On July 20, Hima Das completed her personal quintet, winning an unprecedented fifth consecutive gold medal across various competitions in Europe. Four days later India, and the world, kicked off the one-year countdown to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and with it, the nation propped up Hima as the golden girl who would finally fill India’s barren athletics medal closet at the quadrennial games.
For a country bereft of excellence on the world athletics stage, Hima has suddenly given hope. While javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra remains the biggest and lone genuine world-class athlete in the highly competitive world of track and field, his absence from the scene following a major elbow surgery for most of this year provided enough empty space for Hima to step in and claim the ‘numero uno’ Indian athlete tag.
But Tokyo remains a year away and before that would be the biggest test for the Indians — the Doha World Championships in September-October. As of now, only 15 Indians have made the cut for the same, with two more — shotputter Tejinder Pal Singh Toor and P. U. Chithra in 1,500m — likely to make it as Area Champions. Six of those are in road events — marathon and race walking — and the qualifying cut-off date is September 6. Hima, the 19-year-old ‘Dhing Express,’ is not among the remaining nine. For Tokyo, only K. T. Irfan (20km walk) has managed to qualify so far.
There have been thousands across all walks of life lauding Hima’s achievements, and a handful advising restraint by pointing out the long road ahead for the youngster before she can be counted among the world’s best.
This, though, is not just about Hima. As much as it is about celebrating individual success, it is also about the overall scenario in Indian athletics, which merits cautious encouragement, and the performances of some others that have slipped under the radar.
Since her scintillating run at the World Junior championships last year, Hima has been constantly in the spotlight. To her credit, she has managed to live up to the billing of being India’s best quartermiler over this period more often than not, outpacing her rivals both at home and abroad. But it is equally true that the devil is in the details, and the details reveal that Hima has only run 200m races this season barring the final Europe race at Nove Mesto and the Federation Cup at home in March.
Her gold-winning timing at Nove Mesto was 52.09 seconds, way off her personal best of 50.79 at the Asian Games last year or even the 51.46 she managed at the World Junior Championships last year. It also puts her at a very, very modest 75th position this year. For the record, that only means the 75th best timing — several top runners have managed better multiple times already.
In the first four races during the European sojourn, Hima ran only the 200m. At Poznan, she managed 23.65 seconds, far from her personal best of 23.10. At Kutno, she clocked 23.97. At Kladno in Czech Republic, it was 23.43. At Tabor, it was 23.25. While there has been constant improvement keeping in mind her return from a back injury earlier this year, it must be noted that the 200 is not a pet event for Hima and she is not considered an international medal prospect in it, placed a lowly joint 128th in 2019 timings; the 200m is more about Dutee Chand and Srabani Nanda.
Looking beyond Hima, the rest of the squad in Europe hasn’t set the track, or the field, on fire either. The only one who has managed to gradually build up to his personal best, consistently improving through the races, has been Muhammed Anas Yahiya, who broke his own national record in the 400m at Kladno with a 45.21 run to also qualify for the Worlds in the process — the only track athlete to do so. But even he restricted himself to 200m for the first few meets.
In field events, things have been equally sedate with the progress, or lack of it thereof, of those training in Poland raising questions on the efficacy of these repeated, long-term camps abroad. Tejinder Pal Singh Toor managed to cross the 20m mark in shot put just once. Javelin thrower Shivpal Singh, who had an impressive 86.23m at the Asian meet, has been slipping gradually — down to 80.87 at the Diamond League, 79.69 in Ostrava and 76.90 in Poland. In his last competition, he managed 76.90 in Finland. Javelin thrower Vipin Kasana participated in one meet, while Davinder Singh Kang and Rajinder Singh have had poor outings as well.
At most of the track events the Indians, especially the women, ran amongst themselves and against club athletes from around Poland and the Czech Republic and hardly got the serious competition that was touted as one of the reasons for overseas camps. In fact, even though AFI officials have refrained from going to town about any of the results by Indians in the past couple of months — including the five-gold streak by Hima — it is interesting that the reasons for staying in Poland for 3-4 months at a stretch have constantly changed.
The main reason initially was superior training facilities in Spala and enough high-level exposure and competitions which weren’t possible in India. However, these outings in Poland and Czech Republic were mainly sub-par and rendered into all-Indian affairs with some of the top polish and Czech athletes also missing at times in the track events. In fact the Nove Mesto event, where Hima won her 400m gold, was swept by the Indians — seven of the top-eight positions (see box below) .
