AFI's policy on selection of Indian squad for global events has made route to Olympics tougher for athletes
It may have been easier for the Indians to pick up ranking points and be high enough in the charts to secure their entries in the Olympic Games than meeting the stiffer than before qualifying criteria.
The Athletics Federation of India, arguably the best run Olympic sports body in the country, has been managing track and field stars with an iron fist, herding them in national camps almost through the year. And why not, especially since the decision has produced results across age spectrums in the Asian level and made it aspire to make a dent at the global level too.
Of course, the emergence and consistent performance of a Neeraj Chopra has come as a huge boost. The arrival of Assam teenager Hima Das as a quarter-miler caught the fancy of the country’s sports fans last season. The depth among javelin throwers and quarter-milers has egged the Federation to believe it can make world-level breakthrough sooner than later.
Yet, in its quest for medals at the global level, AFI has clearly overlooked the possibility of nurturing the rise of some young athletes like long jumper M Sreeshankar and high jumper Tejaswin Shankar’s rise to the higher echelons. And it has used different routes in their respective case to increase their challenges in the run-up to the Olympic Games next year.
Excited at finding a jumper who could go past the 8.00m mark, AFI created a new outpost in Palakkad so that M Sreeshankar could find a balance between education and athletics. It posted Bedros Bedrossian to Palakkad to coach him and Neena Pinto. But, discovering that the district headquarters did not have much by way of facilities, the Romanian resigned and left the country.
It is Sreeshankar’s father, a former jumper S Murali, who has taken on the mantle of being the youngster’s coach. Even if the federation is not entirely convinced that Murali can take Sreeshankar to the next level, it has not disturbed the regime overmuch. In Tejaswin's case, it has done the reverse, claiming that it does not get updates from the athlete.
The top coaching hierarchy banks on athletes to provide it frequent inputs and has not built in checks and balances. If Sreeshankar cites a niggling heel injury and pulls out of the Federation Cup, it has to take his word. Yet, when he claimed he has recovered and sought to be picked in the Asian Championship, the coaching staff decided that it was best for him to focus on recovery.
The personal coach issue has rankled the federation in other cases, too.
AFI President Adille Sumariwalla revealed on Wednesday that javelin thrower Annu Rani’s inconsistent performances had more to do with her choice of coach. “She would not train with Uwe Hohn and insisted that she would remain with her personal coach,” he said. “It is only when she failed in the Asian Games in Jakarta that she came up to me and asked for a different coach.”
She threw 58.17m in the Inter-Railway Championship in Lucknow and found what many called a backdoor entry to the Asian Games in Jakarta. She had got to 54.32 in the National Inter-State Athletics Championships in Guwahati against a qualifying standard of over 59m. Quite expectedly, she flunked in the Asian Games, logging a best throw of 53.93m.
Annu started this season with a 57.88m performance in the opening Grand Prix in Patiala on 23 February and caused a sensation with a National Record distance of 62.34m in the Federation Cup at the same venue on 17 March. She did not compete in the three Grands Prix meets in New Delhi, Sangrur and Panchkula.
It was not as if she had a consistent series of throws in the Federation Cup. Her penultimate attempt helped her rewrite the National Record from 61.86m to 62.34m. She fouled her second throw and her other throws read 54.67m, 58.35m, 57.91m and 56.96m. when she set the mark in the Federation Cup two years earlier, she had two throws beyond 60m and one over 59.44m.
Not long after that, she managed a best throw of 57.32m in the Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneshwar and took bronze medal. In the IAAF World Athletics Championships in London in August that year, she managed her best overseas showing with 59.93m. So, was it really the coach or the athlete herself who could not produce consistent results?
A glance at the Indian squad named for the Asian Athletics Championships in Doha also suggests that the AFI coaches and selectors – and perhaps even those who administer them – are not fully aware that the ranking points can help the athletes in the quest to make the Olympic grade. “We do not want to send athletes for participation but to at least get to finals,” AFI President said.
Such top-level competitions add great weightage to the ranking points earned by the athletes. AFI does not appear to have spent enough time mulling over the implications of the rankings system and how its athletes, already making waves at the continental level, can use that to catapult their way to the higher levels of competition.
As senior colleague KP Mohan writes, IAAF has raised the bar for those seeking entry via the qualifying standards route to next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. It may have been easier for the Indians to pick up ranking points and be high enough in the charts to secure their entries in the Olympic Games than meeting the stiffer than before qualifying criteria.
The Asian Championship offers athletes the chance to log higher ranking points with even if they replicate their recent performances in the continental competition that is coming up Doha. That seems lost on the coaches and selectors. How else can anyone explain the absence of three of India’s top 10 male athletes from the squad?
Take, for example, Arpinder Singh. The decision that he would skip in the Asian Championship will mean that he will miss the opportunity of picking up crucial ranking points. A cursory look at the points that the triple jumper has been credited with will reveal that despite jumping 17.09m in the National Inter-State Athletics Championship, he picked up a total of 1189 ranking points.
Though his best jump in the Asian Games in Jakarta was 32cm shorter than what he managed two months earlier in Guwahati, he was awarded 1290 points for that effort in Jakarta, because the event itself was offering him 140 points as against a mere 15 for the National level competition. The Asian Championships ensure 120 such points to be added to the points for performance.
Individual sports are taking the lead because of the IOC framework that was introduced last November and went into effect in March placed all sports in charge of their own rules regarding testosterone.
Under World Athletics rules, transgender women have to show they have low testosterone levels for at least 12 months before competition.
Besides Shankar, the other four athletes are Asian Games gold medallist heptathlete Swapna Barman, marathon runners Srinu Bugatha and Anish Thapa, and Jilna MV for 4x100m relay event.