IAAF World Championships 2019: A close look at Indians in the fray

The IAAF World Athletics Championships starts from Friday. Here's a look at all the Indian athletes who will be in action in Doha, Qatar.

Having clocked a national record of 45.21s this season, Anas could have been expected to go for a sub-45-second effort, though a tough task, he will now have to wait.   -  BISWARANJAN ROUT

“We are a superpower now, we should be looking at Olympics and the Worlds”, president of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), Adille Sumariwalla, told Sportstar, immediately after the Asian Games last year.

India won 19 medals in athletics in Jakarta, seven of them gold, third-best behind the inaugural Games in New Delhi (10) and Bangkok in 1978 (eight). The Jakarta gold tally may go up to eight as and when the mixed relay placings are adjusted following a doping disqualification of a Bahraini athlete.

The world standards are, however, yet to arrive. Some of the athletes are among the top-15 or 20 in the world but with one-off performances that do not hold out promise on a bigger stage. Since 2010, the AFI had been aiming to get a medal in the women’s 4x400m relay at the global level without individual runners coming close to the standards required.

Here's the schedule| IAAF World Championships

The doping scandal in 2011 involving six of the top women quarter-milers ruined India’s qualification chances for the London Olympics. Progress beyond the heats in relays at the World championships continued to be beyond India’s capacity in the 2013 and 2015 World championships.

The Rio Olympics was supposed to revive the sagging morale of the Indian athletics team. By now, the men’s relay team was also being talked of in the same breath as the women. The exploits of Muhammed Anas and Arokia Rajiv were enough to raise the hopes of the AFI.

The discredited Ukrainian coach, at the centre of the 2011 doping saga, Yuriy Ogorodnik, was brought back with blessings from the Union Sports Ministry. But expectations were belied. The men’s team crashed out in the heats with a disqualification while the women clocked 3:29.53 to come seventh in their heats. Out yet again.

Nirmala Sheoran, who was in the team in the 2013 World championships, made some sort of a sensational comeback in 2016 for the Olympics.   -  FILE PHOTO/ BISWARANJAN ROUT

 

Nirmala Sheoran, who was in the team in the 2013 World championships, made some sort of a sensational comeback in 2016 for the Olympics. She clocked 51.48s for the 400m in the National to become eligible for the individual event and the relay in Rio.

Nirmala could not reproduce her home form, timing 53.03s in the heats in the Olympics. The relay team also suffered in the process. Nirmala today is under a provisional doping suspension after having tested positive in re-tests done by WADA at the Montreal accredited laboratory on a sample collected at the inter-State meet last year.

Nirmala made another return in 2017. But the team of Jisna Mathew, Poovamma, Anilda Thomas and Nirmala, was disqualified for a lane infringement in the heats in the London Worlds. The men’s team timed a good-looking 3:02.80 to be fifth in its heats before bowing out. 

The advent of Hima Das in 2018 changed the entire scenario for the women’s relay team from a longer-term perspective. In her record-breaking spree for the 400m, beginning with 55.57s in September 2017 and culminating in a jaw-dropping 50.79s in the Asian Games in 2018, Das held out great hopes for an individual Olympic medal by Tokyo 2020.

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But something was amiss, many thought at that time. Can this be possible? The kind of improvement she had shown perhaps had no parallel in athletics history. Is this genuine? The questions have lingered since then. Even now, with Das out with a yet-to-be-explained back injury, those questions remain.

With Das in the team, and with the possibility of a couple of other women coming around sub-52-sec, as per AFI prognosis, there really was a chance to first get a medal in the World championships and then gun for one more in Tokyo, AFI experts opined.

The AFI calculations have gone awry again in 2019. Das is supposed to be having an almost “incurable” back injury that, as per AFI explanations, she experienced first immediately after the Asian Games. Add to this, Saritaben Gayakwad who also showed an improvement not often seen among Indian women in sprints also was declared to be having a “leg injury” that the media came to know only in an Indian Grand Prix meet at Patiala where she dropped out of the 400m race.

