IAAF World Championships: AFI botch squad selection with arbitrary criteria, leave behind frustrated athletes
The selection committee need to follow sound judgement and a consistent train of thought, along with keeping in mind ‘talent’, when picking an Indian team for a World Championship.
By the time the Virgin Atlantic flight carrying the 24-team member Indian team to the World Athletic Championships reaches its cruising height on the way to London, the protests, court case and controversy would have been left behind for a selection that could have been more tactful and factual. On the contrary, it leaves behind anger, broken dreams and hopefully not, shattered, fledgling careers.
Communication is not the forte of most Indian sports federations. Result — last-minute stop-gap arrangements and long-winded explanations that do more harm than good. In the Asian Athletic Championships in Bhubaneswar, it was common knowledge that athletes winning gold would automatically qualify for the World Championships in London.
In fact, even the announcer in the stadium after a few exhilarating Indian wins excitedly said “and qualified for London.” Technically qualified, yes, but according to the Athletic Federation of India (AFI), they reserved the last say on whether an athlete could actually do justice to India by going to London.
Fair enough. But by that argument, G Lakshmanan (5,000m & 10,000m) and Swapna Barman (Heptathlon) would not have made it to the team as they didn't meet the IAAF qualification norms. Both didn’t meet the qualifying standards; but met the AFI’s ‘talent policy’.
Against IAAF’s qualifying mark of 13:22.00 in the 5,000m for the Worlds, Lakshmanan managed 14:54.48 at the Asian Championships. No doubt, his performance improved at the inter-state meet in Guntur with 14:07.76 but it was still below the IAAF mark.
Barman needed a heptathlon score of 6200 to qualify but she had 5942 at the Asian Championships and 5897 at the Federation Cup in Patiala. Worse, she didn’t even participate in Guntur.
Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, chairman of the selection committee, says Barman was selected as she was young with a bright future. “She is extremely talented and the scores show that,” Gurbachan argued. “She is a good prospect for the 2018 Asian Games and the World Championships will give her a good exposure.”
Bahadur Singh, one of the eight coaches going to London, echoed the same line. “You have to understand that Barman is a medal prospect at the 2018 Asian Games,” Bahadur argued on the talent front. “Hopefully, she will be on the podium in Jakarta.”
Hope is not a measure when it comes to selection in a national team. Consistency is the gauge that one hopes the federation uses. The AFI did announce, after the Asians, that athletes will have to participate at the inter-state meet in Guntur and post better timings closer to the IAAF qualifying marks.
But is that possible? Within three days of the Asian Championships — where most athletes peaked in highly humid conditions — they were then expected to travel, train and better their performances to be able to qualify for London. Lakshmanan did. But a national coach, who preferred not to be named, said, “It’s impossible to recreate that competitive spirit and high once again in Guntur.”
Sudha Singh, winner of the gold at the Asian Meet was extremely cutting about the selection methods. She squarely blamed Randhawa. “Who is Randhawa? Does he even come to the meets? Does he even check how the athletes live and train? And he is willing to take decisions on who will go to the World Championships?”
Sudha, a 3,000m steeplechase runner who participated in both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics after attaining qualifying marks, said the federation had told them that winning gold at the Asian Championships will ensure them a flight to London. “Now they are going back on their word,” she said. “I have spoken to the federation and also spoke to Adille (Sumariwalla) sir and he told me that he will see what can be done.”
The qualifying time for the women’s 3,000m steeplechase for London is 9:42.00 while Sudha ran 9:59.47 in Bhubaneswar. Importantly, from the athlete’s point of view, the field had only six runners out which one didn’t finish the race. Sudha didn’t have the competition which could have pushed her for a better timing.
“I realised the timing was less after the first 800 metres and I started to push the pace. But there was no one who could have given me some competition for a better finish,” she said after winning her race at the Asian Meet. Korea’s Hyo Yong, who finished with silver had a time of 10:13.94, almost 14 seconds off Sudha’s pace. “I wish they would have said it in Bhubaneswar that timing was also important. At least, I would have pushed myself to try and get a better time,” explained Sudha.
