TOPS core list of track and field athletes includes discus thrower Seema Punia, who last competed in 2018

Arpinder Singh's name was excluded from the TOPS core group after a performance review by the Mission Olympic Cell on Thursday. However, discus thrower Seema Punia, who last competed in 2018, is still a part of the core group, raising questions about the review process.

Amit Kamath December 02, 2020 09:16:20 IST
TOPS core list of track and field athletes includes discus thrower Seema Punia, who last competed in 2018

File image of Seema Punia. AP Photo

Triple jumper Arpinder Singh’s exclusion from the core group of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme after a performance review held at the 50th Mission Olympic Cell meeting held on Thursday (26 November) has raised more questions.

On Monday, the miffed triple jumper, in an interview with Firstpost, questioned the logic of dropping him for “non-performance” in a year with scant competition. Now it transpires that discus thrower Seema Punia, who last competed in 2018, is still a part of the TOPS core group.

“The decision to include athletes in the TOPS core group was based on their performance progression and their qualification or high probability of qualification for the Tokyo Olympics scheduled next year,” said a Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports press release issued on Thursday.

However, the qualifying standard for women’s discus throw for Tokyo Olympics is 63.50m. Punia — who won a bronze medal at the Jakarta Asian Games in 2018 with a throw of 62.26m — last crossed the 63.50m mark in 2004, when she threw a distance of 64.84m. In contrast, triple jumper Arpinder has come close to the Tokyo 2020 qualifying mark of 17.14m two years back with a 17.09m leap.

Of course, the inclusion of Punia, just like Arpinder’s exclusion, leads to questions over whether it was the TOPS or the Athletics Federation of India who wanted her in the core list. As per a person with knowledge of how the MOC finalises a list, including or excluding an athlete from the TOPS list is a collaborative effort with the national federation giving its recommendations while the TOPS research wing analyses them.

One person with knowledge of what went on at the TOPS meeting told Firstpost that Arpinder’s case was hurt by the fact that he’s the third Indian triple jumper in the Race to Tokyo standings, behind Karthik Unnikrishnan and SN Mohammed Salahuddin. However, even by that standard Punia doesn’t make the cut, as there’s only one Indian in the Race to Tokyo standings in women’s discus throw (Navjeet Dhillon). Punia, who once was stripped off her gold medal in 2000 World Junior Championships after testing positive for a banned substance, has not competed during the world rankings period that started from 30 June, 2019.

Besides, Karthik, who beat Arpinder to gold at the Indian GP in September 2019 and is the first Indian man in the list of triple jumpers for the Road to Tokyo standings, is neither included in the TOPS core list, nor the TOPS development list (at least as per the TOPS Development List made public in September. The updated list after the 26 November meeting is yet to be made public). The same goes for Mohammed Salahuddin, who is second in the Road to Tokyo rankings.

According to the sports ministry’s press release, seven track and field athletes — Shivpal Singh (men’s javelin throw), Annu Rani (women’s javelin throw), KT Irfan (men’s 20km walk), Rajiv Arokia (men’s 400m and 4x400m relay), Nirmal Noah Tom (men’s 400m and 4x400m relay), Alex Anthony (men’s 400m and 4x400m relay), MR Poovamma (women’s 400m and 4x400m relay) and Dutee Chand (women’s 100m and 200m) — were added to the TOPS core list after the 50th Mission Olympic Cell meeting while nine athletes were retained. The press release stated that only Arpinder was dropped from the core list which had 10 names, including Punia’s.

The other eight athletes are: Neeraj Chopra (men's javelin throw), Tejinder Toor (men's shotput), Md Anas (men's 400m), Hima Das (women's 400m), Dharun Ayyaswamy (men's 400m hurdles), Jinson Johnson (men's 800m & 1500m), Sreeshankar Murali (men's long jump), Avinash Sable (men's 3000m steeplechase).

At the time of publishing, there had been no response to an email sent to the Sports Authority of India about Punia’s inclusion in the TOPS core list.

A call and a text message to Athletics Federation of India chief Adille Sumariwala also were not returned.

There are, of course, other smaller questions. Race walker Bhawana Jat, who qualified for the 20km racewalk event at the Tokyo Olympics after winning the National Championships in February this year, is still part of the TOPS development group.  Her timing of 1:29.54secs was not just a national record, but also well under the Tokyo 2020 qualifying standard of 1:31:00.

Meanwhile, 4x400m relay runners VK Vismaya and Jisna Mathew have found a place in the TOPS developmental group while the other half of the quartet, Hima and Poovamma are in the core group. Both Vismaya and Jisna were part of the mixed relay quartet that ran a timing of 3:16.14sec in their heats to seal a spot in the finals of the World Championships in September last year — which earned India a spot at the Tokyo Olympics in the 4x400m mixed relay event. Anas, who was part of that quartet, has been part of the TOPS' core list for a while, while Noah was added to the core list after the latest performance review.

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