When the track and field events kick off here on Friday, there will be more hope and expectation from Indian athletes than at any time in the recent past.
Starved both of achievements and stars at the global level and with a massive 68-member squad for Hangzhou, India will be hoping to do better than the 20 medals it won in 2018, despite it coming at the fag end of a tiring season that has tested even the fittest.
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Seven of them will be vying for medals on the opening day of competition – Tanya Chaudhary and Rachna Kumari in hammer throw, Manpreet Kaur and Kiran Baliyan in shot put, Priyanka in women’s 20km race walk and Sandeep Kumar and Vikash Singh in the men’s section.
Also in action will be the quartermilers Anas and Ajmal, and Himanshi and Aishwarya in their respective heats. On the eve of the competition, the camaraderie among the 400m runners – also teammates in the relay, along with Rajesh Ramesh, Amoj Jacob and others – was evident during a light training at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center Stadium.
Often the marquee sport at any multi-discipline event, the secret to a medal in track and field is not easy to crack.
At the continental level, though, India has fared much better. With a total of 254 medals over the years, including 79 gold, 88 silver and 87 bronze, India sits strong at third spot in the all-time list at the Asian Games. That is in stark contrast to its performances at the other major track and field competitions -- 61st in the Olympics, tied 65th at the World Championships and 15th at the Commonwealth Games.
India’s biggest challenge on track and on the field has mainly come from China and Japan. With most athletics powerhouses -- barring the USA and the Caribbean islands -- being in Europe, Indian athletes have generally had decent outings in terms of medals, if not in performance levels.
That has been challenged in recent times with the influx of African-origin athletes as naturalised citizens of oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, especially Qatar and Bahrain. The likes of sprinter Salwa Eid Naser for Bahrain and the multitude of long-distance runners are proof of their focus on the track, even as Korea has made strides in field events.
This time around, though, hopes from the Indians have been backed by performances throughout the year. While the World Championships did not produce too many highs, the sheer number of Indians in the fray was refreshing.
Also, the fact that three Indians qualified for the Diamond League Final and long-jumper Praveen Chithravel received an invite augurs well. While the Asiad is not a direct qualification event for the Paris Olympics like some other sports, it does fall in the qualification period and achieving the standards would be on the Indian athletes’ minds – only eight have made the cut so far.
Two Indian long jumpers went into the Worlds as world leaders, the quartermilers cracked the three-minute mark and the Asian record, and Parul Chaudhary set a new national record in steeplechase.
Jyothi Yarraji has clocked seven official sub-13 sec timings in 100m hurdles this season, most by any Asian. Two javelin throwers finished in the top six even as the biggest name of all, Neeraj Chopra, won gold. At the Asian Games, many of them would be looking at adding to their tally from five years ago.
Among the biggest hopes would, of course, be Chopra, but coming in at the end of a long and hectic season, with less-than-optimum fitness in the last few events and Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem breathing down his neck, the Indian Olympic champion will need to push himself real hard.
Shot-putter Tejinderpal Singh Toor too is a favourite to finish on top despite fighting a series of injuries and surgeries over the past year.
Steeplechaser Avinash Sable, having pulled out of the Diamond League final to focus on the Asian Games, will be keen to finish the season on a high, as will be the 4x400m relay side despite some strong challenge from Japan.
Among the women, Shaili Singh in long jump and Yarraji in the 100m hurdles will be strong bets, but with the competition in Asia much tougher among the women, predicting favourites isn’t easy.
Harmilan Bains in 800m will be hoping her training stint in the UK pays off but Annu Rani’s recent performances have been disappointing, and one wishes the national record holder shakes off poor form at the mega event.
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