Indian athletics flirts with the world’s best

For a side which was dipping below the 50th rung in the IAAF’s world performance list for the last couple of years, the Indian men’s mile relay team has had an amazing surge in the last few days.

The 4x400 men relay team, comprising of Arokia Rajiv, A. Dharun, Mohammed Anas, and Kunhumohammed, clocked a stunning 3:00.91s at the Indian Grand Prix in Bengaluru on Sunday which made it the second fastest team in the world this year. No Asian team has run such a time in the last 18 years.   -  K. Murali Kumar

For a side which was dipping below the 50th rung in the IAAF’s world performance list for the last couple of years, the Indian men’s mile relay team has had an amazing surge in the last few days.

The team, a Tamil Nadu-Kerala combination comprising Kunhumuhammed, Muhammed Anas, A. Dharun and Arokia Rajiv, clocked a stunning 3:00.91s at the Indian Grand Prix in Bengaluru on Sunday which made it the second fastest team in the world this year. No Asian team has run such a time in the last 18 years.

“We had expected 3:01 but the conditions were so good, we ran very well. And this was our last chance for Rio, so we gave our best,” Arokia Rajiv, the Asian Games 400m bronze medallist who ran the anchor leg in Bengaluru, told Sportstar.

For a country which has not won an athletics medal at the Olympics after independence and which just had two athletes in the finals of individual events at the 2012 Games in London, the last few days have been exciting ones with a spate of national records. And now, it appears that a few Indian athletes have been suddenly and stunningly flung into the medal zone by a mysterious, magical hand on the road to Rio.

Classic case

The Indian men’s 4x400m relay quartet is a classic case. It could not even qualify for the last three Olympics and could not even win a medal at last year’s Asian Championship in Wuhan (it finished fourth there) but now finds itself as the second best team in the world this year.

Not just that, its time was much better than the one Belgium (3:01.10) clocked while winning the European Championship gold in Amsterdam a couple of days ago and the season-best performance of Britain (3:01.44), the bronze medallist at last year’s Beijing Worlds.

Before one turns giddy with expectation, dreaming about the heady possibilities in Rio, it must be mentioned here that countries like Olympic champion Bahamas and bronze medallist Trindad and Tobago have not run a competitive relay this season and thus do not figure in the current world list.

Incidentally even the Athletics Federation of India, which has been harping that its women’s 4x400m team has the potential to win an Olympic medal, did not have much hope in its men’s 1600m quartet.

The first positive

The high-altitude tracks of Erzurum, in Turkey, first made the relay men believe that they could make it to Rio.

“We were expecting something like 3:03 at Erzurum but we could do 3:02 because of some strong teams there,” said Arokia. “After Erzurum, we knew we could do it.”

Triple jumper Renjith Maheswary, the 2010 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist with 17.07m, came up with a head-spinning 17.30m in Bengaluru on Monday, a day when two other men, 200m national record holder Dharambir Singh and Asian 800m silver medallist Jinson Johnson made the cut for Rio.

Renjith had not crossed 17.0m for the last five years but the recent Thailand Open removed the mental block.

“At Thailand, there were three foul jumps that looked over 17m and one was almost like my Bengaluru jump, something like 17.30 to 17.40,” said Renjith. “So, I knew I had it in me.”

Renjith, who had a ‘no mark’ at the 2012 Olympics, is now the third best triple jumper in the world in this important Olympic year, behind Americans Christian Taylor, the Olympic and World champion (PB 18.21m), and Will Claye, the former indoor World champion.

“My goal is to do at least one centimetre more than this at Rio… that will be the minimum. And the maximum… I will be trying for a medal,” said the Kerala-born 30-year-old.

Ankit Sharma, with an amazing 8.19m long jump, and sprinters Dutee Chand and Srabani Nanda also produced impressive performances while booking their Rio berths recently.

Clean, or?

So, what could be the reason for Indians doing well? Can we expect something similar or better at Rio?

Assuming that all are “clean” since they have not failed dope tests recently, one reason could be that while star athletes all over the world are holding back a bit, hoping to peak in Rio, our athletes have already hit their peak in a desperate bid to qualify for the Olympics.

If that is the case, there could be a lot of disappointment at next month’s Olympics.

Doping offers another angle. With top athletics countries now under a close watch for doping, after Russia was thrown out of the Olympics by the athletics’ world body IAAF and with ugly news of doping in Kenya also coming out in the open in the last few days, there is a sort of slowdown in world athletics.

Anyway, Rio should offer a clearer picture of where we stand.