Inderjeet stands tall

Inderjeet Singh booked his ticket to the Rio Olympics, throwing his shot to a distance of 20.65m.-PICS: H. S. MANJUNATH

The peak of summer in Mangaluru may not have been the best time for Indian athletics to start a fresh season. Quite a few stars were missing in action. Still, the Federation Cup meet, one of the biggest events in the calendar for Indian domestic athletics, provided some bright spots over four sultry days, though mediocrity was the predominant theme. By P. K. Ajith Kumar.

Mangaluru can be unbearably hot and humid in May. Even ambling around, for a few minutes, early in the morning would make you tired — drenched in sweat.

The peak of summer in this port city in southern Karnataka may not have been the best time for Indian athletics to start a fresh season. Quite a few stars were missing in action. Still, the Federation Cup meet, one of the biggest events in the calendar for Indian domestic athletics, provided some bright spots over four sultry days, though mediocrity was the predominant theme.

The meet also served as a selection trial for the Asian Athletics Championship to be held in Wuhan, China, from June 3 to 6. The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) set the qualification standard at fourth place at the last Asian meet, which Pune had hosted in 2013. But the AFI secretary, C. K. Valson, indicated that even those who failed to meet the mark could be considered for selection. That hardly came as a surprise; the federation is known to conduct trials specifically for athletes, whom it wants to be in the team.

With the qualification standard not that high, quite a few athletes were expected to make the cut. But most people didn’t expect to see athletes meeting the Olympic standard.

The qualification standards for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, to be held next year, had been announced by the International Association of Athletics Federations a couple of weeks before the Mangaluru meet, with the qualification window open from May 1. On May 2, Inderjeet Singh booked his ticket to Rio.

He did this in style, throwing his shot to a distance of 20.65m; slightly better than the Rio qualifying mark of 20.50m. He decimated the competition in the process. Tejinder Singh was a distant second, by over two and half metres, at 18.02m.

Like a true champion, Inderjeet wasn’t satisfied, even after achieving his personal best. “I was aiming to go past 21m, but I was troubled by a knee infection,” said the giant from Haryana, showing the puss on his left knee. “My goal here was to break the National record.”

M. R. Poovamma was delighted to win the 400m gold in front of her home crowd and secure a berth for the Asian meet.-

He, however, did break the meet record, which he had set last year (19.89m). There was only one more meet record in the four-day event, giving an indication of the quality. That, too, came in a throwing event, as Devender Singh threw the javelin to a distance of 79.65m, to better Rajinder Singh’s mark of 79.32m, set last year.

Rajinder was one of the biggest disappointments in Mangaluru. The National record holder finished only fourth, with 71.67m. Three months back, he had set the National record, during the National Games in Thiruvananthapuram, with a throw of 82.23m.

There was no shortage of disappointments at the Mangala Stadium. Many of the big stars did strike gold, but their performances were below par.

Sahana Kumari, the National record holder in women’s high jump managed to clear only a height of 1.76m. Though the local lass’ effort was good for a gold medal, it was well outside the Wuhan mark of 1.86m (which Sahana had achieved during the Asian meet in Pune two years back). She was close to tears, when speaking to the media, shortly after the event. “You know, I was practising for this meet for the past 20 days. I was eager to perform before my home crowd, which was encouraging me all the way,” she said. “And I came up with one of the worst performances of my career.”

there were tears for M. R. Poovamma too, but those were of joy. Like Sahana, she too had honed her talent in Mangaluru. She was therefore delighted to win the 400m gold, as well as a ticket to Wuhan, with a time of 53.41s. “This was a dream for me, to run in a major meet on my home turf,” said India’s No. 1 quarter-miler and a bronze medallist at the Incheon Asian Games. “This was the track where I learnt to run and my parents, relatives and friends were here to see me run.”

Tintu Luka, who had won the 800m silver in Incheon and was a semi-finalist at the London Olympics, is also familiar with the surroundings at the Mangala Stadium and won the 800m gold medal comfortably, in what was predictably a solo race. Her time of 2:04.14 was a letdown though, especially when she has been talking about another sub-two performance. “I have not recovered fully from a cold and cough,” she said. “And the lack of competition in the domestic meets is also bothering me.”

