Mediocre, nothing more

Joseph Abraham attained the qualifying norm for the World Championship.-R. RAGU

Though the deadline for qualification for the World Championship in Berlin stretches right up to August 3, it is almost immaterial how many would eventually qualify. Global meets have remained beyond the reach of Indians through the years bar the odd sparkle and thus qualification itself becomes meaningless, writes K. P. Mohan.

By the end of the final leg of the Indian Grand Prix in Ranchi in June, there were just two athletes who had registered a qualifying norm this season for the World Championships, intermediate hurdler Joseph Abraham and woman discus thrower Krishna Poonia.

There is enough time for a few more athletes, other than women’s 4x400m relay runners, to aim for the World Championship standards since the deadline for qualification stretches right up to August 3. However, it is almost immaterial how many would eventually qualify. Global meets have remained beyond the reach of Indians through the years bar the odd sparkle and thus qualification itself becomes meaningless. Rarely has any one performed up to the promise and expectations raised back home, an odd Anju George notwithstanding.

The worry this time around should, however, go beyond the World Championships and should involve India’s chances in the 2010 Commonwealth Games at home.

Abraham achieved the standard at the Indian Grand Prix meet in Chennai, clocking 49.59 seconds against the norm of 49.80. He was one among the few Indian athletes who performed creditably at the Osaka Worlds two years ago, making the semifinals there and clocking a National record of 49.51 seconds.

There are nine other athletes who have achieved the minimum norm for the Berlin World meet in August through performances recorded last year, though in the case of heptathlon (Pramila Aiyappa, J. J. Shobha, Susmita Singha Roy), only one athlete can make it with the performance registered so far. Pramila and Shobha have not competed this season, while Susmita’s 5366 at Dezensano, Italy, was disappointing.

The other qualified athletes are: Men: Surendra Kumar Singh (10,000m), Amarjeet Singh (triple jump), Vikas Gowda (discus) and Anil Kumar Singh (javelin); Women: Mandeep Kaur (400m) and Harwant Kaur (discus).

Only Surendra Singh has shown the kind of form that took him to a phenomenal 28:02.89 in Vigo, Spain, last year for the National record in the 10,000 metres. His 13:40.45 for the 5000 metres, in the second leg of the recent Asian Grand Prix Series, was his personal best and a very good effort, but not enough to meet the World Championship standard of 13:29.00.

The Asian Grand Prix Series — all three legs were in China — showed the true state of Indian athletics, a couple of encouraging performances plus a string of run-of-the-mill stuff. At the time of the Chennai Indian Grand Prix there was talk of the athletes peaking nicely towards the two targets this year, the World Championship and the Asian Championship (in Guangzhou, in November), but then soon optimism turned to despair, eventually leading to the postponement of the Federation Cup in Chennai that was supposed to showcase the “wealth of talent”.

The Fed Cup was to have provided an ideal platform for the athletes to make the Berlin grade, but then obviously the federation was clearly unwilling to expose the mediocrity, barring a few exceptions, that was evident through the Asian Grand Prix circuit. The foreign coaches apparently needed more time to ‘prepare’ their wards, having been appointed rather late in the season.

In terms of medals, Surendra Singh led the Indians in the Asian Grand Prix circuit, winning all the three legs, in Suzhou, Kunshan and Hong Kong, the second leg having the 5000 metres and the other two 3000 metres. The field was modest with none of the Japanese or Qataris around.

Surendra, a late starter in athletics, has achieved remarkable success in middle and long distance events during the past two years and though he cannot be expected to match Asia’s best or that of the Commonwealth countries, he will always remain a minor medal contender in either of the company.

To give you just an idea of how tough the prospects are in long distance events, even at the Asian level, 15 runners cracked 13:40 in Asia last year for the 5000 metres and there were 10 runners above Surendra in the continental rankings last year in the 10,000m, five from Japan, four from Qatar and one from Bahrain.

In the Commonwealth, if anything, the competition gets tougher, with the Kenyans towering over the rest. By May-end this year there were at least 16 Commonwealth runners below 13:30 for the 5000m while in the 10,000 metres, 12 Kenyans were among those who cracked 27:18 last year. There were half a dozen non-Kenyan athletes, from among Commonwealth countries, who came under 28:00 in 2008.

Shot putter Om Prakash Singh and quarter-miler Bibin Mathew were the others to win gold medals during the Asian Grand Prix. Om Prakash, a strapping 22-year-old from Haryana, who had a personal best of 19.74 in Kochi this season, touched 19.48 — his best ever showing abroad — in Kunshan to take the gold ahead of Chinese Taipei’s Chang Ming-Huang who won the other two legs. Om Prakash’s 18.54 in the final leg in Hong Kong was, however, a huge disappointment. So, too, his pull-out from the Jamshedpur Grand Prix. The World Championship standard stands at 19.90.

