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IAAF World Athletics Championships 2017: Neeraj Chopra among brightest hopes for India

Dutee Chand sat alone on Air India 111 to London. Normally, a track-and-field team travelling to the World Championships would go together but a last-minute invitation from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for India’s national 100m champion and record holder forced her to fly alone. She had been at the Indira Gandhi International Airport since 7 am for a London flight departing at 2 pm.

Flying in from Hyderabad, her training base, Dutee’s mind was a complex web of thoughts. It wasn’t the first time she was travelling alone. But she would have wanted her coach N Ramesh along — after all, it is the World Championships and a below-par performance would mean the critics came out, knives sharpened. It’s a thought that wouldn’t be confined to Dutee alone.

File image of Neeraj Chopra. JSW Sports

File image of Neeraj Chopra. JSW Sports

But the entire contingent knows that a messed up selection procedure has put extra pressure on each of them. The best among them would rise to the occasion. The ones with a timid heart would fold and fade away; athletes would lean on the regular crutch and the cliched excuse, handed down championship after championship: ‘we went for the exposure.’ The coaches will be tight-lipped. After a point, everyone, those who believe that track-and-field has a future, would then start looking at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, both scheduled for 2018.

For now, all eyes are on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, venue of the 2012 London Olympics that is hosting the World Championships. Indian athletes would be competing in a stadium that is already sold out during the evening sessions when most of the bigger stars compete in the finals. The sound would be deafening, the atmosphere charged, adrenaline flowing and the pulse throbbing like Neil Peart on drums. If that doesn’t wake up the athletes to at least break their national records, the sight of some of the world’s biggest stars, standing next to them, on the same track, breathing the same air should send blood coursing through their competitive veins.

Before the team left for London, Deputy Chief Coach Radha Krishnan Nair, said at the airport that India will try and do its best. On the medal prospects, Nair said India can only hope for one medal and that was in the javelin. “That too we hope that Neeraj (Chopra) can be in good shape and everything clicks on that particular day,” he said.

Both Neeraj and Davinder Singh Kang have thrown above 83m consistently. At the Asian Championships, Neeraj threw 85.23 to take gold. But would that be enough? It could be for a place in the finals. But Johannes Vetter and Thomas Rohler, both Germans, have the best eight throws in the world this year between them. Rohler has thrown 93.30m at the Diamond League in Doha in May.

But in July, Vetter speared it with a 94.44m throw in Lucerne. Unless pressure creeps up and one of the others throws a 90m early, it’s tough to get the Germans off the podium. Kang in a boisterous mood after winning bronze in Bhubaneswar did say that he would be on the podium in London but snatching a place for the final would feel like a medal.

Neeraj, after throwing 85.63m at the Federation Cup in Patiala, said later that the World Championships would be his biggest competition after winning the 2016 Junior World U20 gold. “If you ask me, if I will go all out, I wouldn’t say yes right away,” he said, showing maturity beyond his age. “I will first have to be in the top 6 to have any chance of winning a medal. I don’t want to risk an injury as I have the Commonwealth Games and then the Asian Games (coming up). I should be ready by the time we go for the Tokyo Olympics.”

But big meets have thrown up surprises. Ihab El-Sayed won silver with a throw of 88.99m at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing. Before that, he had been placed 29th at the 2012 London Olympics!

The men’s 4x400m relay has a good chance of making it to the final. But they will have to run above their best. The Indian men’s relay team has Arokia Rajiv, Amoj Jacob, Kunju Mohammed, Mohan Kumar Raja and Sachin Roby. But the final selection should be the same bunch that ran in Bhubaneswar — Kunju, Amoj, Anas and Arokia; unless the coaches decide to replace Kunju. To qualify for the finals, the Indians would have to run below three minutes, somewhere around 2:59.70. At Bhubaneswar without any other team pushing them in the 3rd and 4th lap, they did 3:02.92.

The women’s 4x400m relay team at the last World Championships finished 14th with a time of 3:29.08. In Bhubaneswar, they ran 3:31.34. Anything above 3:26.00 is a good qualifying time. But it will require a gladiatorial will from Debashree Mazumdar, MR Poovamma, Jisna Mathew and Nirmala to accomplish.

Nirmala is also in the 400m flat. On a good day, with Nirmala in form and not in her usual ‘sombre’ mood, she can erase the National Record of 51.05 which is in Manjit Kaur’s name. She qualified with an amazing run of 51.28 and then ran 52.01 in Bhubaneswar under heavy and humid conditions.

It’s in the preliminary round that Nirmala can get a good time as most of the top runners will go through the paces to somehow qualify for the semis. It’s a long shot but the Haryana runner has the power and a wonderful finish in her legs. Whether the Olympic Park can make her dream big or the sight of 9-time world gold medallist Allyson Felix inspire her enough is the big question.

It’s not yet certain whether G Lakshmanan will run the 5,000m or the 10,000m. On the first day of competition is the 10,000m final. Going by what his coach, Surendra Singh, said in Bhubaneswar, “We would want Lakshmanan to run the 5000m.” No reasons were attributed but in terms of competition, the 5000m would have a qualifier and then the final. Lakshmanan ran 14:54.48 in Bhubaneswar in punishing weather. But London would be kinder and that is why Surender feels that he can do around 14 minutes. In fact, that would be good enough for a place in the final. In the last World Championships, Mo Farah won with a timing of 13:50.38.

Someone familiar with the surroundings in London would be Irfan Thodi who clocked 1:20.21 at the 2012 London Olympics in the 20km walk setting a national record, a time that would have given him a 4th place at the last World Championships. Alongside him would be Devender Singh and Ganapathi Krishnan. If Muhammed Anas and Siddhanth Thingalaya can get past their first round and qualify for the semis that in itself would be an achievement. For Khushbir Kaur, this will be her 2nd World Championship after finishing 37th in Beijing with a timing of 1:38.53. India’s entry in the heptathlon, Swapna Barman, the AFI believes, is an Asian Games podium finisher in 2018 thus the exposure will be valuable.

It was after winning a bronze medal at the Incheon Asian Games with a throw of 59.53m that Annu Rani realised javelin was going to take her places. The 60m was breached in 2016 at the National Athletics and then a throw of 61.86m to seal a place for London. After winning a gold at the Federation Cup, she said she throws around 64-65 in training. In London, she needs to throw around her national mark to move into the final and as javelin has shown over the years, despite a couple of poor throws suddenly the shoulders move into position and you get a big one that propels you either into the top six of even a podium. For the girl from Bahadurpur in Uttar Pradesh, the Olympic Park at Stratford is just the beginning of what should be a medal-filled career.

In a Championship fast turning into Usain Bolt’s farewell anthem, Indian athletes might just get inspired by the world’s greatest athlete (arguably or otherwise) to strike a few notes of their own.

Updated Date: Aug 03, 2017 13:19 PM

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