If one were to go solely by the medal count, the Indian performance in the just-concluded Asian Athletics Championships in Doha was satisfactory. If, on the other hand, you were to look at the long-term prospects of Indian athletics or the expectations raised in the post-Asian Games phase, it was not.
A haul of 17 medals including three gold looks impressive. Comparing it with the 29 medals including 12 gold in the 2017 edition of the championships would be futile since that happened to be at home and it was achieved from a much weaker field. Bahrain, with its African 'imports' which topped the medals tally this time, just a gold (11-10) ahead of China, was absent in Bhubaneswar.
The total came close to chief coach Bahadur Singh's prediction of 20 medals. Obviously, Bahadur is a contented man. But, looking ahead he has enough reasons to be worried if he is in the habit of looking beyond the Asian continent.
Despite the talk of Indian athletics having reached world standards and not being satisfied with success at the Asian level, eventually when an Asian-level championship gets over, everyone including the media counts medals, invariably ignoring the standards achieved. There is a 'comfort' factor that no one wants to give up in the flush of "success".
The Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games was an example. Seven gold medals happened to be well above India's expectations. Not unexpectedly, there was talk of the 2020 Olympic Games and India's medal chances. The Doha Asian championships was one important pit-stop towards reaching that Tokyo goal. Next would be the World Championships at the same venue in September. The number of medals won in the Asian meet would not count towards the Olympic qualification or the eventual goal of medal or medals, performances will.
There were encouraging performances by several athletes, not just the medal winners, in Doha. The personal bests by Murli Kumar Gavit (5000m, 1000m), Parul Choudhary (5000m, 3000m steeplechase) and Dutee Chand (100m) were among them. From an Olympics perspective, these events are of little significance for India. They would have been had India's goal, as in the past, had been going through one round in a track event or making the semi-finals or finals. That sort of achievement is no longer the aim, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has repeatedly stressed in recent months.
While lauding the efforts of all the medal winners and all those who put up their best, we should once again assess the weight of the Indian performances, vis-à-vis international standards and AFI's expectations for the Olympics next year.
4x400m relay teams disappoint
Apart from javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, who was unfortunately not able to make the trip to Doha because of an elbow injury that should be worrying all the authorities concerned, not to speak of the athlete himself, the main focus in AFI's "Olympic medals" campaign for Tokyo had been the 4x400m relays.
Till the Rio Olympics, it was solely the women's 4x400m relay team that was being projected as a possible medal contender. In Rio, both men and women's team were supposed to be among the front-runners with the men's coach even suggesting that the team could clock a sub-3:00 and telling a publication that it timed 2:56.7 in training! In the event, the men's team was disqualified in the heats while the women finished seventh in the heats and went out.
With the advent of the mixed relay, the AFI turned its attention towards that event also. Rightly so, for, not many teams can have equally good male and female 400m runners and there was always a chance of making it to the final if not winning a medal.
In both Asian Games and the Asian championships, the AFI targeted gold medals in all the 4x400m relays. Asian Games brought just one, the women's relay. Asian Championships provided none. Worse, the men finished without a medal as the team was disqualified after taking the silver behind Japan.
So, back to the drawing board again. Training at foreign locations does not seem to help the 4x400 teams much. Last year it was Spala, Poland and Jablonec, Czech Republic, before the Asian Games. This time a 79-day camp at Antalya, Turkey seems to have flopped.
Coach Galina Bukharova will need to come up with something totally new in terms of preparing the 400m runners for the immediate task of World Relays in Yokohama in May which will be the basis for World Championships qualification (top 10 for all except mixed where top 12 will go through) and the World Championships which will be one of the qualifying routes for the Olympic Games.
By the time the domestic meets began early this season, keeping in mind the April schedule of the Asian Championships, Hima Das, the country's top woman quarter-miler, was back to a poor 55-second form. It was explained that she had taken a break from training and Bukharova even told some media persons that she might need two years to get back into her top form. She, however, clocked 52.88s in the Fed Cup to allay such apprehensions.
