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Asian Championships could be critical for Indian athletes in run up to World Championships, Tokyo Olympics

Early-season performances in athletics are never clear pointers to the form an athlete can reach towards the climax of the season. This year the climax will be the World Championships in Doha in September. That will provide the finale to the year for a large majority of the athletes around the world. Being just a year ahead of the Olympics with a revised qualification system for Tokyo 2020 there is added enthusiasm to strike top form among the athletes.

 Asian Championships could be critical for Indian athletes in run up to World Championships, Tokyo Olympics

Triple jumper Arpinder Singh has said that he does not have the Asian Championships on his mind when he and his coach drew up the year’s schedule. AP Photo

Understandably, there is this “I-am-looking-forward-to-World-Championships” theme even among the Indian athletes. Barring javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, who continues to maintain his world ranking of No 4 despite not having opened his competition programme this season, there is hardly anyone else who can look beyond making the final in the World Championships. That, too, within a very limited group of athletes. Yet, optimism is not lacking. It has never been lacking the past few years in Indian athletics.

But we should turn towards reality and more achievable targets, and that would point towards the Asian Championships, also to be held in Doha, from 21 to 24 April. That may provide the stepping stone to the World Championships for a few Indian athletes since a victory there will mean an automatic entry into the Worlds in September.

India already has clinched some qualification spots for the World Championships, three male racewalkers, KT Irfan, K Ganapathi and Devinder Singh; hurdler Ayyasamy Dharun, steeplechaser Avinash Sable and woman javelin thrower Annu Rani. Marathon runners T Gopi, Nitendra Singh and Sudha Singh have also made the cut. If one goes by last year’s performance, long jumper M Sreeshankar has also made it. He was missing in the recent Federation Cup championships because of injury.

In the last edition of the Asian Championships at Bhubaneswar, India had topped the medals tally with 29 medals including 12 golds. Home advantage was of much relevance for India amassing medals, even though it must be admitted the field was mediocre.

India, however, re-asserted its rising stature in Asian athletics with a stand-out performance in last year’s Asian Games, winning 19 medals, seven of them gold. How to maintain that kind of supremacy in Doha will matter towards World Championships qualification for more athletes and, from a long-term perspective, qualification for Tokyo Olympics.

Just as one was writing this piece came the tweet from Tejaswin Shankar that he was disappointed to be left out of the squad for the Asians despite making the ‘cut’ not once but twice in indoor meets.

The US-based collegiate high jumper has been on a roll since last year, taking his national record up to 2.29m, his indoor record up to 2.28m (equaling it this year) and being praised all around. Only AFI seemed to have missed the point or else it wanted to show that there could be no concessions to anyone except for Neeraj Chopra.

Just 20, Shankar, NCAA champion in 2018, is the brightest hope for future in Indian athletics along with Neeraj and Sreeshankar. The Asian Championships could have provided him with the best opportunity to qualify for the World Championships and if he failed in that, he might have benefited immensely by getting a good mark even for a placing outside the podium.

Shocking comments have been attributed to AFI president Adille Sumariwalla as he responded to questions about Shankar’s exclusion at a press conference in New Delhi where he announced the team for the Asian Championships. That Shankar was an outstanding young talent seemed to have been forgotten as Sumariwalla went about the task of belittling his achievements and what best he could achieve in future. Hopefully, Shankar should bounce back from this unfortunate episode of a Twitter spat with the federation boss. Instead of being demoralised he should aim ahead determined to show that he can fulfil his promise.

The comment by the AFI chief that he doesn’t think Shankar will get a medal in Doha betrayed a lack of understanding of the situation.

It is not just a medal alone that can matter to a rising star like Shankar but the opportunity to test himself on a higher stage and, if possible, win a medal that can truly launch his drive towards the Olympics, if not the next at least the one in 2024. The Asian meet would also have helped him garner points towards his world ranking which currently stands at 143. In the context of ranking the Asian Championships should figure high for an Indian athlete. For, the placing points are high, and they remain with you till the next continental meet.

Let us find out what can happen to even a fourth-place finish for a high jumper in the Asian Championships, let’s say with a mark of 2.28m that Shankar has achieved this season indoors. That performance is worth 1,161 points on the IAAF scoring tables. For his Big 12 championship performance (first) he received 15 placing score. In Asian Championships, that would be worth 170 points.

A difference of 100-plus points can help an athlete jump 10 to 12 places in the rankings and that can make a big difference in the qualification bid for Olympics.

This example has been given here only to show how important the Asian Championships are from a ranking perspective especially for Indians who otherwise get little opportunity to participate in high-ranking events.

What you earn as placing score of 60 for a fourth place in a national championship will be doubled if it is an Asian Championship. The Asian Championship points will remain till the next championships are held, meaning the one-year restriction on ‘best five performances’ of an athlete in a 12-month period will not apply to continental championships.

This is what triple jumper Arpinder Singh should have been thinking of when he planned for the year 2019. After jumping just 16.34m for fourth place in the Fed Cup he is reported to have told the media that he and his coach did not have the Asian Championships on their minds when they drew up the year’s schedule. They were solely concentrating on the World Championships.