In fact, all athletes in the mixed zone, especially the ones that won gold, spoke about competing in London. PU Chitra, Ajay Saroj, Lakshmanan or Sudha underlined their gold performances saying they would perform better as the conditions and competition would be of a higher level at the World Championships.
Ajay, who won the 1,500m with a brilliant kick and a delightful skip at the finish line, said, “I am so happy to be able to qualify for London and would put in my best there.” He also spoke about meeting David Rudisha, the double Olympic 800m gold winner in London. Interestingly, Ajay’s timing at Bhubaneswar of 3:45.85 would have fetched him gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Last year, at the Olympics, USA’s Matthew Centrowitz Jr had won the gold with a time of 3:50.00.
Randhawa’s responded to Ajay's case by saying that a year is a lifetime when it comes to athletics. But so is peaking in two crucial consecutive races when they fall within three-four days of each other — winning at the Asian Championships and then getting the qualifying time at the inter-state meet in Guntur.
Take for instance, the Rio Olympics pole vault gold medal winner. Thiago Braz da Silva vaulted 6.03m in Rio and then within a week and a half participated in the 2016 Diamond League in Zurich to earn a bronze with a vault of 5.84m.
Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon won the 1,500m gold in Rio with a time of 4:08.92. In Zurich, she finished seventh while Rio’s fourth-placed Shannon Rowbury won gold with a fiery run of 3:57.78.
Bahrain’s Ruth Jebet, who should have been in Bhubaneswar to compete at the Asians but stayed back as she was preparing for the World Championships, ran 8:59.75 to win the 2016 Olympic gold. Within a week, her performance fell to 9:07.00 in Zurich.
Randhawa cites the prospect of talent and future medals as a reason for selection. By that logic, Dutee Chand should have been on that flight to London. She only won a 100m bronze at the Asian Championships but at the Indian GP’s third leg in Delhi, the Rio Olympian clocked 11.30, just 0.04 seconds outside the London qualifying mark of 11.26. Are we to assume now that marking talent and future medal prospects is limited to Randhawa’s eagle eye?
To expect Indian athletes to pinnacle within a few days of winning gold at the Asian Championships is unrealistic. Randhawa’s final argument on the selection was "can’t take everybody as performance is the criteria". By that logic, both Lakshmanan and Barman should not be boarding the Virgin Atlantic flight to London.
Maybe, for future reference, the selection committee chaired by the double Olympian Randhawa, should follow a rationale, sound judgement and a consistent train of thought, along with keeping in mind ‘talent’, when picking an Indian team for a World Championship.
20km walk: Irfan Kolothum Thodi, Devender Singh and Ganapathi Krishnan; 400m and 4x400m relay: Muhammed Anas Yahiya; 5,000m & 10,000m: Lakshmanan Govindnan; 110m hurdles: Siddhanth Thingalaya; Marathon: Gopi Thonakal; Javelin Throw: Neeraj Chopra and Davinder Singh Kang; 4x400m Relay: Arokia Rajiv, Amoj Jacob, Kunhu Mohammed, Mohan Kumar Raja, Sachin Roby.
20 km walk: Khushbir Kaur; 400m & 4x400m relay: Nirmala; Heptathlon: Swapna Barman; Marathon: Monika Motiram Athare; Javelin Throw: Annu Rani; 4x400m relay: Poovamma Raju Machettira, Jisna Mathew, Anilda Thomas, Jauna Murmu, Anu Raghavan.
Team officials and coaches:
Vishal Kumar Dev, IAS, (team leader); Tony Daniel (team manager), Radha Krishnan Nair (deputy chief coach), Galina Bukharina (coach), PT Usha (coach), Surendra Singh (coach), Alexander Arstybashev (coach), Raj Mohan (coach), Bahadur Singh Chauhan (coach), Anju Bobby George (coach/observer), Arun Mendiratta (team doctor), Pawan Kumar (male masseur), Kinga Lidia (female masseur).
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