Let’s talk 400 metres: Truth about European exposure

In the afterglow of Asian Games success of the quarter-milers, here is a deep dive into the impression that they gained from tough international competition in the build-up. Myth or reality, here are the track facts.

Quartermiler Hima Das did not compete in any meet after the World U-20 Championships. She won silver at the Asian Games in Jakarta.   -  AP

An impression has been created that tough international competition that India's 400m runners experienced while training in the Czech Republic contributed a great deal towards their success in the Asian Games.

In the overall feeling of ‘well-being’ created by the “best-ever” Indian performance in the Asian Games, with athletics, as in the past, contributing a major chunk of the medals, it is easy to accept this theory. But why focus on the 400 metres? After all, the one-lap runners won only one gold medal out of the seven that India won in athletics, the women’s 4x400m relay.

It has been a long-held belief in the athletics circles as well as in the government that if India were to win an Olympic medal, it would be by the women’s 4x400m team. Thus, the focus on the 400 metres.

That projection is no longer valid with the arrival of javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra. In any case, at no stage during the past three Olympics had the women’s 4x400 team looked capable of even making the finals, leave alone winning a medal.

However, the 400m batch contributed six medals in Jakarta. The women’s relay gold apart, there were silver medals in the men’s and mixed 4x400m relays, individual 400m silvers by Muhammed Anas and Hima Das, who set a national record of 50.79s, and one by 400m hurdler Ayyasamy Dharun.

Naturally, coach Galina Bukharina is being credited with the success. That much is understandable irrespective of the fact that not all runners improved during the season.

What is difficult to understand is an Athletics Federation of India (AFI) official claiming that in races abroad, Indian athletes won some, lost a few and were thoroughly beaten in the rest. This gives the impression that Indian athletes had competition. However, this appears a bit of a stretch.

The truth is they essentially participated in all-India races — resembling our Indian Grand Prix or Federation Cup at Patiala or New Delhi — both in Poland, where they were sent after the Commonwealth Games, and the Czech Republic, where they trained in the final run-up to the Asian Games.

The basic idea of sending the quarter-milers to Spala, Poland, at first in May, and to Jablonec, Czech Republic, later was to provide them a base that could provide them a chance to compete in tougher competitions in Europe. Spala was also the base in 2016 when a 16-member team was sent to the Polish town famous for its Olympic training centre in preparation for the Rio Games.

So, what did they gain by way of competition this time?

In Poland, in the first phase of the team’s preparations for the Asian Games, the men and women ran at Gliwice and Wroclaw. Amid an apparent lack of quality foreign opposition on offer, Indian athletes edged their own team-mates at these meets.

At Gliwice, on June 10, Arokia Rajiv won in 46.20s. K. S. Jeevan, P. P. Kunhumohammed and Jithu Baby followed him. Bartloeij Chojnowski of Poland, who has a PB of 47.04s from 2016, was fifth.

M. R. Poovamma (52.94s) won the all-India women’s race. A. Nothyashree, V. K. Vismaya, Debashree Majumdar and Soniya Baishya were the others in the race at Gliwice.

At Wroclaw, on June 13, Muhammed Anas won the men’s race in 46.08s. Arokia Rajiv and Jeevan followed him. The Polish challenge was provided by Jakub Pajak who came fifth in 49.04s.

Poovamma won a near-all-India race at Wroclaw, timing 53.10s. Vismaya, Nithyashree, Baishya and Majumdar followed. Ana Palys who has a PB of 53.74s and was placed 417th in the world lists this season was sixth in 54.45s.

The athletes were back home in June for the Inter-State meet that constituted the selection trials for the Asian Games and were again off to Europe after that, this time to the Czech Republic.

This is where the women quarter-milers were supposed to have had a mixed bag of results that eventually proved beneficial towards their Asian Games campaign. Let us see whether they were beaten in any race.

At Kladno, July 14, Poovamma won in 53.67 while Martina Hofmanova (CZE) ran a PB 54.41 for second. Jana Slaninova (CZE), Vismaya and Tereza Petrzilkova followed. It may be noted that 17 Indians have clocked below 54.00s this season alone.

In the men’s 400m, Arokia Rajiv won in 46.23 and was followed by A. Dharun, Jan Tesar (CZE), Santosh Kumar and Martin Tucek (CZE). Tesar’s 47.21 was a season best, while Tucek’s 48.35s was a PB.

At Nove Mesto nad Metuji, July 21, Poovamma won again, in 53.01s. Alena Smyerska (CZE) took second in 53.63 and was followed by Vismaya and Hofmanova. Symerska has a PB of 53.02s clocked this year. She was placed 222nd in the world lists this season, with Poovamma at 218th, Nirmala (51.25s) at 38th and Hima Das (50.79s) at 23rd.

Anas clocked a national record of 45.24s in this meet. Kunhumohammed (46.68s), Jeevan and Jithu Baby came behind.

At the Czech National championships, Kladno on July 28, the Indians were allowed to run only in one bunch in a separate heat in the 400m and were not allowed to progress to the finals.