Little did we realize at that time that she was probably not completely cured of her back trouble which had bothered her in the Asian Games last year. She held her back as she dropped down and walked off the track in the preliminary round of the 400m in Doha where MR Poovamma was to take a bronze eventually.
With Das missing from the relay line-ups, India's chances for gold suddenly became bleak. But hope was there given the fact that Bahrain, Asian Games winner in men's and mixed relays, was without Kemi Adekoya, their second best runner, out on a provisional suspension for doping. Eventually, the Indian women's and mixed relay teams took the silver behind Bahrain for which Salwa Eid Naser ran an incredible anchor in the women's event, bridging a gap of around 20 metres from VK Vismaya and logging a lap time of 49.70s. Bahrain (3:32.10) beat India (3:32.21) to avenge its Asian Games defeat.
Added to the Indian woes was the last-minute pull-out of Jisna Mathew who was initially placed fourth in the list but relegated to fifth — a move that prompted coach PT Usha to seek withdrawal of her ward. Usha said that Jisna was being discriminated against for no reason since the foreign coach wanted only her trainees to form the relay team, an arrangement which also seemed to have the approval of the federation.
Incidentally, Naser won four gold medals, the two longer relays, the 200m and 400m, and a bronze in the 4x100m relay. She clocked 22.74s, a championship record in the 200m and 51.34s in the 400m where she was the World No 2 last year with a time of 49.08s.
Considering that April was too early for everyone, especially for those on the track, one cannot correctly assess the form of the Indian quarter-milers after their prolonged stint in Turkey. But if the runners are still clocking in the 52-second-plus range in the relays (which could come to 53-s-plus in the individual race), the stagnation levels are all too apparent. Will they peak during the rest of the months left for the World Championships?
The men also seem to be sailing in the same boat. Except for Arokia Rajiv who finished a gallant fourth in the individual event in a personal best 45.27s, no other runner seemed to have improved. KS Jeevan was credited with a 44.7s leg in the relay but his season best was 46.48. National record holder Muhammed Anas who scorched the Indian and European tracks in 2016 and 2018, was nowhere near his best, possibly because of an injury and rehabilitation that seemed to have occupied much of his foreign training period.
Toor, Marimuthu and Chitra impress
Back to individual Indian gold medal winners. The top performance came from shot putter Tejinder Pal Singh Toor, with an opening throw of 20.22m that was more than good enough for the gold. His world ranking of 26, if he is able to retain right up to the Olympics, might help him qualify for Tokyo. Being the Asian champion, he is assured of automatic entry to the World Championships where too a good performance will help him towards qualification for the Olympics. The Olympics entry standard is a stiff 21.10m.
Gomathi Marimuthu brought off a surprise gold for India in the 800m. The 30-year-old Tamil Nadu woman has improved from 2:04.89, timed while finishing fourth in the 2015 Asian championships in Wuhan, China, to 2:03.21 in winning the Fed Cup in Patiala in March to the present 2:02.70, the golden personal best mark that surprised the field in Doha which included the two-time Asian Games champion Margarita Mukahseva of Kazakhstan and defending champion Wang Chunyu of China.
Gomathi's PB might not measure up to world standards. With a ranking of 92 at present, she is also unlikely to be able to aim for Olympic qualification. The World championships entry standard is 2:00.60 while that for the Olympics 1:59.50. Gomathi was among those asked to go through a confirmatory trial at Patiala before final selection since she was one of those who had trained "outside the camp" and thus, according to AFI's assessment, less subject to dope-testing.
PU Chithra was omitted from the World championships squad last time despite winning the Asian title in Bhubaneswar. That step by the AFI created a huge furore and the athlete took the federation to court. Time ran out since entries had closed and Chithra remained at home. Since then Chithra had been aiming to show her true potential and determination.
