A World athletics championships less than a year before the Olympics provides a clear indication of the gap that exists between the top-ranked nations and lesser-accomplished countries. The attempt of the lower rung is always to bridge the gap so that they too could get into contention when the quadrennial games arrive.
Indian athletes set out this time for Doha with high hopes of achieving personal bests, national records and Olympic qualification. But the eventual achievement by a 27-member team fell far short of the hype created around the athletes and the expectations of a medal-starved nation.
Yet another blank meant India would not figure among the 43 nations that won medals in Doha in one of the best ever championships of high quality contests that produced two world records in the newly-introduced mixed relay and another in the women’s 400m hurdles, plus six championships records, 21 Area records and 87 National records. Questions will again crop up: When countries like Grenada (one gold), Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Namibia, all with a bronze each, can get among the medals, why not India?
An athletics medal in an Olympics or World Championships is not going to come easily. As long jumper Anju George, the lone Indian medal-winner in the World championships, has explained time and again, you have to first make the final and then hope for a medal. In order to make the final, you have to compete in quality competitions en route, not club-level meets.
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Two individuals, steeplechaser Avinash Sable and javelin thrower Annu Rani, and the mixed relay team made the finals on this occasion. Sable and the relay team also qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, in the process. Sable and Annu Rani had national records to show for their spirited performances.
It is easy to get excited about Indians entering three finals or getting two Olympic qualifications. “We made finals in three events. Never before had we achieved this,” is a refrain that has been heard repeatedly since the 10-day championships came to an end.
Paris 2003 should, however, remain India’s best effort in the World Championships to date. Anju George and discus thrower Neelam J. Singh plus the women’s 4x400m team were entered. Anju won that historic bronze and Neelam made the final, finishing 12th.
In a three-member team in the Helsinki edition in 2005, Anju again made the final, finishing fourth. Discus thrower Vikas Gowda, who made his World debut in 2005, would go onto achieve the distinction of making three finals in 2011, 2013, with seventh placing in both, and 2015 when he was ninth. In 2011, there was also long jumper Mayookha Johny who made the final out of an eight-member team. This time it was a 27-member team.
Credit should go to Armyman Sable, who finished 13th in the final after having initially failed to make it. He was blocked twice in the heat and the referee ruled that there was sufficient ground to include him in the final. He first posted 8:25.23, cutting 4.61s from his Fed Cup timing in Patiala this year, for his national record. He then, surprisingly, clocked another fabulous 8:21.37 in the final, primarily aiming at the qualification mark for Olympics once he realised a chase of the front pack would be futile.
But consider this, there were 12 athletes in front of Sable with 8:12.47 or better (Olympic qualification 8:22.00).
“Sable has done very well to post national records and qualify for Olympics. But I doubt whether he would be able to make it to the final in Tokyo”, said former National coach J. S. Saini, looking at the string of top-class timings returned by the others in Doha.
Annu Rani is an enigma in Indian athletics. After a mediocre 2018 when she could touch only a season best 58.17m, she managed only 53.93m for sixth in the Asian Games which she almost missed out. She has shown a consistency in 2019 that has been hard to comprehend.
Nine of her top-10 career marks have come in 2019, all over 60m. She competed in one Diamond League and one World Challenge meet during the course of the year that also included six other European meets. There is an attempt to explain her improvement as the result of her changing coaches this year. Former world record-holder Uwe Hohn, who has been coach of men’s javelin throwers, is also currently Rani’s coach. However Hohn was quoted by Sportstar in a report last July as complaining that Rani did not “follow our advice”.
It is to be hoped that Rani had heeded the advice of the German and thus improved her consistency at 60-metre plus with a national record of 62.43m, nine centimetres above her previous mark, coming in the preliminary round in Doha, and she would continue to show progress next year. The Tokyo entry standard is 64.0m. She finished eighth in the final with 61.12m.
If Hohn had seemingly brought in improvement to Rani’s throwing ability, he apparently could not produce the same effect on the male javelin throwers. All of them showed a downward graph as the season progressed.
With national record-holder Neeraj Chopra recovering from elbow surgery and unable to make it, the focus was on Shivpal Singh, the 24-year-old UP thrower, who had reached a personal best 86.23m for the silver in the Doha Asian championships earlier this year.