Tintu still came under the Asian qualifying mark, but triple-jumper Arpinder Singh didn’t. One of India’s most promising athletes and a National record holder, Arpinder had a forgettable outing, notwithstanding the gold. His best jump of 16.13m was over one metre short of the National record (17.17m) that he had set a year ago at the National Inter-State meet in Lucknow.

Another young man, of whom much is expected, SiddhanthThingalaya, wasn’t at his best either, but was able to match the Wuhan mark during the heats of the 110m hurdles. A pulled hamstring let him down in the final and he clearly struggled to finish.

There were no such troubles for sprinter Srabani Nanda, who emerged as the female star of the meet. The Odisha girl was superb in both the 100m and the 200m. The 23-year-old’s main rival was fellow-Odiya, Dutee Chand, who has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. (She is fighting a case to stay in competition after testing positive for hyperandrogenism.)

Dutee had to settle for silver in both the races. She was no match for a confident Srabani, who qualified for Wuhan in both the sprint events, with times of 11.59s (100m) and 23.67s (200m). The fastest man of the meet, too, was from Orissa as Amiya Kumar Mallick clocked 10.56s in the 100m.

Srabani Nanda (576) emerged as the female star of the meet. The Odisha girl won both the 100m and the 200m gold.-

Like Srabani, the golden double was also scored by Jinson Johnson (men’s 800m and 1500m), G. Lakshmanan (men’s 5000m and 10,000m) and L. Suriya (women’s 5000m and 10,000m). Also climbing the podium twice were Tintu, who added the 400m silver to her 800m gold and Anu Raghavan, who struck gold in the women’s 400m hurdles and bronze in the 400m flat race.

Mangaluru also saw ace jumper Mayookha Johny’s return to the field. Still recovering from a ligament injury, she was able to come up with an effort in long jump that was good enough to fetch her a place in the Indian team for the Asian championship. “I haven’t had much practice after the Incheon Asian Games,” she said, after taking the gold with a leap of 6.34m. “Even now I am not fully fit; you see I had to reduce my approach to 17 strides instead of my usual 21.”

Not surprisingly, she did not compete in the triple jump. Mayookha was at least there, unlike other big stars like throwers Vikas Gowda, Seema Antil and Krishna Poonia, walkers K.T. Irfan, Manish Rawat, Sandeep Kumar and Kushbir Kaur, long jumper K. Premkumar and 400m runners Ashwini Akkunji and Mandeep Kaur. “Though we wanted all our top athletes to be here, we have to give exemption to many of them because of various reasons,” said C. K. Valson.

“Some of them are competing or training abroad, while others are nursing injuries. Having said that, it is true that some of our athletes do not want to take part in domestic meets and attend national camps.”

In spite of the absence of so many big names, the Federation Cup was not entirely a forgettable affair. Athletes like Inderjeet and Srabani gave it some sheen.

“I thought there were some good performances,” said P. Radhakrishnan Nair, national deputy chief coach. “We have to consider the fact that the athletes are just warming up for the new season and the weather was oppressive. Apart from Inderjeet, whose performance was outstanding, and Srabani, who is shaping up as a fine sprinter, I was also impressed by the likes of Jisna Mathew, who has great potential in 400m as she is just 16, long-jumper Ankit Sharma, who leapt 7.99m, and javelin-thrower Devender.”

SPREADING WINGS

Mangaluru responded enthusiastically to the Federation Cup. Though the stands were far from full, there were reasonable crowds on all the four days, much better than what you would find for most domestic athletics meets.

The city was hosting a major athletics event for the first time since 1987, when the National Open Championship was held. Big names like P. T. Usha and Ashwini Nachappa had participated in it. Both the women were back for the Federation Cup, Usha as Tintu Luka's coach and Ashwini as the vice president of the Karnataka Athletics Association.

The AFI secretary C. K. Valson said Mangaluru was chosen as the venue for the Federation Cup because the city had not only produced several international athletes, like M. R. Poovamma and Sahana Kumari, but also had the potential to churn out few more. "Mangaluru is a bit like neighbouring Kerala, which continues to be a powerhouse in Indian athletics," he said. "The AFI wants to take athletics to more cities, rather than concentrating on a pew places like New Delhi, Patiala and Chennai."

P. K. Ajith Kumar