Mayookha's gold, the only silver lining

Champion stuff…Chisato Fukushima of Japan on way to winning the women's 200m gold.-AP

After their tremendous ‘high' at the Asian Games in Guangzhou last year, the Indians fell in the standings rather precipitously. From the No. 2 position in the Games, it was down to the eighth place with one gold, two silver and eight bronze medals, writes K. P. Mohan.

Since topping the medals table at the 1983 Championships in Kuwait, China had never been unseated from its number one spot. No country had looked even capable of disturbing China's complete dominance. Till Kobe came, that is.

Neither Japan nor China fielded its best team in the 19th Asian Athletics Championships in Kobe. Yet, both were at near full-strength for the first time since the 2005 Championships in Incheon, Korea.

Many middle and long distance runners from the West Asian countries, apart from a few Kazakhstan athletes, were missing from the field, robbing the championships of the class and stature that could have been expected.

Overall, the standards were high, as was to be expected, but not high enough to match some of the performances in the run-up to the championships. The Japanese should have cashed in on the absence of the Qataris, the Saudis and some of the Bahrainis to win more in the middle and long distance events, but they could not live up to expectations.

The Japanese suffered in the sprints, too. In a controversial 100m dash in the men's section, in which he was initially disqualified for a false start and then re-instated, home favourite Masashi Eriguchi was beaten by Chinese Su Bingtian, who clocked an Asian season-leading 10.21s.

Eriguchi was only the number two in the season lists this time. He was the No. 1 last year when he was also the favourite to win in the Asian Games, but did not even make the final.

Japan did not win a men's track event barring the 400m hurdles and the relays. In the intermediate hurdles, it had a chance to finish one-two-three, but the top man for the season, Takayuki Kishimoto, was disqualified for a false start leaving the task to Takatoshi Abe and Yuta Imazeki. They duly took the gold and silver in 49.64s and 50.22s respectively.

The Japanese women took the 200m (Asian Games champion Chisato Fukushima), 3000m steeplechase (Asian Games bronze medallist Minori Hayakari) and the 400m hurdles (Satomi Kubokura), apart from both the relays, and surprised the Chinese in hammer through Masumi Aya.

The Chinese, who won 18 gold medals in Guangzhou in the last edition of the championships in 2009, had to settle for only 10 this time. They did not have representatives in the women's middle and long distance events, normally their forte, and also missed its hammer thrower Zhang Wenxiu, Asian record holder, who was busy with the Diamond League in Europe.

The Chinese domination continued in the women's 100m hurdles (Sun Yawei retained her title), high jump (Zheng Xingjuan won her second gold on the trot), pole vault (Wu Sha took the title with the second best Asian championship mark of 4.35m), shot put, discus and javelin, the last event being claimed for a second successive time by Li Chunhua.

The Chinese did not field a team in the women's 4x400m relay event, in which they should have been defending the title. The Chinese depth has surely dwindled.

Among the season-leading marks set in Kobe was the one in men's high jump by Mutaz Essa Barshim. The 20-year-old Qatari cleared 2.35m for a National record that was also the No. 2 mark in the world this season.

Among those who set Asian-leading marks were Chinese Taipei's shot putter Chang Ming-Huang (20.14m), Japanese javelin thrower Yukufumi Murakami (83.27m), Qatari steeplechaser Ali Abubaker Kamal (8:30.23) and woman triple jumper Xie Limei of China (14.54m).

Bahrain, with its Ethiopian ‘imports', did well to grab five gold medals, three of them in the women's section. The woman distance runners had their revenge over the Indians. Shitaye Eshete, pushed to the bronze in the 10,000m in the Asian Games, won this time with team-mate Karima Saleh Jassem taking the silver.

Preeja Sreedharan, proud winner of the Asian Games title, managed to claim the bronze with a good sprint down the finishing straight to hold off Japanese Hitomi Nakamura. The other Indian, Kavita Raut, silver winner in the Asian Games, came sixth. She was eighth in the 5000m where she had won the bronze in the Asiad.

