There is no doubt that hockey — as always, our emotional connect with that sport will make us talk about it first — and shooting will hold centre stage in the Asian Games. But powerful displays by 400m sprinters Muhammad Anas and Hima Das, half-miler Jinson Johnson and javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra have spawned belief that India’s track and field stars would also reap rich dividends.
It will be tough for India’s track and field stars to replicate the 12 gold, five silver and 12 bronze medal effort in the Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar in July 2017. Yet, the expectation is that India would better the showing in Incheon 2014 when its athletes won two gold, three silver and eight bronze and get close to the haul of five gold medals in Guangzhou 2010.
A reason for such confidence within the corridors of Athletics Federation of India (AFI) is the surfacing of 18-year-old Das as a durable 400 m sprinter and the evolution of Anas. Das caught her rivals and everyone else by surprise when she emerged in the Federation Cup ahead of the Commonwealth Games as a powerful runner with durability to boot.
The Assam girl caught the nation’s fancy when she made it to the Commonwealth Games 400 m final in Gold Coast and more so when she stormed to win the IAAF World U-20 Championships gold with a time of 51.46 seconds, the fourth time she was dipping under 52 seconds in the span of four months. Her performances in the 200 m have also been such that coaches and fans expect her to return home with a clutch of medals, including in the relays.
Navy’s Anas did not burst forth in the scene as suddenly. The 23-year-old has been specialising in the one-lap race since 2014. From a 48-second runner, he has shown noticeable improvement to be a sub-46-second runner over the past three years. He will be seeking to upstage Qatar’s Sudan-born Abdelalah Haroun, Mauritania-born Abderrahman Samba and Mohamed Nasir Abbas.
Now, both Das and Anas may have run away with the limelight — in the same manner as they leave their rivals in their wake — but Johnson has been no less spectacular in topping the list of Asia’s best 800 m runs this year when he clocked 1:45:65 in the Inter-State Championships in Guwahati. He will have to be at his sharpest to take on the challengers from Qatar and Bahrain.
It will be interesting to see how PT Usha’s protégé Tintu Luka fares in the women’s 800 m in case she gets past the confirmatory trials on 15 August in Thiruvananthapuram. A silver-medallist in Incheon 2014, she has been out of action since picking up a viral infection and pulling out of the Asian Championships final last year.
Distance runner PU Chithra, 2010 gold medal-winning steeplechaser Sudha Singh as well as the walkers will be in medal reckoning, too.
In the field events, there is no doubt that the focus will be on Chopra, who won the Asian Championship crown with a dramatic last-ditch effort of 85.23 m. He can expect Chinese Taipei’s Chao-Tsun Cheng, who holds the Asian record with 91.36 m, to crank up the competition. Of course, the Chinese-Taipei athlete has yet to find peak form this season.
In the women’s events, defending discus throw champion Seema Punia will be hard pressed to raise her game on D-day. She has spent some time training in Russia and it will be interesting to see the impact of that training. The 35-year-old was a great disappointment in the Asian Championships last year, a 54.11 m effort giving her only sixth place.
Since the women’s combined event, heptathlon, does not appear to have too many takers in the continent, Purnima Hembram, the season leader and Asian Champion Swapna Burman will count among the favourites to secure medals.
The pressure on the athletes — and the AFI — is high. Some of it has come from notable performances that have raised eyebrows and caused hearts to beat with excitement. A fair bit of pressure has also come from the dope positives of Naveen Kumar Dagar and camper Amit Kumar (javelin throw) and the fact that WADA and IAAF seem to be testing the campers.
Two of India’s favourites — shot putters Inderjeet Singh and Manpreet Kaur — are serving a dope-related ban and a provisional suspension respectively. For completely different reasons, some others will be missed. Discus thrower Vikas Gowda, a fixture in the Indian team, called it a day while high jumper Tejaswin Shankar is resting his neck and focusing on academics.
Of course, India’s Asian Games preparations have not been without controversy. Quarter-milers Prachi Choudhary and Chhavi Sahrawat finished third and fourth respectively in the Inter-State Championships and staked a claim for inclusion in the 4x400 m relay squad. They even knocked the doors of the Supreme Court only for their petition to be rejected.
The final preparatory camps have been in various locations — Poland and Czech Republic for the relay squads, Finland for the javelin throwers and Bhutan for the middle and long-distance runners. There seems to have been deep thought behind such planning — with only a few competitions of note. Whatever it was, AFI will be hoping that it will produce the results it would like.
As one of the blue riband disciplines, India’s track and field performance will be watched keenly. It will not be unfair if fans expect the 50-member team to come back with more than a dozen medals, at least a few of them gold. Only such a result will indicate that the AFI’s carefully made plans, supported by Sports Authority of India (SAI), were the blueprint that was missing four years ago.
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Updated Date: Aug 17, 2018 13:42:06 IST