Keeping fingers crossed

A meet record… Prem Kumar exults after clearing eight metres in the men’s long jump event in the Inter-State meet at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai.-R. RAGU

Indian athletes carry a lot of hope going into the Asian Championship, beginning in Pune on July 3. Whether they will live up to the expectations or buckle under pressure at home, only time will tell. By K. Keerthivasan.

There was a time when India used to finish in the top five in Asian athletics. Ever since the Asian Championship was introduced in 1973 in Marikina (the Philippines), India had remained a top-notch team in the continent for 20 years and was feared by Japan, China and South Korea.

Inconsistency, however, began to dog India, beginning with the Asian Championship in Jakarta in 1995. And for the first time, the nation finished outside the top five, ending up in the eighth position.

In the new millennium, India finished second in the Asian meet twice — in 2000 & 2007. The performance of the Indian athletes, however, dropped in the next two editions, with the nation finishing sixth in 2009 (Guangzhou, China) and seventh in 2011 (Kobe, Japan).

In the last edition of the Asian Championship, India had won one gold, three silver and eight bronze medals. Mayookha Johny (women’s long jump) accounted for India’s lone gold medal of the meet.

When the 20th edition of the Asian Championship gets underway in Pune on July 3, India will probably have the best chance to finish in the top five again. “I am sure we will get 15-18 medals this time at home,” said India’s sprint coach Thirugnanadurai.

The Olympian’s confidence perhaps stems from the fact that some of the athletes had come up with good performances in the National Inter-State meet at the renovated Nehru Stadium in Chennai recently. Almost all the athletes liked the newly laid track and it did help a few of them to set records.

The Inter-State meet in Chennai was termed as the ‘final selection trials’ before the Asian Championship and nearly all the top athletes participated. Three meet records (Khyathi Vakharia in women’s pole vault, K. Prem Kumar in men’s long jump and Renjith Maheswary in men’s triple jump) and one National record (Sudha Singh in women’s 3000m steeplechase) were set in the four-day meet.

So, the big question is: will these athletes win medals at the Asian Championship in Pune?

Going by their performances and the competition they are likely to face, Renjith Maheswary and Sudha Singh look India’s best bet in Pune.

Renjith is an experienced athlete having competed in two Olympics, one Asian Games and one Asian Championship. Though the 27-year-old has been very inconsistent this season, in Chennai the triple jumper was at his best, clearing 16.98m for the meet record. Renjith holds the National record at 17.07m. “I hope Renjith wins a medal in Pune,” said Shvilli Evgeniy, the triple jump coach of the Indian team.

Renjith’s competitors in the Asian Championship will include Yevgeniy Ektov, Roman Valiyev (both Kazakshtan) and Li Yanxi (China). Ektov won the gold medal in the 2011 edition with a leap of 16.91m while the Chinese bagged the silver medal with a 16.70m clearance. So, there is no doubt that the Indian has to be at his best to bag the gold medal.

“I want to win the gold in Pune,” said Renjith, who had won the first place in the 2007 edition (Amman, Jordan) with a wind-aided 17.19m.

Sudha Singh, like Renjith, is also a seasoned athlete. She is also one of the top runners in Asia in 3000m steeplechase. The Asian Games champion will have to overcome the challenge of veteran Minori Hayakari of Japan. The 42-year-old athlete had pipped Sudha for the gold medal in the 2011 edition. The Sudha-Minori battle in Pune will be worth watching.

By setting the meet record in the men’s long jump with a leap of 8m, Prem Kumar, aged 20, became only the fourth Indian to touch the 8m mark. But this is not enough at the Asian level. Su Xiongfeng of China, who won the gold in Kobe, cleared 8.19m while Rikiya Saruyama of Japan, who finished third, leapt to 8.05m. Remember this happened two years ago.

Another athlete who set the meet record in Chennai was Vakharia. There is no doubt that she is India’s best woman pole-vaulter now, having beaten the National record holder V. S. Surekha thrice this season. Her mark of 4m, too, is short by Asian standards.

In the 2011 edition, Choi Yun-Hee of South Korea, who bagged the bronze medal, had cleared 4m. So, does Vakharia stand a chance in Pune? “I will try for a medal, but I will definitely go for the National record (4.08m),” she said.

M.R. Poovamma (women’s 400m), Tintu Luka (women’s 800m), O. P. Jaisha (women’s 1500m & 5000m), Asha Roy (women’s 100m & 200m), Preeja Sreedharan (women’s 10,000m) and Mayookha Johny (women’s long jump) are the other athletes capable of winning medals for India in the Asian Championship. Whether they will live up to the expectations or buckle under pressure at home, only time will tell.