praying that the wind did not interfere with Sreeshankar's jump," Murali would say.

But as Sreeshankar's father had yelled from the stands, there didn't seem any guarantee that Aldrin would just be done with the competition just yet. Indeed in what can only be compared to two heavyweight prizefighters landing one heavy blow after the other, both Aldrin and Sreeshankar continued to land the big jumps. On each occasion, the officials kept a close eye on the wind meter which was playing as significant a role as any competitor on the field.

Aldrin followed up his 8.37m jump with 8.14m (which was also found to be wind aided by 2.20m). He then made another massive jump of 8.26m that would have equaled the old record. This would be his first 'legal' jump of the evening since it was done with a headwind of .6m/s. Aware that his young rival was completely capable of pushing past his own mark, Sreeshankar too strained with each jump. A foul in his fourth attempt was followed by a jump of 8.07m in his penultimate jump.

After conceding his fifth jump to conserve energy for his final attempt, Aldrin recorded 8.16m in his final attempt. The 8m mark is the gold standard in men's long jump. It's a mark Aldrin had grown up dreaming of doing once in his career. But on Sunday he was dishing them out on command. His battle with Sreeshankar for the top of the podium even overshadowed another remarkable achievement. Muhammad Anees Yahya who took bronze made a jump of 8.06m in his third attempt but was never really in the contest. Yet that performance meant that all three podium finishers recorded jumps of over 8m for the first time in Indian athletics history.

Once the competition over, Sreeshankar hugged Aldrin by the sand pit at the CH Muhammad Koya Stadium. "I couldn't have done it without you," Sreeshankar said with a grin to Aldrin.

It remains to be seen just how Sreeshankar and Aldrin maintain their high level. Sreeshankar's father at least thinks it's a sign of better things to come. "For so many years Sreeshankar was always having no one to push him. He was finishing half a meter ahead of the field. Now he has a very tough competitor. They will keep pushing themselves to do better and better," he said.