AFI then claimed that these were simply training exercises to test the athletes, not real top-level competitions. The absence of runners like Anas and Hima from their main event of 400m was explained as the coach and staff’s desire to not push the athletes to their peak and preserve their best for the Worlds while working on speed.
The AFI’s newly appointed High Performance Director Volker Herrmann has claimed the 200 and 400 were complementary and doing good in the latter required being good in the former as well. But the Indian focus has mainly been on the 4x400 and it is yet to be seen if the teams will qualify for the Worlds.
At the World Relay Championships in May, the Indian teams were a huge disappointment — the men clocked 3:06:05 to finish last in 17th spot, the women managed 3:31.93 to be 17th among 20 teams that finished and the mixed team timed 3:23:59 to be 15th out of 16. The men’s quartet, however, made a huge improvement, although with a different combination, to clock 3.02.59 in Finland.
Avoiding injuries was cited as another reason for staying away from the bigger meets and sticking to the lesser ones. Recently, it was claimed that a large part of the elite athletes’ stint abroad has been all about their ‘education’ on pacing their races. Coach Galina Bukharina and the athletes have now sought further extension of the training camp till the end of August with one of the reasons claiming to ‘avoid monsoon-related diseases’!
There have also been injury concerns to some of India’s top athletes while the non-participation of others have led to questions. Dharun Ayyasamy, the 400m hurdles national champion, is still far from competition fit due to a shin injury. Arokia Rajiv returned home after almost two months abroad with what AFI coaches claim is a stress fracture on his big toe but cannot explain in detail. Rajiv has claimed that he would be fit soon after consulting a local doctor of ‘alternative medicine’ near home. M. R. Poovamma barely ran. V. K. Vismaya, on the other hand, managed a season’s best (in 400) and a personal best (in 200).
In between, another batch of athletes went for the G. Kossanov Memorial international meet at Almaty and the Tatyana Kolpakova international meet at Bishkek but despite a massive haul of 19 medals in Almaty, 12 of them gold, the only performance worth mentioning was that of young triple jumper Mohd. Salahuddin, who managed an impressive personal best of 16.64m, behind only Renjith Maheshwary and Arpinder Singh in India’s all-time list since 2008.
Also, some like Arpinder, Siddhant Thingalaya and Srabani Nanda have been participating in meets in France, the US and Europe, some of them of decidedly higher standards, on their own through sponsors, and giving decent results, but whether the AFI considers these as official performances is unclear. Nanda, in particular, has also been training away from national camps which makes it trickier given the AFI’s reluctance to deal with non-campers. Also intriguing is the case of Anjali Devi, who ran in incredible 51.79s in 400m last year to qualify for the Worlds but dropped to 54.50 at the Federation Cup and has gone missing ever since.
There is still time, though. The qualification period for the Worlds ends on September 6 and the upcoming Inter-State meet would be the best chance for more Indians to qualify. How many of the elite ones actually make it to the meet is a different matter, given their preference to continue training abroad and try and get the qualifying mark there. Chopra, though, is ruled out after having only just started training again and still undergoing recovery and rehabilitation. In fact, he would be racing against time for Tokyo as well.
Tokyo, though, would be a completely different affair. With the IAAF’s revised qualifying process, athletes can make it either on the basis of achieving entry standards or on the basis of world rankings in the qualification period (started on May 1 for in-stadium track and field events barring the 10k run and on till June 29, 2020). The rankings are calculated as the average of the best five results for the athlete over the qualifying period but more importantly, the results are also weighted by the importance of the meet.
Which brings us back to Hima and her five gold medals. The IAAF grades competitions with ‘OW’ (Olympics and World championships) getting the maximum points on offer and F being the lowest where the first place would mean only 15 scoring points. The meets in which the Indian track runners participated in Europe were of the ‘E’ and ‘’F’ categories. Of the five Hima won, two were F category and three E, just a notch above.
None of it is the athlete’s fault, neither is the fact that her own performance was satisfactory given the competition she faced. But with the Sports Ministry spending crores for training and competition in Europe, and results not exactly on expected lines, it is perhaps time to not just temper expectations but also allow the Indian athletes space to figure out their own way forward in the next one year. The road only gets rougher here on.
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