Indian track and field athletes win medals in Europe but fall short of world standard

While winning medals is undoubtedly an achievement, the quality of competition should be taken into consideration — especially if Tokyo Olympics is a serious consideration.

Hima Das won the 200m in 23.65 seconds in Poznan, far from her personal best of 23.10.   -  AFP

Touted as a strong prospect for India to finally end the medal drought in athletics at the Tokyo Olympics, Hima Das is currently the toast of the nation for winning back-to-back races in the first week of July.

She is part of a group of elite Indian athletes training for more than two months in Spala, Poland, bulk of whom are quartermilers along with a few javelin throwers and shot-putter Tejinder Pal Toor. While winning gold is undoubtedly an achievement, it is important to not lose sight of the perspective and the competition if Tokyo is a serious consideration.

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The most common refrain for going abroad is quality competition that is not possible in India. That, however, does not bear out. At Poznan, there were just a handful of Jamaicans and Thai runners across all events, none among the top runners from their respective countries. Even the top Polish athletes were missing.

Hima won the 200m in 23.65 seconds, far from her personal best of 23.10 while V. K. Vismaya was third in 23.75, a personal best. Mohd. Anas Yahya was the only one who came close to doing his best, registering a season’s best timing of 20.75 (his record is 20.63) in 200m to finish 3rd. Noah Nirmal Tom managed 21.30 for a personal best.

In the women’s 400m, it was an all-India race that saw all four time over 54 seconds. Subha V and Vithya R, though, managed to get their personal bests. The best-placed Indian male quartermiler was Jeevan KS with 47.25s. Kunhu Mohammed managed 47.48, a far cry from even his season’s best of 46.47 at the Federation Cup earlier this year. Tejinderpal could not cross the 20m mark.

At Kutno, the Indians ran amongst themselves and against club athletes from around Poland. Hima and Vismaya slipped to 23.97 and 24.06 respectively but still completed a 1-2 for India. Anas managed 21.18 in 200m while Jeevan bettered to 46.56 in 400 and Saritaben Gaekwad managed a season’s best of 52.77 in 400m.

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These were Hima’s first completed international competitions since recovering from a back injury that had been troubling her for a while now. At the Asian Championships in April, she had pulled out in the 400m semifinals. For the record, her gold-winning performance in Poznan will not put her among the top-300 in the world today.

In all, only four athletes managed personal bests but with disappointing timings and results while the top ones came nowhere close to even their own season-best performances, leave aside improving their personal bests.

"The federation itself is realistic. These competitions are mainly in and around the athletes’ training base in Spala and are entered into for competition and experience. They are not part of the official annual calendar,” an AFI official admitted.

However, it may also be noted that the Sports Ministry has approved an expenditure of Rs 65.93 lakh for competitions in and around Spala, probably including the Czech Republic, for nine athletes and two coaches during the period 15 June to 15 August.

It is also interesting to note that both Hima and Anas are being considered bright prospects in 400m but have been competing only in 200m so far, though ostensibly it is for the athletes to gain speed and for coach Galina Bukharina to assess them before the World Championships. The Indian focus has been on the 4x400 relay teams and it is to be seen whether athletes would qualify in individual events.

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It would have still made sense if the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) and the SAI had tied up with well-known foreign coaches and trainers to work with the athletes during overseas training, but the officials working with the Indians have all been working in India.

With club level competition and falling standards, one wonders about the supposed gains for the Indian athletes in such long camps abroad without adequate international competitions. The elite Indian group would continue to be in Europe for another month, moving to the Czech Republic next.

It’s not just the runners whose progress or lack of it thereof, raises questions on the efficacy of these repeated, long-term camps abroad. Javelin thrower Shivpal Singh, who managed an impressive 86.23m at the Asian meet, has been slipping gradually – down to 80.87 at the Diamond League, 79.69 in Ostrava and 76.90 in Poland. Vipin Kasana has not participated at all during this time while Davinder Singh Kang and Rajinder Singh have had poor outings in one event each.

In between, another batch of athletes has been sent for competition in the XXIX International Meeting G. Kossanov Memorial, Almaty and XXII International Competitions of Tatyana Kolpakova, Bishkek. The competition level there, however, has been equally disappointing.

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India ended with a massive 19 medals in Almaty, 12 of them gold. Only triple jumper Mohd. Salahuddin’s victory was with an impressive personal best of 16.64m, behind only Renjith Maheshwary and Arpinder Singh in the all-time list since 2008.

Harsh Kumar (46.46 in 400m) and Jisna Mathew (52.96s in 400m) got their season’s bests while Gajanand Mistry (47.13s in 400m) and Rohit Yadav (Javelin, 75.36m) finished second but with huge improvements in their personal performances. Mithravarun Senthilkumar got silver in Discus with a 49.54m throw, almost four metres short of his own best this season!

A more accurate reflection of India’s chances and standards would be, therefore, at the World Championships in September-October. Till then, it would do well to temper hopes and adulation.