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Asian Athletics Championships 2019: Clumsy baton exchanges during relay events prove costly for Indian teams

Doha: The tryst with gold at the 23rd Asian Athletics Championships in Doha remained a dream for Indians on Tuesday. Heptathlete Swapna Barman, seeking a hat-trick of Asian crowns, lost to a better performing rival from Uzbekistan while Sanjivani Jadhav ran at her own pace to win bronze in the women’s 10,000m with a personal best.

Yet, it was the 4x400m mixed relay team which had the best chance to add to India’s two gold medals so far. It went close but could not transform many months of preparation to performance on the track. Its silver was good but it could have made it a gold medal-winning effort with just a slight improvement in baton exchange.

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(Images courtesy: G Rajaraman)

In fact, there were two baton exchanges that would have drawn the attention of the Indian coaches. One happened to a squad that came together only recently and the other to a bunch that has trained together for many moons now. The first denied India a crack at the women’s 4x100m bronze and the other prevented it from having a chance to upstage Bahrain in the 1,600m mixed relay.

In the 4x100m, the final exchange between Kunnath Ranga and Dutee Chand was not the smoothest. India’s premier woman sprinter may have lost a few precious moments when she turned to see where her teammate was and even a blistering run on the anchor leg could not help India move to the podium. But that is a team that came together less than a month ago.

Curiously, the baton exchange became critical even in the 4x400m relay. The coach, backed by the Athletics Federation of India, decided that the relay team would comprise only those who are part of the camp being run by coach Galina Bukharina. The clumsy final baton exchange in the mixed relay will stick in memory for some time.

For a team that is aspiring to make a mark in the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year and one that has trained together for months in Turkey, you would have expected it to get the basics right. It must be said that the team has the basic speed to be the best in Asia but it needs to chip off those crucial moments wasted during a baton exchange.

You can see that Vismaya’s work ethic and commitment has won coach Bukharina’s heart. Back in the Asian Games, the coach had entrusted her with the task of running the anchor leg in the women’s 4x400m. Fielded in the mixed relay here owing to the absence of Hima Das (out due to a back injury), she was presented with the task of running the same leg as Salwa Naser yet again.

In Jakarta last year, Hima Das, MR Poovamma and Saritaben Gayakwad had opened up a comfortable lead over the Bahrain women and gave Vismaya the chance to run home without having Salwa Naser breathing down her neck. In the Khalifa Stadium on Tuesday night, she did not have the luxury of such an advantage and picked up some experience that she is unlikely to forget.

While she waited for Muhammed Anas Yahiya to complete the opening leg and for MR Poovamma to consolidate the lead, the young Indian spent time on the sidelines in close proximity to the champion from Bahrain. From the distance, it looked like she could get overawed by the redoubtable Naser.

Yet, there were only confident strides when she started running after receiving the baton from her senior teammate. She would have expected Naser to quickly bridge the gap, but she did well to not let the Bahrain running machine — who was taking part in her third event of the evening after the 200m heats and the 4x100m relay final — get away to a big lead.

 Asian Athletics Championships 2019: Clumsy baton exchanges during relay events prove costly for Indian teams

India mixed relay team poses with their medals. Image courtesy: G Rajaraman

The manner in which she stayed abreast of Naser, who blazed the track for 51.14 seconds, should give her confidence that she can be a consistent and dependable quarter-miler for India for some time to come. She did not give up after the Bahrain ace caught up with her on the first bend. The 52.67 seconds that Vismaya was credited with was the second fastest in the third leg.

The 21-year-old from Kothamangalam in Kerala has reasons to look back and see that there is room for improvement with the baton exchange. Arokia Rajiv kept reaching out for the baton with his left hand and Vismaya was unable to get the placing right for the transition to be smooth. In a highly competitive scenario, these precious moments let Abbas Abubaker steal a march on India.

It is possible to imagine that while wearing the silver medals around their necks, the Indian quartet would have wondered, even if momentarily, if they could have occupied the highest place on the podium. The difference between seeing the Indian flag on a pole earmarked for the silver medallists and a move to the central pole was but 0.72 seconds — and a less than smooth baton exchange.

It is more possible that coach Bukharina, with her focus on the IAAF World Relay Championships in Yokohama and the IAAF World Championships in Doha later this year, will take the team back to the drawing board. With so much focus on getting to the Olympic Games by being in the top eight at the World Championships, there is clearly some work to do.

As for Vismaya, there is no doubt that she can be a long-serving athlete, a vital cog in the wheels of two 1,600m relay teams. However, it will be important for her to stay rooted and not be carried away by the attention she will draw and all the attendant issues that come with it as an impediment to athletic improvement.

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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2019 18:11:09 IST