Are the feats path-breaking?

K. P. MOHAN

TWENTY-FOUR years after Suresh Babu won a bronze at the Edmonton Games, India has two athletics medals from the Commonwealth Games.

Are the feats of long jumper Anju B. George and discus thrower Neelam Jaswant Singh path-breaking in nature or were they achieved against mediocre opposition? Do these feats really portray the health of Indian athletics? Or are they simply the flash-in-the-pan types?

India had not sent an athlete to the last three editions of the Commonwealth Games on the argument that our athletes would have struggled to find their feet in tougher company. Obviously Commonwealth Games athletics is a lot tougher, in a majority of the events, than the Asian Games or Asian championships. The Amateur Athletic Federation of India (AAFI) had a point in declining Indian participation. There could be a debate, however.

This time, though, there was a desire to send a team to Manchester. For one thing, our athletics standards had started showing some depth if not class and there were athletes such as Anju, Neelam and high jumper Bobby Aloysius who were consistent and needed a certain higher level of competition in their build-up for the Asian Games.

There were others, too, in line for selection. But, after having initially contemplated entering almost the complete batch of Asian Games-bound athletes in the Manchester Games, the AAFI backed out. Finally, just five athletes were fielded. It could have been more. Those who missed out, especially those who could have won medals, including quarter-miler K. M. Beenamol, might be cursing their luck now, especially considering the Government largesse that awaited the medal winners back home.

But then it is not always that athletes produce their best at big championships and just looking at the timings and distances at Manchester the Indians should not form an idea that the Commonwealth Games are below even Asian standards and medals would be easy to get. Not in athletics anyway.

Take the case of Anju's event, the long jump. There were at least five jumpers in the final who were either having better personal bests than Anju's including a seven-metre jumper in Australian Bronwyn Thompson or had better marks than the Indian in this year's rankings.

Anju had jumped better than 6.59 only once, at Thiruvananthapuram last year when she had her National record pegged at 6.74m. Everyone who knew about that runway had said that it did give some advantage to the jumpers because of its inclination. Thus Anju was essentially a 6.60-plus jumper who had the potential to consistently reach 6.70 and beyond.

Two of the better-rated jumpers finished ahead of Anju, Jamaican Eva Goulbourne who had a jump of 6.82 this season before the Games and Jade Johnson of Britain who at 6.65 was above Anju in the year's lists. Anju's best for the season was 6.59 at the Federation Cup at Chennai.

That she could haul herself up from the sixth position to the third with that last-gasp 6.49 at Manchester on her last jump should separate Anju from the ordinary. It was India's first athletics medal in the Commonwealth Games.

Now, it was not Anju's fault that Australian Bronwyn Thompson, the lone seven-metre jumper in the field, did not jump up to her potential. Or for that matter the Kiwi, Chantal Brunner who has a best of 6.77, though at altitude, who finished with 6.39. There was the Bahamas girl, Jackie Edwards, a well-known jumper with a personal best of 6.89, who ended up seventh with just 6.19. To classify it as a sub-standard competition will be gross injustice to Anju.

The 25-year-old Kerala girl, working with the Chennai Customs, came up close to her best for the season. More importantly she had her first major international championship medal.

This was not the case with Neelam Jaswant Singh's silver. Neelam has won at the Asian level and just looking at the year's rankings, she was expected to win a medal in these Games, probably the silver. She was only behind New Zealand's Beatrice Faumuina, the 1997 world champion.

Faumuina had 11 marks above 63 this season before the Games with a 65.05 as her best. Obviously, she was in a different league, well beyond Neelam's reach. But the Indian record holder's 61.93 at Bangalore in May placed her just behind Faumuina. Australian Alison Lever and South African Elizna Naude were just behind her. In the event, the bronze went to Shelly Newman of England at 58.13. Neelam's 58.49 was just about average by her own standards but she seemed to have shed her big championship jitters by bagging this medal. The 31-year-old Railway employee has a gold and a silver from the Asian championships so far and the bronze from the 1998 Asian Games.

In both Anju and Neelam's case, the husbands have played major parts in their careers. Robert Bobby George, himself a promising triple jumper whose career was cut short by injuries, now coaches Anju, while Jaswant Singh, also a triple jumper in his time, is the coach of Neelam.

Talking of spouses, Shajan Scaria, the journalist husband of high jumper Bobby Aloysius, has also done everything he can to encourage his wife in pursuing her career. In order to be with his wife at a crucial period in her training in Moscow, Scaria resigned his job.

Bobby was very close to winning a medal and joining Anju and Neelam in the list of proud Indian achievers at Manchester. But, after having jumped her second best height of 1.87m, she lost the bronze on a countback with Canadian Nicole Forrester.

"Bobby was very distraught and inconsolable that night and spent her time with me. I knew what it was like losing a major medal after being so close to it. I knew the pain," said P. T. Usha, who was there at Manchester to see the Indians perform.

"I allowed the medal to slip through my fingers," Bobby wrote in a message from Manchester.

She had jumped in higher company that included the reigning world champion and the world's second-ranked woman in 2002, Hestrie Cloette of South Africa, who won the gold at a Games record height of 1.98. Both Susan Jones of England and Nicole Forrester were 1.92-plus jumpers. Bobby's lone 1.90m jump had come at Bangalore this season.

That Bobby eventually managed to go up to 1.87 metres and cleared that height on her third attempt on a rainy day was creditable, no matter that she will continue to feel that she had missed her best chance to get a Commonwealth Games medal. Forrester who cleared 1.87 on her first attempt, and Bobby went for 1.90 and failed. Susan Jones had the silver at 1.90.

The disappointments in the Indian squad were hammerwoman Hardeep Kaur, who managed just 55.98 in the qualification round as against her 61.31m at home, and shot putter Navpreet Singh who fouled all his three attempts in the qualifying competition.

Navpreet, even with any throw above 16.09 would have made it to the final. "He could have done that even with a standing throw," was how a veteran reacted to Navpreet's dubious distinction. It is not for the first time in Indian athletics that shot putters have come up with three foul throws in international competitions to get eliminated. If you smell a rat, it is not your fault. The Union Sports Ministry may please note.