After their tremendous ‘high' at the Asian Games in Guangzhou last year, the Indians fell in the standings rather precipitously. From the No. 2 position in the Games, it was down to the eighth place with one gold, two silver and eight bronze medals.

The lone gold was won by long jumper Mayookha Johny, who also contributed the triple jump bronze. Since coming back from an injury last season, Mayookha has made great strides in both long jump and triple jump, and if everything goes according to plan, coach Shyam Kumar expects her to touch seven metres in long jump and 14.50m in triple in due course.

Mayookha was thrilled on the opening day when she came to know that as the Asian champion she had a direct ticket to the World Championships in Daegu, Korea, in August-September. Later, when she won the triple jump bronze, with a National record of 14.11m, she had achieved the qualifying mark (14.10m) for the London Olympics and the Daegu Worlds.

“We were looking to qualify for the Olympics,” said Mayookha. “The field contained jumpers with better marks than mine.”

Given the conditions on the first day when rains hampered the jumpers, her 6.56m was not bad at all. That was her third best career mark behind her 6.64 in Delhi last year and 6.63 in the Bangalore Inter-State in June last.

India's two silver medals were won by discus thrower Vikas Gowda and woman steeplechaser Sudha Singh, the Asian Games champion. Sudha had no Chinese to contend with, but the Japanese, Minori Hayaki, whom she had beaten in the Asian Games, proved far too superior. Hayaki timed a championship record of 9:52.42.

Gowda is having his best season. Rains marred the discus competition and yet both Gowda and gold winner Ehsan Hadadi of Iran did well enough to reach decent marks. Hadadi, always the favourite, who had a 65.89 going into these championships, registered 62.27; Gowda 61.58.

Gowda had crossed 64 metres on three occasions this season while competing in the US. He has always remained a bright prospect since coming into the limelight as a junior, towering above everyone else, literally. He seems to be gradually realising his potential.

The Indian bronze winners were Ghamanda Ram (800m in personal best 1:46.46), Om Prakash Singh (shot put, with season best 19.47m), Bharat Inder Singh (Decathlon, 7358), among men, and Tintu Luka (800m, season best 2:02.55); O. P. Jaisha (1500m, 4:21.41); Preeja Sreedharan (10,000m, 33:15.55) and Harwant Kaur (discus, 57.99m) apart from Mayookha.

There was hope in the manner in which Luka ran the 800m. She could keep pace with the rest on the finishing straight after an opening lap of 60 seconds. But then she still does not have a ‘kick' that can ‘kill' the field from 100 metres out. For someone running only her second race of the season, following an injury, her 2:02.55 was very creditable.

Coach P. T. Usha has plans to provide her with the much-needed racing experience in a couple of meets in Europe before Luka embarks on her World Championships assignment. “Tintu had the capacity to run a 2:00 here,” said Usha.

Asian Games champion Joseph Abraham, not fully prepared for the championships, finished fourth (50.82s) in the 400m hurdles.

His only consolation could have been that he finished ahead of team-mate Satinder Singh (51.93) who came in sixth and last since two athletes were disqualified for false starts. Satinder had beaten Abraham in the Inter-State.

Commonwealth Games champion Krishna Poonia could manage only fourth place in discus, with a 56.23. She said she had started training only recently because of her injured left knee that was still bothering her.

Poonia was off to Portland for advanced training immediately after the Kobe meet and planned to keep the US city as her base in the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games for which she is still to qualify.

That Indian teams finished last in all the relays in which they were entered showed the plummeting standards in the post-Asian Games period. To make matters worse, the men's 4x400m team was disqualified, too, for a zone violation.

With almost the entire women's 4x400m team ‘caught' doping, it was doubtful whether India would field a quartet in this event. A desire to get what could have been a cheap bronze saw India field a combination that included two 1500m runners, O. P. Jaisha and Jhuma Khatun. Predictably, the team finished last.

It is now certain that India would not make it to the women's longer relay in the Olympic Games unless through some miracle the top six 400m runners, now in the dope net, get reprieved. Even if some of them were to serve reduced suspensions, there would be little time left for the federation to cobble together a team capable of making the top 16 in the world in order to qualify for London by July 2 next year.