A question of timing

K. P. MOHAN

WHOSOEVER had that 'brilliant idea', back in 1995, in bringing the Asian athletic championships into the 'even' year, did a great disservice to continental athletics. The change in cycle meant the biennial championships would come in the year of the Olympic Games or the Asian Games. And that meant disaster.

Koji Murofushi, the famed hammer thrower, has been included in the Japanese team.-RAJEEV BHATT

If proof were needed, it was there last time, at Jakarta, just three weeks prior to the Sydney Olympics. The best stayed away. Including those from China. Once the Olympic Games were through, some of the National federations, most notably India, felt that their athletes had 'peaked' too early for the Asian meet and slumped thereafter when the Olympics arrived. Not many might buy that argument, though.

Suddenly, the very same people who lobbied for the new cycle were back in favour of the old. A belated show of collective wisdom, you might say. Yet the meet scheduled for 2002 in Colombo had to be gone through before the new cycle could be started. So, we have the 14th edition of the championships in the Sri Lankan capital, about seven weeks from the start of the athletics competition in the Busan Asian Games. Another case of disaster?

Yes and no. There is a fair number of Asian champions and a few Asian record holders in the field, no matter China has entered its weakest team ever and Japan has kept some top-notchers away. Obviously, the Asian Games is on everyone's mind. But Colombo 2002 is not going to be a second-grade competition either.

-V. SUDERSHAN Haadi Soua'an Al-Somaily (in green), is the favourite in the men's 400m hurdles.

Haadi Soua'an Al-Somaily (in green), is the favourite in the men's 400m hurdles.

The Chinese have not inspired much confidence in the run-up, with some disappointing performances in the National championships in June. Still, when it comes to track and field in the Asian context, they could have been expected to be far too superior even when not being at their best. They showed that last time in Jakarta, winning nine gold medals in a 29-medal haul with the weakest team they ever had.

This time, though, the situation looks drastically different with China not even entering the quota of two athletes in some of the events in its strongest suit, the throws.

It was in the Bangkok Asian Games in 1998 that lesser countries including India started making inroads into Chinese territories. Between 1998 and now, the Chinese have not regained their touch, though their depth, especially in the women's events is still remarkably intact. At a time when the overall throwing standards worldwide have dipped, barring surprisingly in India, the Chinese have struggled to hold on to their supremacy in either section.

Nor has there been any noticeable upsurge in standards in the women's middle and long distance events in China, not long ago the sole preserve of Ma Junren's proteges. There had been reports about Ma preparing a new bunch of teenage female stars, training in mysterious isolation, for the Olympic Games in 2000. That did not come about, with a bunch of athletes being off-loaded from the Olympic batch on positive dope tests conducted by the Chinese themselves. A year later, at the Edmonton World championships, Dong Yanmei, one of Ma's star trainees, finished a gallant fourth in the 5000 metres.

Dong Yanmei did score the distance double at the Chinese National Games in November, 2001 but was surprisingly beaten by the lesser known Sun Yingjie in both the 5000 and 10000 metres at the National championships at Benxi.

Saudi Arabia's Saad Shaddad Al-Asmari (extreme right) is the 3000m steeplechase record holder. He is also participating in the 5000m in Colombo.-RAJEEV BHATT

Such disturbing swings in performance levels as well as the below-par results across the board in all the other middle and long distance events might have prompted China not to field a single athlete in flat races from 200m upwards in either section at Colombo. Though the lack of interest in the men's middle and long distance events is somewhat understandable, the Chinese absence in the women's track events, bar the sprints and hurdles, should come as the biggest surprise in the Colombo championships. In the process, there should be some easy pickings for the lesser lights, especially in the distance events.

The Chinese seem to be building for the distant future rather than the immediate one of the Asian Games in Busan. To that extent, the presence of the hottest prospect in decathlon, Qi Haifeng, should gain precedence here over the others among the Chinese. The 18-year-old had bettered the Asian junior record with a tally of 8021 at the National Games in Guangzhou last November. He improved upon that mark by nine points in the National championships at Benxi in June. He will be the 'kid' among grown-ups, but he will be the favourite, too.

Though one of the regulars, Li Rongxiang has been chosen in men's javelin, the more experienced Li Shaojie has given way to one of the younger prospects in discus, 20-year-old Nuermaimaiti Tulake who had a 62.36 in Guangzhou last year to take the silver behind Li Shaojie.

Then there will be Liu Xiang, a 19-year-old high hurdler from Shanghai who ran a 13.12 in Lausanne in early July to be just behind Cuban Anier Garcia and American Allen Johnson in the season's ranking list till the third week of July.

Japan used to be China's main foe, in athletics terms, till the mid-80s, but the land of the Rising Sun had not been sending its best to these biennial championships in recent times, barring the full-strength team fielded at home in 1998. This time, though, there looks to have been a perceptible change in attitude. How else can one explain the presence of World silver medallist hammer thrower Koji Murofushi in the Japanese entry list, not to speak of a clutch of other top-level stars?.

