NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Hosts India celebrated dramatic Commonwealth Games breakthroughs on the athletics track and hockey pitch on Tuesday with rapturous applause from their delighted home fans.
Last week low attendances threatened to join the long list of problems that have blighted the Games. But Indians have gradually embraced their first major multi-sport event in nearly three decades and on Tuesday they were in full voice.
A day after discus thrower Krishna Poonia won India’s first athletics title in 52 years, some 55,000 fans roared the women’s 4x400 metres relay team to an unlikely victory at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium to end an equally long wait for a track gold.
“The crowd was amazing, their support gave us extra motivation,” Ashwini Akkunji, who ran the third leg, told reporters. “At the same time, I could feel some pressure as well. They would have gone home really upset had we returned empty-handed tonight.”
A packed house of nearly 20,000 had earlier shaken the rafters at the Major Dhyan Chand Stadium as the men’s hockey team came back from 3-1 down to beat England in a penalty shootout to reach the final and ensure a first medal in the national sport.
It was miserable day, though, for Nigeria with Osayemi Oludamola stripped of the women’s 100 gold after her B sample confirmed a positive test for a banned stimulant and Samuel Okon, a sprint hurdler, also disqualified for the same offence.
Alana Boyd won the women’s pole vault, which not only helped boost Australia’s gold medal tally to 68 but also gave her a share of family bragging rights with her father Ray, the 1982 pole vault champion, and mother Denise, the 1978 200 champion.
Indian shooters Annu Raj Singh and Heena Sidhu won the women’s 10 metres air pistol pairs to ensure the host nation a best Games gold medal tally with a 31st title in Delhi, beating the 30 the country won in Manchester in 2002.
The 32nd came completely unexpectedly in the women’s 4x400 on the last night of athletics, Mandeep Kaur taking the baton home to clinch India’s first track title since Milkha Singh’s 440 yards gold at what was then the Empire and Comonwealth Games in Cardiff in 1958.
England grabbed thrilling victories in both 4x100 races to stay in the hunt for second place on the medal table with 30 golds, Mark Lewis-Francis producing a magnificent final leg of power and pace to overhaul Jamaica and clinch the men’s title.
“It feels like it was some cricket match going on,” Indian javelin thrower Kashinath Naik said of the crowd. “I hope the audience will support us in the same manner every time.”
Oludamola was awarded gold in controversial circumstances when Australian Sally Pearson was disqualified for a false start three hours after crossing the line.
Natasha Mayers of St Vincent and the Grenadines, who crossed the line third in the blue riband sprint, will now be awarded the gold. Mayers herself served a two-year doping ban after testing positive for testosterone in 2005.
On a last night of athletics thrills, Kenyans again provided a touch of class with world leader Silas Kiplagat winning the 1,500 in three minutes 41.78 seconds and world champion Vivian Cheruiyot cruising to the womens’ 5,000m in 15:55.12.
The Delhi athletics competition was seriously weakened by withdrawals of big names, some like world and Olympic champion sprinter Usain Bolt because of scheduling problems, others because of health or security concerns.
Poonia, who had expressed her hope that her discus gold on Monday would wipe away the problems of the games, lashed out at the latter.
“Security concerns are everywhere and India is a very big country. I did not like it when they blamed our country for withdrawing from the event,” she said.
“We also love our life. They would have been our guests and we would have taken more care of them than ourselves.”
Out at Delhi University, the New Zealand rugby sevens team, their bare torsos adorned only by their gold medals and a kaleidoscope of tattoos, performed a celebratory haka after beating Australia 24-17 to win a fourth successive gold medal.
Boxing takes centre stage on the penultimate day of the Games on Wednesday with medals in diving, shooting and cycling also up for grabs.
Editing by John Mehaffey; To query or comment on this story email email@example.com