Nirmala won the all-India race in 52.92s while Poovamma, Saritaben Gayaakwad (PB 53.24s), Vismaya, Baishya and Vijayakumari came behind. Dharun took the all-India men’s race in 46.41s with Kunhumohammed and Jithu Baby following.

It is the sheer perseverance of the Indian quarter-milers, and not the quality of the opposition or the contests, that they were able to maintain their level of performance during a long season and managed to win medals in the Asian Games, though their efforts fell below AFI’s initial expectations and calculations, at least in the relays.

The AFI had targeted all the three gold medals in the 4x400m including the newly-introduced mixed relay. But India could win only one, the women’s relay, its sole domain since Busan 2002. The Games record also happened to be in India’s name, 3:28.68 clocked in Incheon in 2014. There were no foreign coaches then!

Hima did not compete in any meet after the World under-20 championships where she created a sensation by becoming the first Indian to win the gold in a track event in a global meet. She created a further sensation in Jakarta with her national mark of 50.79s, but it was not good enough to beat Bahrain’s Nigerian-born Salwa Eid Naser.

In 2016, in the run-up to the Olympics, both men and women’s relay teams, with a few competitions in Poland and Turkey, had clocked better timings than what they achieved this season.

The men (the same foursome that won the Asian Games silver this time) timed 3:00.91 in Bengaluru towards ensuring Olympic qualification, while the women (Nirmala Sheoran, Tintu Luka, Poovamma, Anilda Thomas) ran 3:27.88, also to ensure qualification.

Except Anas, who has improved his National record from 45.40 in 2016 to 45.24 in 2018, the other three in the men’s team have slipped marginally compared to the Olympic year.

Kunhumohammed has slipped from 46.08s in 2016 to 46.30s, Dharun from 46.30s to 46.41s and Arokia Rajiv from 45.47s to 45.78s. Dharun, having clocked a national record of 48.96s in taking the silver in the 400m hurdles could have been expected to return a sub-46 relay leg after a three-day gap but he could not. By his own standards, even Anas was below par in the men’s 4x400 with a 44.99s relay leg compared to anchor Arokia Rajiv’s 44.60s.

It was not much different for Anas in the mixed relay, when he led off for a 45.2s split. Predictably, the men’s team was beaten comfortably by Qatar, which set an Asian record of 3:00.56, while Bahrain beat India in the mixed relay, its two leading women, Salwa Eid Naser and Kemi Adekoya, both of Nigerian origin, proving too strong. Adekoya’s absence in the women’s 4x400, due to an injury, paved the way for India’s gold.

So, what did the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and AFI achieve in keeping around 16 athletes in Europe for months? Were they supposed to compete among themselves? Or were they given specialised baton-exchange training by foreign coaches who could not come to India? As it transpired, coaches and physiotherapist, hired by SAI and stationed in India, were deputed to Spala and Jablonec camps.

The charts below will show the improvement, if any, shown by athletes during 2018:

 

 

A batch of 17 athletes also trained at the high altitude Thimpu athletics centre, Bhutan. It comprised middle distance and long-distance runners. Three of them bagged medals in the Asian Games, Manjit Singh (800m gold), Jinson Johnson (1500m gold and 800m silver) and Sudha Singh (3000m steeplechase silver).

G. Lakshmanan (5000m,10,000m), L. Suriya and Sanjivani Jadhav (5000m, 10,000m) and Chinta Yadav (3000m steeplechase) returned disappointing results, while Shankar Lal Swami, despite a PB in 3000m steeplechase (8:43.43), had to be satisfied with the eighth place.

The question will come up here, too. Was there a need for such a long stint (around two-and-a-half months in two phases) of altitude training? Was it beneficial in the end?

The problem seemed to have been that the athletes did not compete at all after June end. Two months of final preparations for a big championship without a single competitive race at sea level is unheard of.

Of course, it could be pointed out that Jinson Johnson (1:45.65) bettered Sriram Singh’s 1976 National record (1:45.77) in Guwahati after the first phase in Bhutan and without any competition prior to the inter-State. That can only mean, if that argument is accepted without debate, that the second phase taxed most of the athletes beyond recovery.

Only Manjit Singh, surprise gold medallist in the 800m (1:46.15), and Shankar Lal Swami turned in season bests from among the high-altitude batch at Thimpu. Manjit had clocked 1:46.24 in Guwahati and 1:46.42 for second place at the Fed Cup at Patiala in March.

It is time the SAI along with the AFI analysed the performances of the athletes who trained in Europe and Bhutan. Did they improve after months of training? If so, by how much? Was this improvement responsible for the impressive medal haul by athletes in the Asian Games? Is there a need for another round of training in Poland, Czech Republic, which offer ideal climate and excellent facilities, or anywhere else in Europe, before the Tokyo Olympics?

What are we aiming for? Can we be satisfied by competing in meets in Poland and Czech Republic against athletes ranked 200 or 400 in the world and hope to amass points towards world-rankings next year in the arduous race to qualify for 2020 Olympics?