Women sprinters, Susanthika Jayasinghe (right) and Damayanthi Darsha (below) enjoy the home advantage.-AFP

The naming of Murofushi, the best hammer thrower in the world last year and the man second-ranked this year in the run-up to Colombo, in itself should be considered as significant, no matter whether he eventually participates or not. Maybe Japan is finally giving the area championships their due.

Thus we have, apart from Murofushi, several other Japanese stars as well, notably the top two in women's high jump, Yoko Ota and Miki Imai, both in the 1.95m bracket. To somewhat dampen our spirits, the Japanese have not bothered to enter anyone of class in the men's distance events.

Also missing from the Japanese ranks will be their top two sprinters, Shingo Suetsugu and Nobuhara Asahara, the best-known one-lapper in recent times from that country, Kenji Tabata, and the incomparable distance runner, Toshinari Takaoka who holds the continental records in both 5000m and 10,000m, to name just a few.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been the two countries challenging the Chinese-Japanese supremacy in recent times, if one excludes India's booty from a depleted field on the last occasion. Both have entered in strength, with the accent being on youth.

Qatar will be fielding its latest World junior long jump champion, Ibrahim Abdulla Al-Waleed as well as 800m silver medallist Amer Salam Al-Badri and the 1500m silver winner, Abdulrahaman Suleiman.

However, the more famous Suleiman will not be there for the first time since making his Asian meet debut in New Delhi in 1989. He had won the 1500m for the third time in a row - fourth overall - last time apart from bagging the bronze in the 5000m. He had scored the 1500-5000 double at the Bangkok Asian Games earlier. He will be missed. Representing the 'veterans' brigade will be Ahmed Ibrahim Warsama, who will be defending just one of his two distance specialities, 10,000m. He had won the 5000m also last time.

V. SUDERSHAN

Talking of veterans or near veterans, Saudi Arabian Alyan Sultan Al-Qahtani is set to stage a comeback to the continental level. He had actually returned to big-time last year after a three-year gap and was scheduled to compete in the Asian Grand Prix meets this season, but pulled out at the last moment. This time, he is entered for the 10,000 metres. A fierce competitor known for his sudden spurts to shake off rivals, his duel with Warsama should be worth waiting for.

The 3000m steeplechase record holder, Saad Shaddad Al-Asmari has of late been concentrating more on the pure distance races than the one with hurdles. The 34-year-old Saudi Arabian will be tackling both the 5000 and the steeplechase in Colombo having cornered such a double in Jakarta in 1995. He will also have to tackle Qatari Khamis Sief Abdullah, who will be defending his steeplechase crown. The Qatari had ended at the top of last year's Asian rankings with a time of 8:14.38 at Damascus where he beat none other than Al-Asmari.

Without World bronze medallist, Japanese Dai Tamesue to provide the challenge, another Saudi Arabian, Olympic intermediate hurdles silver-winner Haadi Soua'an Al-Somaily should coast through, though the two Japanese in the fray, Hideaki Kawamura and Yoshihiro Chiba are both tough customers.

India, unlike in the past, has decided to keep its best away from the championships, hoping for a 'golden burst' in Busan later in the year. Left to the athletes, many would have liked to go for the medals in the Colombo meet, keeping an eye on the cash incentives that the Union Sports Ministry doles out every year. But the foreign experts seem to have argued against the Asiad batch's participation, barring a few exceptions.

The theory, put in simple terms, was that seven weeks might not be sufficient time for our athletes to 'peak' a second time. The Chinese thinking, especially following some insipid performances in the National meet after a series of encouraging results in the National Games last November, seems to have been based on the same argument. The rest will, of course, wonder what the fuss is all about, in an age where top-level athletes compete in big meets day in and day out for nearly four to five months during the outdoor season.

High jumper Bobby Aloysius, having been away in training in Moscow, has been the exception to the rule. She wanted to compete in the Commonwealth Games and Asian championships as a build-up for the Asian Games, no matter what the results turned out to be.

Indian woman high-jumper Bobby Aloysius is a keen competitor.-RAJEEV BHATT

Even without the home advantage Sri Lanka would have been expected to dominate the women's sprints apart from being a contender in the men's quarter-mile through Sugath Tillakeratne and Rohan Pradeep Kumara against the likes of Kuwaiti Fawzi Al-Shammari and Saudi Hamdan Odha Al-Bishi.

The Sri Lankans will have much at stake at home and no one looks better suited to lead the challenge than Susanthika Jayasinghe. Her brush with officialdom should now be a thing of the past, after she gained immortality at home by winning the 200m bronze at the Sydney Olympics.

Susanthika had opened with a wind-aided 11.11 in Osaka in May, but after that very little had been heard about the Sri Lankan till the Commonwealth Games in Manchester where she finished fourth in the 100 in a season best 11.08s. The disqualification in the 200m heats must have been a bitter blow, however.

Needless to say, at home Susanthika as well as Damayanthi Darsha could be expected to go all out to sweep the 100-200-400 titles. Darsha might have been stretched had K. M. Beenamol been there, the Indian having beaten her in one of the Asian Grand Prix meets this season.

But the Kerala girl was asked to focus on her Asiad preparations even as officials went through the mock motions of sending her entry, perhaps as a psychological ploy! But we will have to wait till Busan to witness another Beenamol-Darsha showdown.