It's time to consolidate

Personal best... India's Sudha Singh on way to winning the gold medal in the women's 3000m steeplechase.-AP

It's alright to be euphoric about the five-gold haul in athletics, compared to just one in the last edition. But more importantly, we need to press on with focus on select events and athletes, and great care should be taken to ensure that shortcuts are not being resorted to by coaches and athletes. By K. P. Mohan.

Six months ago, had someone suggested that Indian athletes would win five gold medals in the Asian Games, one would have dismissed it as pure fantasy not worth a serious consideration.

Even if one were to forecast gold medal prospects from among an Indian squad of 69, one would not have gone for a Preeja Sreedharan or an A. C. Ashwini or a Sudha Singh. Instead, one would have been tempted, as this correspondent was, in looking at the possibility of Renjith Maheswary and Om Prakash Singh winning with Mandeep Kaur and Tintu Luka among the contenders and the women's 4x400m relay team more or less a safe bet.

Suddenly, we have a bunch of unexpected gold medal winners. In fact, someone like Ashwini, who was 35th in the Asian lists for the season in the 400m hurdles before the Games began, with her 59.28 in Kochi last May, is No. 3 now, with her 56.15s in the final of the Asian Games. She is behind two Japanese, Satomi Kubokura (55.61) who was the favourite in Guangzhou, but finished second (56.83s), and Miyabi Tago (55.99), who finished seventh (57.35s).

Ashwini is also 41st in the world lists with that timing, a memorable achievement for a 23-year-old who had started competing in the hurdles only this season and whom the majority in the world of athletics would not have known in this event before the Asiad began. But she is being talked of, already, as a possible medal contender in the London Olympics.

“She is an Olympic medal prospect,” said Yuriy Ogorodnik, rather excitedly the day Ashwini figured in the longer relay for her second gold medal. “In my 11 years with Indian athletics, I haven't seen a talent like her,” said the Ukrainian coach.

She will need to cut close to three seconds more to be in a position to dream of an Olympic medal. If she shows the same level of improvement she has shown in six months this season, anything is possible.

Yuriy, as he is popularly known in athletics circles, must have indeed taken special care to mould Ashwini's talent within such a short span of time, apart from preparing a winning 4x400m combination. Two special camps in Yalta, Ukraine, during May-July and August-September, seemed to have helped a great deal in getting a select group of athletes fine-tuned to perform at their peak.

The benefit of training near the Black Sea was not so much evident during the Commonwealth Games, when Ashwini went out at the preliminary stage (59.49s). She gave no indication of her hidden talent even at the Patiala inter-State, where she (60.24s) finished behind Jauna Murmu, another girl who has made huge strides in the hurdles this season, and was in fact in line for a medal in Guangzhou but finished fourth in a personal best 56.88. No Indian had clocked below 57 seconds after P. T. Usha.

“We knew she had the talent to win the gold in the Asian Games,” said the Chief Coach, Bahadur Singh, on return to Delhi.

But what happened at the Commonwealth Games? There was no convincing explanation.

Luckily for the Udupi girl, she was allowed to compete in the hurdles and not pushed into the relay alone, a suggestion that did come up in Guangzhou.

Joseph Abraham... stuck to a plan and beat Japanese favourite Kenji Narisako in the 400m hurdles final.-PTI

Preeja Sreedharan (gold in 10,000m, silver in 5000m), Kavita Raut (silver in 10,000m, bronze in 5000m), and Sudha Singh (gold in 3000m steeplechase) were also big surprises. All three bettered their personal bests, Preeja clocking National records of 15:15.89 and 31:50.47 and Sudha also raising her National mark to 9:55.67. Women's steeplechase made its debut in the Games and there were just six runners.

“Just run your normal race,” was what coach Nikolai Snesarev had told Preeja and Kavita. These were of course not their normal races, as Preeja pounded down the straight, in front of the pack, taking off from 120 metres out in the 10,000 metres.