Despite a training-cum-competition programme in Europe, stretching from December last year to the present, barring a break in February-March at home for some competitions, the 400m runners have not shown any appreciable improvement. Several injuries, some mysterious, have actually ruined India’s chances, slim though they might have been, of figuring in the men and women’s 4x400m relay finals of the World championships.

An impression was created initially by the athletics officials that India stood a chance for a medal in the mixed relay. Later, it was scaled down to just a chance of entering the final. If a team is able to make the top-eight (final), it would automatically qualify for the Olympics next year. That would be India’s primary target.

The Indian optimism has been based on the fact that the team ranked fifth in the year’s lists with its 3:16.47 at Doha in the Asian championships behind Bahrain (3:15.75). The US won the World Relay in Yokohama in May with a time of 3:16.43. But Poland which finished fifth in the final had clocked a 3:15.46 to top the year’s lists in the heats. India’s second place in the Asian Games behind Bahrain (3:11.89) was 3:15.71.

Hima Das will not compete at the IAAF World Championships in Doha.   -  AFP Photo

 

Two of the runners who figured in the Indian team at Jakarta, Arokia Rajiv and Das, will not be available due to injuries. Without Das at the Asian championships in Doha this year, India had clocked 3:16.47 in the mixed relay.

READ| Hima Das ruled out of IAAF World Championships with back injury

The top teams in the 400m, in both men and women, the US and Jamaica either did not field their full-strength teams in Yokohama or their runners were just warming up for the season and thus were considerably slower than what they were actually reputed to be.

We can have a better idea about their strength as well as that of several other European teams at the Worlds, especially Poland when the action unfolds in Doha. India would find the going tough in all the relays.

The Indian men and women’s 4x400m relay teams have also been hit hard by the absence of injured athletes. Arokia Rajiv and A. Dharun’s injuries have meant the team had to be in constant search for replacements throughout the season.

Inconsistencies marked the performance of other male runners. The withdrawal of Das and Saritaben Gayakwad through has practically wrecked the women’s relay team. If a target of 3:24 was considered a realistic one for the women’s team at the beginning of the season, it would be an achievement if it runs below 3:28 in Doha.

It is difficult to believe that Das and Gayakwad had carried on for months despite injuries and were apparently forced to compete in third-grade competitions in Europe in an effort to boost the chances of the relay team. There has to be more to it than meets the eye in these last-minute revelations of injuries to key athletes!

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Is it a career-threatening injury to Das, as is being made out, that has halted the progress of the most precocious talent ever to have emerged on the Indian athletics scene? Or is it something deeper than that? The coming year, if not the immediate future, should bring out the truth.

In the individual events, middle-distance runner Jinson Johnson has been tipped to make the final. The Kerala man has been in splendid form this season, improving on his national record in the 1500m twice in Europe, 3:37.62 in the Netherlands and 3:35.24 (just 0.24s short of Olympic entry standard) in Germany. He also sounded confident as he left for the US for training.

Middle-distance events often throw up surprises at the highest levels of competition. A slow race in either 800m or 1500m can provide opportunities for the big “kickers” to pull off stunning victories. The passage through the opening round and the semifinals would be a challenge to Johnson. History would show easy targets of 3:38 or 3:40 in the rounds but it is often a lot tougher than what the timings would indicate. Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot, silver winner last time, is the overwhelming favourite for the metric mile.

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Quarter-miler Muhammed Anas’s chance of bettering the national record was scotched by the AFI because of its pet argument that once an athlete competes in an individual event in World championships or Olympics he or she would be too drained out to be of any use in the relays.

Though every time the AFI pins a lot of hopes on the relays, eventually the relays also provide very little by way of compensation. Having clocked a national record of 45.21s this season, Anas could have been expected to go for a sub-45-second effort, though a tough task, he will now have to wait.

The national record-breaking spree of steeplechaser Avinash Sable might have brought him to the fore in the past year, but he is not yet in the world-class. Only into the 40s in the 45-member field for the event, Sable will have to work very hard to get past the opening round or to register a good placing.

