A few big stars will be missing

K. P. MOHAN

Sun Yingjie is the overwhelming favourite in the women's distance events. — Pic. ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES-

ONLY Qatar, among the Asian nations, won a gold at the World athletics championships in Paris. And that happened to be through its `import' from Kenya, Saif Saaeed Shaheen, in the 3000m steeplechase.

Even as it reflected the continuing chasm that exists between Asia and the rest of the world, it also emphasised once again the value of the meagre number of medals that the Asians garner at these biennial championships.

Viewed in that perspective, the bronze by Japanese sprinter Shingo Suetsugu, Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang, Chinese woman distance runner Sun Yingjie and India's very own Anju Bobby George takes a brighter hue than it normally should in any other context.

If Japanese hammer thrower Koji Murofushi and that country's woman marathon runners have not been mentioned in the list above, even though they also gained medals, it is only because they were expected to win medals in any case. Murofushi ending up with just the bronze was a disappointment in fact, after he had emerged as the firm favourite for the gold at one stage in the run-up. Before we forget, there was a silver for Japanese woman marathoner Mizuki Noguchi in Paris, with team-mate Masako Chiba coming behind her for the bronze.

The scene now shifts to Manila as it hosts the 15th Asian athletics championships from September 20. It is doubtful how many of the Paris medal winners will figure in the Manila meet, if at all, though Anju as well as Chinese Sun Yingjie have been entered. If Anju does make it, despite her desire to give rest to her tired limbs, she will be under pressure to live up to her current ranking and stature.

Sun Yingjie, a better known marathoner then, was a revelation on track at the last Asian Games, where she clocked two Games records on way to a brilliant distance double, and at the recent Worlds where she grabbed a gallant bronze in the 10,000m with a personal best of 30:07.20. She has shown in the past that she has the capacity to tackle anything within a short span of time and if she does make it, she should be the overwhelming favourite in both the distance events.

The others have not even been entered, though initial reports suggested that both Suetsugu and Nobuharu Asahara, the other Japanese sprinter known worldwide, were certainties for the meet. At the end of a long-winding season — not yet over for those who plan to figure in the Afro-Asian Games — though this is understandable, this has been the drawback with the Asian championships down the years: its failure to attract the best. Murofushi was there last year at Colombo, when the Sri Lankan Capital hosted the last edition of the championships. One asked the Japanese how he could motivate himself at an Asian meet after having risen to the top of the world charts. The modest `giant' was candid in his response. "If every one of the top-level stars in Asia decided to skip the Asian championships, then what will be the fate of the meet, how will the crowd get its worth?"

The battle for the decathlon gold between Dmitry Karpov should be exciting. — Pic. MICHAEL STEELE/GETTY IMAGES-

After having battled an injury that robbed him of a crucial fortnight's training in the build-up towards the World championships Murofushi might not have been in the right mood and condition to compete in this Asian meet.

Murofushi's philosophy apart, the best Japanese have rarely made it to the biennial meet while China which used to field its best, was rather lukewarm towards the Colombo meet that happened to be in the run-up to the more important Asian Games. Still China ended up on top of the medals tally with 10 golds, though there was a warning from Qatar which had eight. Qatar slumped inexplicably at Busan, managing just one gold, compared to China's 14, buttressing the theory that athletes could not have been expected to `peak' twice within the span of a couple of months. This time, barring the exclusion of the World bronze winner, hurdler Liu Xiang, China is expected to be at full strength.

If this meet has come just a year after the preceding championships, it is only because the Asian Athletics Association (AAA) could not decide for some time whether to stick to the original calendar or to move the continental meet into the Olympics year. The experiment having failed in 2000 it is back to square one. The Chinese obviously did not show all their cards in Paris, but the success of high hurdler Liu Xiang and decathlete Qi Haifeng, who compiled a National record of 8126 for the seventh place only underscored the young talent that China has been grooming with the Athens Olympics in mind.

Talking of decathlon, Kazakh Dmitry Karpov's National record of 8374 for the bronze was an outstanding effort. Both Karpov and Qi Haifeng have been entered in Manila and if they do cross swords again, there could be an absorbing contest, even if we accept the fact that decathletes normally would not go all out within a three-week span.

The battles between the Qataris, Saudi Arabians and the Japanese in the distance events should be renewed, though Shaheen is not expected nor for that matter Qatar's other Kenyan import, Ahmad Hassan Abdullah (nee Albert Chepkurui) who clocked an Asian record of 27:18.28 for the fourth place in the 10,000m at the Worlds after having posted a 5000m record of 13:04.65 in Zurich. Both records belonged to Toshinari Takaoka, one of the greatest distance runners from the land of the rising sun. Saudi Arabian Moukhled Al-Outaibi, distance double winner at Busan, clocked 13:38.92 and still finished a rung above the bottom in a field of 15 runners in the 5000m in Paris. He should start the favourite, however, in Manila.

From the Indian angle, this Asian meet should provide a clear understanding of the depth we have in the absence of regulars like K. M. Beenamol, out with a toe injury and Sunita Rani, reluctant to make it since she feels she is not in form and would do well to concentrate on the Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad.

Qi Haifeng — Pic. MICHAEL STEELE/GETTY IMAGES-

This has been a rather low-key season for the Indians — even if one says so in the aftermath of Anju George's historic feat in Paris — with hardly any meet throwing up fresh talent or any noteworthy performance or record. The late arrival of the foreign coaches (not the full complement, though), the tougher anti-doping measures taken by the SAI and the expected slump after a `high' in the Asian Games year, are some of the possible reasons for the below-par show.

India would be depending heavily on veterans — shot putter Shakti Singh and discus thrower Neelam J. Singh — to provide the gold medals this time, with two-lap runner Madhuri Singh and high jumper Bobby Aloysius not far behind. Discus thrower Anil Kumar, 800m runner K. M. Binu and the longer relay teams should provide the support.

Fielding a second-string team last time in Colombo, India had collected just one gold, through the 4 x 400m women's relay team. The top athletes were away in Belarus and Ukraine, getting ready for the Asian Games. And those `cocooned' in the faraway camps did produce the results that mattered at Busan, notwithstanding the scandal that erupted following Sunita Rani's positive test for nandrolone.

If Indian athletics has not learnt its lessons well, in the post-Busan phase, it can take its customary solace — if that can be a solace at all — from the fact that more and more countries are resorting to the abhorrent practice at the world level, the latest Kenyan positives being more disturbing than anything else.

That a Saudi Arabian triple jumper managed to compete at the Busan Asian Games after testing `positive' at Colombo for a steroid and later got completely reprieved, almost at the same time as the Sunita Rani case was brewing, only went to prove how porous the anti-doping net is, especially at the Asian level.

Unless the AAA mounts a credible campaign against doping, with support from `competent laboratories' and scientists, performances at the Asian level will remain suspect since many of the `stars' come nowhere near their Asian bests when they compete at the World level.