China, the overwhelming favourite

Olympic 110m hurdles champion and world record holder Liu Xiang should lead China's medal surge in athletics.-AP

China, which topped the athletics standings four years ago with 41 medals including 14 gold, should continue to assert its supremacy, writes K. P. Mohan.

Busan was a dream-come-true for Indian athletics. Seven gold medals in a total of 11 that the country won came from the athletes. Four years down the line, the picture looks far from encouraging.

For one thing, the build-up has been lacklustre with not a single mark that could put an Indian athlete on top of the Asian lists. Even the lone Asia-topping performance, that by the women's 4x400m relay team, had come in March at the Commonwealth Games.

For the rest, it has been a series of low-key performances by the main medal contenders barring the middle distance runners under Belarus coach Nikolai Snesarev. The foreign coaches, mainly from Ukraine, have put forward the argument that the athletes were expected to `peak' only in Doha and peak they will when the time comes.

Vikas Gowda is expected to win a medal in discus and could add one more in shot put.-PHOTO: R. RAGU

Veteran Olympians and coaches, on the other hand, feel that the athletes should have been close to their peak during the final selection trials at the Chennai Inter-State meet and the fact that they could not reach such levels could point towards a dismal performance.

Everyone agrees that around a dozen medals should not be too much of a problem for India, but no one knows for sure where the gold is going to come from. At best the women's longer relay team and then... ? There will be Anju George of course.

India's star long jumper has not been in the best of form this season. Yet there is something in her approach that suggests that she could be finding her form in Doha. Her stature as a former World Championship bronze medallist should count in a battle with Japanese Kumiko Ikeda, who tops the lists this season with 6.86m, and possibly Kazakh heptathlete Olga Rypakova. Anju had a 6.53m in November, a centimetre below her best for the year. She was not exactly the favourite last time but won with a modest effort of 6.53. She has battled a heel injury this season and looks a little short on her competitive build-up.

India is also banking on male throwers Vikas Gowda and Navpreet Singh. Gowda is expected to win a medal in discus and could add one more in shot put while Navpreet is struggling to show the kind of form that fetched him the shot put silver at the Asian Championships last year. He has not crossed 19 metres since winning the Asian Grand Prix title (19.84m) in Bangalore in May this year. The other major Indian medal contenders should be Pinki Paramanik and Manjeet Kaur (400m), Sinimole Paulose and S. Shanthi (800m/1500m), Krishna Poonia and Seema Antil (discus) and J. J. Shobha and Soma Biswas (heptathlon).

Of great interest in the women's section will be the duels between Sri Lankan Susanthika Jayasinghe (above) and Bahrain's Rakia Al-Gassra in the sprints.-PHOTO: K.RAMESH BABU

Five months ago, Paramanik had looked unbeatable at home in both 400m and 800m. Since then she has stagnated while Shanthi and Sinimole have pulled ahead in the two-lap event.

Even as India's chances in the women's 400m look unpredictable, the country's prospects in the middle distance events will hinge entirely on the choice of events that Maryam Yusuf Jamal will opt for in Doha.

Maryam Jamal brings us to the topic of "imported athletes". These Games will see the maximum number of former African athletes donning the colours of their adopted countries in the Gulf and that will mean a higher level of performance, notwithstanding the fact that the Games have come in the `off-season'.

Twenty-two-year-old Maryam Jamal, formerly Zenebech Tola Kotu of Ethiopia, now representing Bahrain, should be the overwhelming favourite in the 800m and 1500m. She has bests of 1:59.04 and 3:56.18 for the events and no one is near her.

Barring the shorter sprints, the men's flat races will be dominated by athletes from Bahrain and Qatar, almost all of them former Moroccans or Kenyans. Bahrain's US-born Brandon Simpson (44.64s in 400m this season) is an exception to the `African rule' He is a former Jamaican.

Names like Youssef Saad Kamel (Bahrain, 800m, formerly Gregory Konchellah, son of former world champion Billy Konchellah of Kenya), Rashid Ramzi (Bahrain, double world champion in 800m, 1500m), Saif Saaeed Shaheen (Qatar, world champion and world record holder, 3000m steeplechase; formerly Stephen Cherono of Kenya) and Essa Ismael Rasheed (Qatar, 10,000m, formerly Daniel Kipkosgei of Kenya) should figure prominently during the Games.

Of great interest in the women's section will be the duels between Sri Lankan Susanthika Jayasinghe and Bahrain's Rakia Al-Gassra in the sprints. Jayasinghe, who pulled out of the 200 metres after winning the 100m in Busan, is back in action and in form while the lesser-known 24-year-old Al-Gassra is already hailed as the torch-bearer for Arab women athletes.

What about China? Olympic 110m hurdles champion and world record holder Liu Xiang heads a team of talented youngsters who are obviously being groomed for the Beijing Olympics. The squad includes a prodigy like 18-year-old high jumper Huang Haiqiang, world junior champion, who has cleared 2.32 metres this season, and 21-year-old triple jumper Zhu Shujing who has crossed 17 metres.

China, which topped the athletics standings four years ago with 41 medals including 14 gold, should continue to assert its supremacy with its women's throwers once again set for a sweep. The Chinese women should also figure prominently in the distance events. Japan is capable of regaining its runner-up status against formidable opposition from the host, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.