With his Asian meet performance, Shivpal remained around the 11th-12th place in the world lists for the season, but he could not reproduce that form in any of the seven meets including the World championships. Worse, he could not reach 80m in five of them. He finished 24th in the Doha qualification with 78.97m.
In a competition where the Germans could not strike their top form, Anderson Peters won the gold, only the second one ever for Grenada, a tiny island nation in the Caribbean, with a population of over one lakh. Peters, the 2019 NCAA champion, was third at the World Junior championships in 2016 when Chopra won with an under-20 world record of 86.48m. He was again third at last year’s Commonwealth Games when Chopra won with 86.47m. Peters won the world title with 86.89m, his second best throw of the season and career. He has a PB of 87.31m recorded this year. Chopra’s record against Peters should not provide any extra hope for Indian fans. The field in Olympics will be as tough if not tougher than the Doha one. The competition may not be as low as this one, though.
Shivpal’s next best to his 86.23 is an 82.56m in Patiala this year. Caught in a change-of-technique routine in the midst of a World championships preparation, if reports are to be believed, Shivpal had two other marks over 81.0m. His slump in June-August was enough to suggest that he would not go far in the Worlds. AFI may have to try to figure out what went wrong with Shivpal.
In an injury-ridden season for Indian athletes, there was much debate about whether Hima Das’s presence would have mattered a great deal in the relays. The mixed relay heats having come on the second day, not many teams were willing to field their best since their individual 400m runners were expected to compete in the next few days. This gave India a better opportunity to aim and get a spot in the final.
Muhammed Anas, national record holder, who was “preserved” for the relays and not entered in the individual 400m, was below par throughout. By his standards, his opening legs of 45.8s and 45.6s in the heats and final of the mixed relay were ordinary. His national record of 45.21s set in July this year should have pointed to a much better effort. Worse was the 45.8s second leg in the men’s 4x400 heat. Compared to it, newcomer Noah Nirmal Tom clocked 44.9s for the anchor in the same race.
Anas supported the AFI decision not to field him in the 400m. He had no other option, perhaps. He was quoted as saying that it helped him focus on the relays. But the result was worse than what he had clocked in India’s silver-winning mixed relay effort in the Asian Games when the team clocked 3:15.71 compared to a season best 3:15.77 now. Anas had then timed 45.2s in mixed and 44.99s (on third leg) in the men’s relay.
In the absence of Himas Das, the main responsibility of leading the relays on the women’s side fell on V. K. Vismaya. She could not come up to expectations. For someone who had clocked a personal best of 52.12s for the 400m this season, the Kerala woman should have been close to 51.2s or better in the relays unless she was leading off. As it turned out, Vismaya timed 52.1s in the mixed heats, 52.3s in the mixed final and 51.6s, on third leg, in the women’s event.
Jisna Mathew had the misfortune of colliding with a Brazilian runner in the mixed final while handing over the baton to Nirmal Tom. The team clocked 3:15.77 for seventh. But there were people within the federation who thought a medal was lost by Jisna’s “mistake”.
Nothing can be more preposterous than this. Bahrain, with the brilliant Salwa Eid Naser running the third leg in 49.2s, had timed 3:11.82 for the bronze. Could a deficit of 3.95s have ensued because of the collision of Jisna? At worst, Jisna would have lost the advantage of a ‘running start’, which normally should amount to one second. Let us say India’s time could have been 3:14.77. Belgium timed 3:14.22 at sixth place! Jisna had clocked 51.8s on the third leg in the mixed heat and went onto lead off in the women’s relay with a fine 52.7, all good efforts that showed up the European batch. She only has a season best of 52.96s.
The AFI should seriously introspect whether keeping the relay team members, numbering about 19 among men and women put together, for eight to nine months in Europe under coach Galina Bukharova was the wisest thing it had done in many years. She had “produced” six medals in the Asian Games including one gold, in the women’s 4x400m relay and was hailed as the coach who would take India to the next level — the Olympics. No one seemed to care about the individual improvement or compare timings with that at the world level. The first shock came at the World Relays this year with the teams ending up towards the bottom.