Arpinder is currently ranked 12th in the world, quite high for someone whose best at a major meet had come last year when he won the Asian Games gold. A mark of 16.95m is the challenge he has to earn a berth in the World Championships. For the Olympics it is a daunting 17.14m. Arpinder, who has crossed 17m twice in his career, has his task cut out. He, of course, has higher ambitions than mere qualification to these big championships.

The Punjab jumper would have been better off at least with his rankings had he qualified first for the Asian Championships and then secured a decent place there. He had finished fourth in the Bhubaneswar edition with just 16.33m but that was good enough for a performance score of 1,198 including a placing score of 120. That will drop off once the Doha edition of the Asian Championships is held.

It is not in denying him a chance at direct qualification for the Worlds that Arpinder has erred in taking the Fed Cup lightly but in depriving himself of a chance to earn precious placing score even for a placing outside the medals bracket in the Asians. Those scores might yet prove crucial for his Olympic aspirations.

One is not sure whether athletes have been briefed properly by the AFI about the ramifications of the points system and rankings before the season started. Unlike what has been planned earlier, the IAAF has relented and said that the Olympic qualification would be dependent on a mix of rankings and qualifying standards. Previously it was thought that to a large extent, rankings alone would matter.

In providing this concession, the IAAF has raised the qualification standards beyond the reach of average athletes in most of the events, for example 21.10m in men’s shot put and 85.00m in men’s javelin; 6.82m in women’s long jump and 6,420 points in heptathlon.

Athletes have to aim for these marks beginning from May this year. They have to plan ahead and work out the best competitions that they can get into during the Olympic year in order to amass ranking points. The easier way now looks rankings-based qualification rather than entry standards. There is still a chance of national federations colluding with athletes and producing one stunning performance at home in time for Olympic qualification as had happened in many countries, India included, in 2016. This is what the IAAF is precisely trying to prevent through its revised qualification system but human ingenuity is such that the best of plans laid out by a federation could be overcome with just one effort.

Coming back to Indian performances this season, through four Indian Grand Prix meets and the Federation Cup, it could be noted that the athletes initially struggled with the early-season dip in levels of performance but perked up considerably in time for the final selection trials for the Asians.

Of some discussion and surprise were the lack of form shown by all the quarter-milers, especially by the two top runners of the previous season, Hima Das and Muhammed Anas. They had set the tracks on fire, as it were, last year but looked to make laborious progress through the finishing straight this time. In fact, Hima collapsed at the end of 52.88s lap in the Fed Cup final and seemed breathless, in contrast to her clapping, smiling self of 2018 even after running some incredible sub-52 timings culminating in that awesome 50.79s in the Asian Games final.

The same was the story of Anas. He had looked capable of running an additional 100 metres or more in almost every race last year, but this time he finished like anyone else, gasping for breath, holding his waist or knee at the end even something as routine as 46-second-plus.

What benefits did the Indian athletes accrue from a 79-day stint in Turkey at the height of winter, assisted by a battery of coaches headed by Russian Galina Bukharina, with plenty of Government support in terms of equipment, diet and any other facility? That is a question that the Sports Authority of India (SAI) has to ask itself and the AFI.

There were a few national records that attracted attention, none more than javelin thrower Annu Rani’s 62.34 metres in Fed Cup. She proved a disappointment last year when she was brought in through the backdoor into the team, finishing sixth with 53.93m. She has crossed 60.00m thrice in her career now, once each in 2016, 2017 and 2019.

Avinash Sable in steeplechase was another one with a notable national record of 8:28.94 that helped him book his ticket for World Championships. He has now bettered Gopal Saini’s national mark twice over. Last year he had timed 8:29.80 in the Open Championships. Saini had clocked 8:30.88 in finishing second in the Asian meet in Tokyo in 1981. Sable, an Armyman, has said he would aim for higher honours and unless he does that, these records would be of no great value.

Ayyasamy Dharun also has been regularly updating his national record in 400m hurdles and he did that once again, rather effortlessly clocking 48.80s that was not just good enough for Asians but also for the Worlds.

The 400m runners have not shown any great form, though early season handicap could be pointed out for such a performance. The jostling from now on would be for spots in the relay team, for the AFI has great hopes on both 4x400 teams aiming for medals in Tokyo.

AFI chief Sumariwalla does not miss an opportunity to drive home the point, “we are looking at medals in Olympics”. Hope India gets one before he leaves his position.

Doping will invariably be brought up when Indian athletics is discussed. Even Sumariwalla has admitted that the sprinters would need careful scrutiny for doping before they are chosen for the 4x100m relays for the Asian Championships.

Though NADA was present at Grand Prix meets and the Federation Cup, it is doubtful whether the top athletes were tested as much as they should be in a season like this. If NADA is adopting its 2018 stand that it would target the athletes in national meets rather than have a system of gold medallist or top-2 being tested, it might lead to “protectionism” that was evident in 2018 when some of the leading athletes were not tested during ideal periods.

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Updated Date: Apr 05, 2019 21:45:47 IST

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