NOT AN ENCOURAGING SIGN

SUDDEN DIP... Navpreet's performance dropped considerably after the Asian Grand Prix in Bangalore.-RAJEEV BHATT

Right now, of course, Indian athletics looks to have hit a trough. And that feeling has gained ground after the AFI-Salwan international throws meet and the Open National in Delhi, writes K. P. MOHAN.

Performance levels normally pick up in Indian athletics in an Asian Games year. However, there is a reverse trend in a large majority of the events this season. If someone were to argue that the frequent raids by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) testing teams have had something to do with this downward trend, you won't dismiss it straightaway.

The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) and its "foreign experts" think differently. They find great promise among the prime contenders for Asian Games berths and predict that some fabulous marks could be expected in Doha in December. History is with them.

The 2002 Open in New Delhi, around a month before the Busan Asian Games, produced average results barring in a few events. And yet, when the time came, the Indian athletes came up with the best medal haul in recent times — 15 including seven gold.

In an extended season like this one, the AFI is hoping that the others would have run out of steam by the time the Doha Games arrive while its own athletes, boosted by training stints in Ukraine and Italy, would be `peaking' nicely to repeat or even better Busan. How the others would commit such a costly miscalculation is difficult to understand.

Right now, of course, Indian athletics looks to have hit a trough. And that feeling has gained ground after the AFI-Salwan international throws meet and the Open National in Delhi. The one athlete who had climbed to the top in the season's lists in Asia, at least temporarily, shot putter Navpreet, with his throw of 19.84 metres in the Asian Grand Prix meet in Bangalore in March, has dropped to 18.43. He did not compete in either the Salwan meet or the Open, citing an injury. Not many were convinced with the reason for his absence. It is being argued that even if Navpreet fails to strike form, the US-based Vikas Gowda, who has a best of 19.62m this season, will deliver a medal.

Obviously, newcomer Satyendra Kumar Singh's 18.61m in the Salwan meet and 18.53m in the Open are not being considered significant enough by the selectors and coaches in the context of the Asian Games.

The defeat of Pinki Paramanik in the 800 metres of the Open has also come as a setback to the AFI's plans. It was felt that she was unbeatable at home, especially in the 800 metres after having won in every other meet this season. Tamil Nadu's S. Shanthi beat her quite comprehensively at the Open and in the process clocked a personal best 2:02.21 that was within the selection criterion for the Asiad. Paramanik had, by then, scored a resounding victory in the 400 metres, outclassing a field that contained three of the runners who had come back from Kiev. Her 53.06s was routine, but she as well as her coach, Renu Kohli, said the opposition was poor, causing her to relax down the finishing straight.

Asian champion and national record holder Manjeet Kaur pulled out of the final after timing 57.32 in the heats. She complained of an upset stomach, but many observers felt that she was reluctant to expose her poor form. Neither Satti Geetha's 55.48s for the silver nor Rajwinder Gill's 56.77 for the sixth place inspires confidence. Both were in the squad that trained for nearly two months in Ukraine.

O. P. Jaisha (4:11.83) and Sinimole Paulose (4:12.24) returned career-best timings and met the selection norms in the 1500 metres to project themselves as medal contenders in the Doha Games. There is a lot of hard work ahead of the two Kerala girls but both have shown steady improvement under the foreign coach, Nikolai Snesarev, and have the potential to come around 4:10.

There are at least four Asians, including the redoubtable Maryam Yusuf Jamal of Bahrain (3:56.18 this season), who are ahead of Jaisha on current standings, but middle distance events do offer hope to lesser achievers quite often.

Krishna Poonia's personal best of 60.10m in discus in the Open also passed the qualifying mark for the Asian Games, but there was disappointment in the 54.35 and 54.20 that Harwant Kaur and Seema Antil logged. Seema was looking to touch around 59 metres after a poor 57.04 at the Salwan meet, but withdrew after two throws.

The defeat of Pinki Paramanik in the 800 metres of the open has also come as a setback to the afi's plans. It was felt that she was unbeatable at home, especially in the 800 metres after having won in every other meet this season.-R.V. MOORTHY

One look at the distance standards in Asia is enough to discourage even the ardent optimist among the Indian fans. Yet, mention must be made of Preeja Sreedharan's national record of 34:11.45 in the 10,000 metres and Sunil Kumar Singh's 14:00.61 in the 5000 metres.

Just to give you an idea of where we stand, the top 21 runners in the Asian lists last year, comprising Japanese and Chinese, clocked under 32 minutes in the women's 10,000 metres.

The top 30 men in the Asian 5000m lists last year came under 13:46. The top 20 Asian women this season have cracked 32:30 while the top 15 men, predominantly from Qatar and Japan, have come under 13:40 for the 5000. With J. J. Shobha back from Ukraine and being projected as a possible contender for a medal at Doha, the fight for slots in heptathlon has hotted up.

The Open could well have been a good stage for all the top three contenders to perform to their potential. That did not happen.

In the event, in a disappointing finish Shobha managed just a third place and 5586 points, poorer than her effort in the Federation Cup earlier this season.

Soma Biswas compiled 5720 points for the gold with Susmita Singha Roy coming second with 5678. Susmita's javelin jinx continued and she dropped behind after having led up to the sixth event.

Her javelin mark was a mere 32.45 and that spoilt what could have been a tally matching her best for the season — 5872. She had a PB of 24.10s for the 200 metres.

The absence of quite a few top athletes, especially those who are supposed to be in the reckoning for Asiad selection, from the two meets in the second phase of the season, should pose a few question marks about foreign training stints undertaken at considerable Government cost.

The athletes mainly complained of injuries and illness, but no one was convinced.