From among the Europe batch, Hima Das and Saritaben Gayakwad had to be dropped because of “mysterious” injuries that were not explained by the federation. Arokia Rajiv, who looked to be the best 400m runner among Indians at the beginning of the season, and Ayyasamy Dharun, were also on the injured list. Rajiv did not make the team, but Dharun, who after clocking a national record 48.80s in the 400m hurdles in March and was reportedly down with a stress fracture of the shin, was foolishly drafted into the Indian team despite not having run a hurdles race since March. Predictably, he went out at the heats stage. Six months away from hurdles and an athlete still gets included in the team for World championships; no less.
Much has been made out of the absence of Hima Das. But, her relay feats were not as impressive as her individual exploits last year. Das timed a third leg of 52.75s in the mixed relay final in Jakarta. Compared to that Poovamma, now far from her best, clocked a second leg of 51.8s then. Both Jisna and Vismaya contributed better than 52.75s in the mixed relay in Doha. Incidentally, the US posted two world records in the mixed event, 3:12.42 in the heats and 3:09.34 in the final.
In the women’s relay in Jakarta, Das opened with 52.1s, more in tune with her stature then, though not yet in tune with her phenomenal 50.79s for the silver behind Salwa Naser in the 400m final. The Assam girl looks unlikely to stage a comeback next year and given the calibre of the rest of the talent on display through this season, India’s chances of doing better than in Doha at the Olympics look remote.
“It is unlikely to be any different from this,” said P. T. Usha, Indian athletics icon, and coach of Jisna Mathew.
“There was nothing in the relays,” said Saini, disappointed that months of training in Europe had produced very little in the end.
“At best we can hope for fifth in the mixed relay in Olympics,” opined G. S. Randhawa, the chairman of the selection committee, during a chat.
The disappointments were plenty for India. Jinson Johnson, on whom there were great hopes for a place in the final, faded out on the finishing straight in his heat. He had timed national records of 3:37.62 and 3:35.24 in Europe but an unnecessary trip to the US, his next base for training, seemed to have unsettled him. Middle distance timings are rarely indications of what may come about in a championship race. Tactics of the leading runners often dictate the course of a race. Johnson can still come good next year.
Hurdler M. P. Jabir caused a flutter by making the semifinals in the 400m hurdles, clocking 49.62s. He went out in the semifinals.
Long jumper M. Sreeshankar would have been disappointed in not making the final, reaching only 7.62m for an overall placing of 22nd.
Shot putter Tejinder Pal Singh Toor, also a beneficiary of ideal weather conditions and facilities for training in Europe, had a season best 20.43m, but ended up 18th in the qualification round.
Dutee Chand (11.48s in 100m, 37th overall), Archana Suseendran (23.65s in 200m, 40th overall), Anjali Devi (52.33s in 400m, 37th overall), P. U. Chithra (4:11.10 PB in 1500m, 30th overall) got eliminated in the opening rounds.
The 20km walkers, K. T. Irfan and Devender Singh were 27th and 36th respectively, not disappointing in cruel conditions in which all seemed to have found the going tough. T. Gopi clocked 2:15:57 for a respectable 21st place in marathon.
Year after year we tend to console ourselves by saying we did “creditably” or “we achieved Olympic qualification”. The trend has to change if India has to attain the world standards that officials have been claiming for so long.
There were some positive signs, though. “They seem to have become fearless,” said Anju George about the attitude of the Indian athletes in Doha. Not all may be, but some of them surely. “They have to try to peak through competitions, not training,” she said about the Olympics plans. “We cannot expect much better results in Tokyo,” she added.
“Provide them good competitions in Europe,” said Randhawa when asked about the future course of journey towards Tokyo.
Secret camps and secret competitions or unspecified injuries treated abroad without even the Sports ministry apparently being aware of the happenings have to give way to more and more transparency. It needs no elaboration here that the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) has a crucial role to play in the build-up towards Olympics. Doped athletes will give top performances on the way, but when the effects of the drugs go away, there will be a plunge in performance.
“Make final trials mandatory for all athletes. That is the only way to make a fair selection,” said Usha, pointing out the reluctance of the privileged batch of 400m runners to compete in India towards places in relays.
The rest should make it through entry standards, if they can get them, very tough as they are for Olympics this time, or through world rankings towards which athletes have to compete in good quality competitions.
It is up to the federation to arrange them even as it should justify to the ministry the need for another seven or eight-month camp in Europe towards meagre returns in Tokyo. Hima Das or Vismaya winning an all-India race in Poznan or Kladno is no “European competition”.
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