Indians at the Worlds: Same old story

Dogged by inconsistency, the Indian athletes put up a tepid show at the London World Championships.

Davinder Singh of India competes in the men’s javelin throw qualification at the IAAF World Championships in London. He progressed to the final with an effort of 84.22m, which was close to his personal best (84.57m).   -  Getty Images

He has been one of the most consistent Indian athletes in the last one year or so. World under-20 champion, junior world record holder, Asian gold medallist, decent performances in the Diamond League… javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra’s list of achievements has certainly been impressive.

That raised hopes that the 19-year-old from Haryana would perhaps pull off a big surprise at the IAAF World Championships in London and finish among the top six, probably even win a medal if the stars were in his favour.

And the stars, indeed, appeared to be working in a strange way, though in a very different manner, with Davinder Singh Kang, who had been in Neeraj’s shadow for the last couple of years and who was throwing with a painful shoulder, producing a shocker by entering the final. But Neeraj, who has been without a coach for the last few months after Australian Garry Calvert moved to China, shockingly crashed out after the qualifying round with a best throw 82.26m, 74cm behind the automatic qualifying mark that put him 15th in the overall list.

Unlucky Neeraj

Neeraj was perhaps unlucky. Never has the automatic qualification mark decided all the 12 men for the final at the Worlds, and in many editions in the past, javelin throwers who had even finished three metres behind the fixed mark found a place among the final dozen. But London had one of the strongest fields in javelin in the history of the championships, and 13 athletes achieved the automatic qualification mark of 83m and entered the final. Considering that, Davinder’s progress to the final, with an effort of 84.22m — which was close to his personal best 84.57m — was a massive achievement.

The best Indian

With that, the Punjab athlete made history by becoming the first-ever Indian javelin thrower to enter the final at the Worlds. Throwing with a painful shoulder, the 28-year-old was way below his best in the final with an 80.02m effort. Still his 12th place finish made him the best Indian in London in an individual event.

Big event but no coach!

Strangely, despite being a high-profile event, with three javelin throwers (all of them took the qualification route to the Worlds) in the 25-member Indian team, the contingent did not have a specialist coach in London. And though Neeraj failed to fire, the javelin throwers lived up to the sport’s rising image in the country.

Annu Rani, whose form seemed to be slipping worryingly in the last two months (from her National record 61.86m in June to the 57m range at the Bhubaneswar Asian Championships and then to 54m at the Guntur Inter-State Nationals a few days later), redeemed herself with a 59.93m throw in London that saw her finish 10th in her group (20th overall) in the women’s javelin throw qualification round.

Lessons from Rio

Unlike last year which saw a number of shocking world-class performances from the Indians on the road to Rio, which only ended in a series of disappointments at the Olympics, there were very few dramatic results this year and hence expectations were not high. Still, London appears to be a very promising step to Tokyo and to the 2020 Olympics.

The lack of consistency once again stood out sorely in many Indian performances. Quartermilers Muhammed Anas and Nirmala Sheoran and the men’s and women’s mile relay teams – all Asian champions – were expected to do well in London.

Nirmala progressed to the women’s 400m semifinal – and she was the first Indian to do so in 16 years, after K.M. Beenamol at the 2001 Edmonton Worlds – with an impressive 52.01s but there was a bit of a disappointment after that with her 53.07s that saw the Haryana girl finish seventh in her semifinal group.

But Kerala’s Anas, the men’s national record holder with 45.32s, was a flop, crashing out after the first round with a time of 45.98s which was virtually a repeat of his Rio Olympics show where he clocked 45.95 while tumbling out in the heat.

Relay men’s Top-10 show

The men’s 4x400m relay runners produced a season-best 3:02.80s, but narrowly failed to make the final after finishing fifth in their heat — they were 10th overall, just behind Jamaica — while the Indian women were a huge let-down, as they were disqualified for a lane infringement in their heat. This is the second time in almost a year that an Indian mile relay team is being disqualified in a major championship. The men’s team was disqualified at the Olympics last year.

Huge controversy

Area champions are given an automatic entry to the Worlds if they are cleared by their national federations. There was a huge controversy after three Asian gold medallists — 1500m runners Ajay Kumar Saroj, P.U. Chitra and steeplechaser Sudha Singh — were not included in the team for London. There is a feeling in the Athletics Federation of India, and in some quarters too, that the Worlds are not the right stage to offer exposure to our athletes who had turned in mediocre timings this season. But if one looks closely, Indian athletes had been offered pathetic conditions in qualification meets — at the Federation Cup in Patiala and the Inter-State Nationals in Guntur where only a slushy warm-up ground was available for training — and heavy rain during the Bhubaneswar Asians meant that the athletes could not give off their best.

Angry athletes

The absence of a clear, fair and transparent selection policy saw many athletes, who had helped the country and the AFI to a record gold medal haul at the recent Asians, angry and disappointed. One athlete, middle-distance runner Chitra of Kerala, filed a suit against the AFI in the Kerala High Court, seeking justice.

Questions were raised after Swapna Barman found a place in the squad but the West Bengal heptathlete did not justify her selection and finished near the bottom of the pack (26th out of 31 athletes), with 5431 points — more than 500 points below her personal best which came while winning the gold in the Asian Championship in Bhubaneswar.

Tamil Nadu’s distance runner G. Lakshmanan, a double gold medallist at the Asians, whose World Championship entry came in for criticism from some quarters following his mediocre timings this season, answered his critics to some extent with a personal best time in the 5000m — the only event he was allowed to run.