Mathew took two silver medals behind Chinese Liu Xiaosheng in Suzhou and Kunshan, but turned the tables on his closest rival in Hong Kong for the gold in the 400 metres. He had sub-47s timings in two legs and a 47.18 in the other. The young Kerala athlete has done remarkably well and currently ranks seventh in Asia for the season with his personal best of 46.16 in Chennai.

In 2007, the focus was on men’s triple jump, thanks to the record-breaking performance of Renjith Maheswary. He slumped inexplicably in the Olympic year, was in the injured list and served a six-month suspension for doping. Nothing much has been heard of him since then. Another triple jumper who promised much before being suspended for a doping offence was Bibu Mathew.

Now, with Amarjeet Singh, who had a 16.77 last year, plunging to lows of 15-metre-plus, there is no longer the hype that surrounded men’s triple jump two seasons ago. Even though Amarjeet’s best last year is within the qualifying mark for the World meet (16.65m) his current form will not merit a look-in when selectors get down to finalise the team for Berlin.

Showing improvement ... woman discus throwers, Krishna Poonia and Seema Antil (below).-M. PERIASAMY

The same argument should

If the AFI can solve the mystery about world-class performances at home being followed by a whimper in major competitions abroad, it would have solved the riddle that Indian athletics is at the moment.

The woman discus throwers, Poonia, Harwant and Seema Antil, have shown some improvement compared to their season-ending showing last year, though far from presenting a rosy picture for the Asian meet or the Commonwealth Games. Chinese Song Aimin won all the three legs of the Asian GP, posting an imposing 64.40 in Kunshan. She led the world lists this season with a 64.83 back home till American Stephanie Brown Trafton, the Olympic champion, took over with a 66.21 at San Mateo, California, on May 24.

In contrast, the Indian discus throwers were well below their personal bests, Poonia recording a best of 57.89, Antil 56.88 and Harwant 53.78. All of them have personal bests above 61 metres. Poonia will make the trip to Berlin — it is being taken for granted as she was the only woman to reach a norm this season, 58.95m at Coimbatore. Since she has an ‘A’ standard (63.41 at Salinas, California, last year), one more athlete with a ‘B’ standard can make it. Harwant’s 61.09 is better than the ‘B’ standard of 58.50, but on current form it will be a surprise if the AFI considers her.

Incidentally, Poonia’s 63.41 was also the best by a Commonwealth woman discus thrower last year, though a more logical best for the Indian, at least for an overall assessment, would be her 61.53 (bronze) at the Doha Asian Games since Salinas, where she registered her personal best, is known to help the throwers by ‘quartering’ winds.

RAJEEV BHATT

The AFI also has the

Three of the runners who formed that team, Chitra Soman, Mandeep Kaur and Satti Geetha, are either in very poor form or dropping out of meets for obvious reasons. M. R. Poovamma, the fourth, is training abroad.

Little-known Priyanka Pawar leads the year’s 400m charts with 54.42 in the Inter-Railway Championships in Pune in January, though for the season it is P. T. Usha’s trainee, Tintu Luka, who tops the table with her 54.81 at Coimbatore.

No other Indian bettered 55.0 seconds either during the Indian GP or the Asian GP.

Unless a new-look Indian combination pulls off a miracle like the one at Korat, the Indian supremacy in Asia in the women’s longer relay looks likely to be eroded. Of course, woman quarter-milers suddenly improving from 54-plus to 51-plus is nothing uncommon in Indian athletics. Korat was proof of instant improvement, the Indian team jumping from its 3:32.55 in Bangkok to an Olympic-berth winning 3:28.29 three days later. The coaches, especially those from abroad, will surely be working towards such an improvement. In the Commonwealth context, India was ranked fourth last year behind Jamaica (3:20.40), Britain (3:22.78) and Nigeria (3:23.74), all the three teams clocking their best in the Beijing Olympics. End-May lists this year showed 38 Commonwealth runners below 53.0 seconds for the 400 metres. The 2008 lists had three sub-50 runners from the Commonwealth, with eight others below 51.0 seconds. The Olympic champion (Christine Ohuruogu of Britain) and silver-winner (Shericka Williams of Jamaica) were from Commonwealth nations. Surely, it is an uphill task for the Indian athletes, if not a hopeless one.