The Indians had played the waiting game till then with the Japanese Kayoko Fukushi, 10th in the world lists this season, Hikari Yoshimoto, and the Bahraini, Shitaye Eshete, eventual bronze winner.

What was most striking, in the women's 10,000m, 5000m and the 400m hurdles, was not just the final drive and sprinting of the Indian women, but their poise after such gruelling races. They looked capable of running a few more laps!

Joseph Abraham had been knocking at stardom for the past three years, without achieving success at the continental level. The 29-year-old Railway employee, who hails from Mundakkayam, Kottayam, Kerala, stuck to a plan and beat Japanese favourite Kenji Narisako in the 400m hurdles final after having finished second to him in the heats. He had taken the silver behind the Japanese in the last Asian Championships, also in Guangzhou.

It was the first men's track gold for India in the Game since Charles Borromeo won the 800m in 1982. Abraham said that he was confident of victory after the heats since he had assessed the Japanese. Yet, Narisako was almost with him at the finish.

Narisako was later disqualified for a hurdling violation, the same problem Abraham also had last year at the World Championships in Berlin. Since then he has corrected it, changing his striding pattern, changing his lead leg on the sixth hurdle and concentrating on rhythm rather than speed through the first five hurdles. He takes 14 strides up to the sixth hurdle and then on 15 strides. He had tried out a 13-stride pattern for the first, with poor results, in the Commonwealth Games.

The women's 4x400m relay team was sure of victory after Ashwini ran those electrifying races in the heats and final of the 400m hurdles. In the event, the quartet of Manjeet Kaur (unofficial split 52.9), Sini Jose (51.7), Ashwini (52.2) and Mandeep (51.9) had a tougher task than expected with Kazakhstan chasing it through to the finish.

It was felt that Tintu Luka's chances of winning the 800m gold depended on the form of Bahrain's 1500m world champion Maryam Yusuf Jamal. Once Jamal faded out even before the second lap began, Luka could have been expected to clinch it, but Margarita Matsko of Kazakhstan and Truong Thanh Hang of Vietnam out-kicked her on the straight.

It later transpired that Luka had suffered a hamstring strain coming around the home bend, forcing her to drag herself through the final 100 metres rather than sprint. Her failure to win a medal in the Commonwealth Games and now this inability to match the sprint of the others forced ‘experts' and armchair critics to argue that she did not know how to run an 800.

Worse, it was also suggested that P. T. Usha, her coach, also had little idea about how an 800 is run. Luka's pace for the first 100 metres is often confused for her inability to understand the 800. She likes to run in front and till the time she develops the confidence to lay back and kick, she will have to run like this.

This doesn't mean the Kerala girl does not know how to run an 800 or Usha cannot be expected to know how an 800 is run since she was basically a sprinter in her days. After all, at the age of 21, Luka has seven marks below 2:02, with the National record of 1:59.17 with which she leads Asia this season. No Indian has that kind of record. She should know something about 800m running for sure.

Pramila Aiyappa won the bronze in the heptathlon with 5415 points. Surprisingly, at 33 years, it happened to be the Karnataka woman's debut in the Games. She says she will go for a medal in the London Olympics. She may need about 600 points more to qualify and possibly may require another 1000 points to win a medal in the 2012 Games.

With the Chinese, Li Yanfeng (66.18m) and Song Aimin (64.04) in such terrific form, Krishna Poonia, despite an opening throw of 61.94, had to settle for the bronze in discus. The Commonwealth Games gold winner said she was nursing a knee injury and hence could not produce her best.

Amidst the euphoria of a five-gold haul, compared to just one in the last edition, the miserable performances of several athletes were pushed into the background. It would be foolish to talk of having reached world standards either by the CWG performance or through the success in Guangzhou as the performance charts alongside would show.

There is a need to press on with focus on select events and athletes, and great care should be taken to ensure that shortcuts are not being resorted to by coaches and athletes. An analysis of how Indians continue to perform so well at home and in the run-up and then fail to strike form in important championships will help the authorities from a long-term perspective.