She could manage only the bronze in the Asian Games last year but the Doha winning time of 4:14.56 was well within her capacity. She has a PB of 4:11.55 clocked in the inter-State at Guwahati last year. That happened to be the 151st in the season lists. It is pointless to look up current standings since the season is yet to start for a majority of the international runners. Often one will find Indians within the world top-10 in certain events which should not mean anything.
Javelin thrower Shivpal Singh is, in fact, No 2 in the world lists this season with his 86.23m for silver behind Taipei's Cheng Chao-Tsun (86.72m), who lived up to his stature as the only Asian to have crossed 90.0m with his world-leading golden effort. But, wait for the season to unfold; all the 90-plus throwers, especially those unrelenting Germans, would be waiting for the World championships to arrive.
Shivpal's silver was a huge surprise. Someone on Twitter called it a 'shock' which it was. From where did he pull out that one? Until then, he has had three results over 81.0m, his best till then being 82.56m to win in the Fed Cup last month in the absence of Neeraj Chopra. He had an injury in the Asian Games where he managed only 74.11m.
Metric miler Ajay Kumar Saroj, defending his title, turned in a sparkling finish to grab the silver from better-rated rivals, steeplechaser Avinash Sable showed that his national-record breaking streak was no fluke with a second place finish. Woman javelin thrower Annu Rani finally lived up to her billing with a 60.22m effort behind Chinese continental record holder Lu Huihui (65.83m) and heptathlete Swapna Barman (5993) ran Uzbek Ekaterina Voronina (6198) close till the sixth event, javelin, to account for the other silver medals.
Dutee Chand compensated somewhat for her disappointing fifth place (11.44s) in the 100m (in earlier rounds she clocked national record of 11.28s and 11.26s) with a bronze in the 200m (23.24s), while Parul Choudhary (5000m), Gavit (10,000m), Sanjivani Jadhav (10,000m), MP Jabir (400m hurdles) and Saritaben Gayakwad (400m hurdles) swelled the bronze collection.
Kang, Chithravel's performances raise questions on AFI's "confirmatory trials"
Indian javelin throwers, barring Chopra, have not been consistent through these past five-six years. One good example was Davinder Singh Kang, who was pushed into the present team as a last-minute replacement for Chopra, as the winner of the javelin National (74.28m) though there were three others above him in the Fed Cup.
Kang, a finalist in the 2017 World championships, finished 10th at Doha with 71.58m. AFI will have some explaining to do how Kang, triple jumper Praveen Chithravel, who could not clear even 15 metres in the 'confirmatory trials' and many others were finally cleared for participation without the knowledge of the selection committee. Their failures should not be swept under the medal haul which will now be crowed about. Chithravel ended up with a 'no mark' against his name in the final after having done 15.66m in the qualification round. He had touched 16.51m to qualify for the Asians.
Injuries hampered India even before the championships. Apart from Chopra, Asian Games 800m champion Manjit Singh was out due to injury while long jumper M Sreeshankar, also nursing an injury, was not considered for selection. At Doha, India suffered more jolts when Jinson Johnson pulled up in the 800m final towards the home bend with a calf injury. He did not start in the 1500m.
Qatar was without its redoubtable 400m runner Abdalelah Haroun which showed in the 4x400m relay. But there were others who performed at a high level to make it a successful championship.
World champion high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim, expected to return after surgery last year, did not make it but performances in many events were of a high standard. There were 13 championship records (including 65.95m in the discus for his sixth Asian title for 34-year-old Iranian Ehsan Hadadi) as against two in the last edition, eight world leaders as against none in Bhubaneswar, 30 Asian leaders as against four in Bhubaneswar and 38 national records as against 15 last time.
Did someone say April was too early to start an athletics season? Aberrahman Samba will differ surely. He clocked an awe-inspiring 47.51s in taking the 400m hurdles gold, the fastest ever April timing in the world!
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Updated Date: Apr 27, 2019 09:31:07 IST