India's female athletes appear to have a better chance of success than their male counterparts at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Steeplechasers Lalita Babar and Sudha Singh especially have the best chance of making the final. Trained by the no-nonsense, tough-talking, taskmaster from Belarus, Nikolai Snesarev, these two have come into international reckoning during the past two years.
Both, or at least one, should be fancied to make the finals. The big question would be, are they capable of winning a medal? Sprint queen of yesteryears PT Usha, and Anju George have rated Babar and Sudha highly. They have opined that both Sudha and Babar may be able to enter the final. Since Usha did that in the 400m hurdles in the Los Angeles Games in 1984, no Indian athlete, male or female, has made a track final.
However, a medal is something that no one wants to discuss. Off the record, many of the coaches are frank in admitting that there could be no medal in sight.
Sudha (9:26.55 national record) and Babar (9:27.09) are 17th and 18th in this year's lists headed by Bahrain’s Kenya-born Ruth Jebet at 8:59.97. Jebet's winning time in the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene in May was only the second sub-nine in history, behind the world record of 8:58.81 clocked by Russian Gulnara Galkina in winning the inaugural Olympic title in the event in Beijing 2008.
Interestingly, both Sudha and Babar have not competed in any meet for nearly three months. Babar had slumped to a 13th place finish in Shanghai in May, in 9:43.30.
The women's 4x400m relay team is not far off its male counterpart in terms of the catching up to do. It qualified as the 12th ranked team among 16 and is the 10th best in terms of timings with its best for this season or last year 3:27.88 at Bangalore.
The US clocked 3:19.39 in winning the world relays last year, while Jamaica timed 3:19.13 in taking the gold in the Beijing worlds. The US won the Olympic title in London clocking 3:16.87, more than 10 seconds better than the Indian national record of 3:26.89 that the quartet led by Manjeet Kaur clocked in making the 2004 Olympics final in Athens.
The composition of the Indian women's relay team could come in for debate if Nirmala Sheoran, who clocked an amazing 51.48s in the 400m flat in Hyderabad, is entered and fares below par. The other members of the team will be Anilda Thomas, MR Poovamma and Tintu Luka, unless the last-named is unavailable because of her pre-occupation with the 800m.
Luka will have a trying time to make it to the 800m final, in view of the astounding form of Caster Semenya of South Africa, who is as good as a champion even before the race has begun, and a few other cases of hyperandrogenism athletes. Reports have mentioned that as many as three or four such athletes could be competing in the women's 800m in Rio.
It is a big blow for aspirants like Luka that the struggle for a place in final may eventually be futile. The ruling of CAS last year in the Dutee Chand hyperandrogenism case has reportedly benefited Semenya and a few other athletes who could be figuring high in the Rio placings.
Woman throwers Seema Antil (discus) and Manpreet Kaur (shot put) have been training abroad for a few months now and one is not sure where they stand in the Rio race.
Both crossed the qualification standards early. Seema by reaching a distance of 62.62m in the US in May this year eventually figured 21st among the qualifiers though she was hoping that this, her third, would be her best ever Olympic outing.
The slight hiccup in Seema’s preparations came when news trickled out that she had run into ‘whereabouts’ filing issues with the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) and the position was further aggravated when she went to Russia for the final stages of her training. How she managed to go to a country which was at the centre of a doping scandal, and which was one among the countries the Government told the federations to avoid, will remain a mystery.
The top six women led by defending Olympic champion Sandra Perkovic of Croatia (70.88m) have crossed 66.00m this season. Seema was close to making the final 12 last time but later, following a doping disqualification, managed to get into the top-12 bracket.
Manpreet who had been training in Poland has not competed since February this year. Her current form is thus unknown to everyone including the selectors though she has stated that she also was aiming for a medal.
With a national record of 17.96m in Kolkata last year Manpreet had qualified for Rio. She had a 17.94 in the South Asian Games in Guwahati in February but in the same month threw 15.21 in the Asian Indoors in Doha. Manpreet has been quoted as saying that she had been doing 19.00m in training and she would be aiming for a medal in Rio. Till 2014 her best was 16.39m.
The phenomenal rise of Dutee Chand this season also came into focus as the Indian athletes slugged it out in foreign land to attain Rio standards. The Odisha girl who won the hyperandrogenism case in CAS has been hitting the headlines across the world for the past year and her qualification to the Olympics with a sensational 11.30s in the 100m heats in Almaty and another 11.24s in the final (qualification mark 11.32s) both on June 25, brought her again to the centre-stage in the international media.
From 11.62s in 2013, Dutee had not improved her timing in the short dash but this year though it could be argued that she was not able to compete because of the IAAF ban. Yet, she did run the 100m in six meets prior to Almaty this season and in seven meets last year.
The improvement shown by Srabani Nanda, India’s entry in the 200m, also has been remarkable. The Odisha girl jumped from 23.54s last year to 23.43, 23.36, 23.34 and 23.07 this season. Dutee and Srabani may find the going tough in Rio considering the prevailing standards in sprints. Dutee is at 42nd among the 100m qualifiers while Srabani is at 52nd in the 200m.
Quite a number of Indian athletes in road events have made it to Rio this time, notably O. P. Jaisha in women’s marathon who could be hoping to repeat her World Championships feat of coming within the top 20.
A top-20 finish for the Indian marathoners and race-walkers in either section should be considered creditable and if it comes with a national record that would be icing on the cake. Late Shivnath Singh’s 11th place finish in the men’s marathon in 1976 has not been bettered by an Indian so far.
India has always been aiming to leapfrog into the global stage without having the resources to achieve such standings in the past though it has impressive all-round strength across events. This time too what is being projected could well be the chimera that keeps coming up in Indian athletics from time to time.