India will have high hopes from 19-year-old long jumper M. Sreeshankar.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

 

Promising long jumper M. Sreeshankar gets into action on the opening day on Friday (Sept 27), in the qualification round, with limited hopes and a long-term goal of qualification standard (8.22m) for Tokyo Olympics in his sights. The 20-year-old Kerala jumper, with his season-best 8.00m figures at the last but one slot in the 27-man field. There are as many as 11 jumpers with 8.25m or better in the Doha line-up.

The throwers barring woman javelin thrower Annu Rani have been inconsistent. Her remarkable consistency at around 60 metres is in contrast to her slump last year before the Asian Games. Only she has shown the benefits, if any, of the long training camp in Europe. It should, however, be remembered the last qualifier into the 2017 final did 62.29m just five centimetres short of Rani’s national record. The Indian has gone beyond 62.0m only once.

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Male javelin thrower Shivpal Singh has shown a sharp decline in form, closer to the championships with a 76.48m at Domazlice, Czech Republic, compared to his silver-winning 86.23m at the Asian championships in Doha in April last.  The top five in the field have reached 89.00m or better this season with Estonian Magnus Kirt being the lone man to cross 90.00m.

It should be disturbing for the AFI and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) that all the javelin throwers have shown a plunge in performance levels closer to the most important championships of the season rather than an upward graph. Could it be that the long European stint under former world record holder Uwe Hohn of Germany created just hype and very little else?

Shot putter Tejinder Pal Singh Toor had also been fluctuating in his form, with 20.22m to win the Asian championships in Doha in April and then hitting a high of 20.36m in July before slumping to 19.05m and 19.78m in Europe. His last effort of 20.19m for the fifth place in a meet in the Czech Republic on Sept 12, does not project him as a prospect for a final place in Doha.

He is in fact right at the bottom of the qualifiers list with his season-best of 20.36m. He has a personal best and national record of 20.75m recorded in winning the gold in the Asian Games last year. The top-seven in Doha have crossed 22.00m with another ten having exceeded 21.00m.

READ| Record holder Anas not included in 400m at Worlds

Much has been written about Dutee Chand and her chances in the 100m. After her historic win in the World University Games in Napoli, Italy, Chand was being tipped to crack the entry standard of 11.24s but could not get it. She got in as a last-minute invitee to fill in vacant slots. She has said she was aiming to better her national record and make it to the finals in Doha. That looks very remote.

With the top-20 in the entry lists having clocked 11.10s or better, Chand can at best aim only for a place in the semifinals. That, too, would be a very challenging task.

 

The surprise packet in the women’s 400m, Anjali Devi of Haryana who created a flutter last season with a timing of 51.79s in the Open National, came back this time to cause a bigger surprise. Her inter-State win came in 51.53s. Though she could manage only 52.30s on a rain-drenched Nehru Stadium track in New Delhi later, in the confirmatory trials, she, like Nirmala Sheoran ahead of her, has caught the imagination of the athletics fans.

How much Anjali would clock in Doha is the topic of discussion, however, rather than whether she can make the semifinals or final. Only steeplechaser Lalit Babar, in 2015, has had the honour of making a track final among the Indians in the World championships.

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P. U. Chithra, who qualified as the Asian champion in the 1500m, has the poorest timing in the field (other than universality entries), with 4:12.65. After having created quite a stir four years ago when she was dropped by the AFI for the London championships, her place was secure this time. She has since improved her PB by more than five seconds. Nothing more than a personal best could be expected from the Kerala runner.

The chimaera that an Olympic medal in athletics has been through the years looks likely to remain next year too if the preparations and performance this season could be anything to go by.

Anju George’s long jump bronze in Paris in 2003 remains India’s lone medal at the senior World championships. Anju keeps reminding that the first target for an Indian athlete should be to get into the top-10 bracket in the world about two years prior to a global meet. “Then get among the top six in the year of the competition”, she adds. She should know the hard grind.