Overall standards have gone up

K. P. MOHAN

Chinese Sun Yingjie, winner of the World half marathon in Delhi last year, should be the favourite in the distance events.-RAJEEV BHATT

ASIAN athletics is on the upsurge. It now has a double World champion in Rashid Ramzi, a two-time World champion and World record holder in Saif Saaeed Shaheen apart from four Olympic champions from the Athens Games.

While the phenomenal improvement in middle distance running could be attributed to the import of Moroccan and Kenyan athletes into West Asia, Bahrain and Qatar in particular, there is no denying that the overall standards have gone up during the past few years.

What has not changed drastically is the undisputed supremacy of China in continental athletics. Whether it is the Asian Games or the Asian championships, China has maintained its stranglehold, though quite a number of times in the recent past, that hegemony seemed to get eroded before that country bounced right back.

Proof of it, if that was needed, came in the form of 37 medals, including 19 gold at the last Asian championships in Manila, two years ago, and 41 medals including 14 gold in the Busan Asian Games after a 10-gold haul in the Colombo edition in 2002. The 16th edition of the Asian championship, to be held at Incheon, Korea, from September 1, comes at a time when China does not have a World champion.

Liu Xiang was denied by Frenchman Ladji Doucoure in the 110m hurdles, while Xing Huina, the other Olympic champion from China at Athens, failed to finish among the top three in the women's 5000 metres at the Helsinki World championships. Yet, eventually none would be able to nudge the Asian giant from its perch at the top of the Asian championships standings.

Looking at China's medal haul in the past, it is clear that its women dominate the scene more than the men. This season, as in the past, the Chinese women top a majority of the events in the continental lists with a sweep of the throwing events. Last time China had swept the gold medals in throws and a repeat should be on the cards.

None looks more formidable than the 19-year-old Zhang Wenxiu who stretched her Asian record (72.37) set last year to 73.24 at Changsha in June this year. If she fails to make it by any chance, then the familiar figure of Gu Yuan, with a best of 70.50m this season, should be there. The latter would be defending her title.

Song Aimin, the defending champion in discus, is easily the best in her event this time, too. She had a 65.23m at the Asian Grand Prix at Sidoarjo and though she failed in the Helsinki final with a poor 57.90m, the fact that she had a 64.15 in the qualification round should help us assess her current form. She should be the overwhelming favourite, what with the Indian discus throwers in such awful form and Neelam Jaswant Singh out of the fray with a provisional suspension for doping at the World championships.

A look at the past results will show that the Chinese women will have to battle it out with the sprinters from the Central Asian Republics though the Sri Lankan challenge could be minimal this time, while the middle distance events could become a sweep for Bahrain if Maryam Yusuf Jamal, the 20-year-old former Ethiopian (Zenebech Tola) represents her adopted country in the Korean city.

Despite being among the world's top runners in four events this season, Maryam could not win a medal at Helsinki finishing fifth (4:02.49) in the 1500 metres, but she should take the 800m and 1500m in Korea, if entered.

Chinese Sun Yingjie, winner of the World half marathon in Delhi last year, and Xing Huina, the Olympics 5000m champion, should be clear favourites in the distance events. Doubts could be there about their availability considering the proximity of the championships to the World championships and the need to give them rest. Sun Yingjie had made light of running a variety of events last time before coming to Manila and sweeping the 5000m and 10,000m gold medals.

The main focus in the men's section would naturally be on Bahrain's Rashid Ramzi, the newly-crowned double world champion who clocked an Asian record of 3:30.00 for the 1500m this season. If he comes, he would be the man to beat in both 800m and 1500m. If he doesn't, Bahrain will have equally tough contenders in Yousef Saad Kamel (1:44.26 in 800m this season) and Belal Mansoor Ali (1:44.34) who is also a 3:33 runner in the 1500 metres. Ramzi is the defending Asian champion and Asian Games champion in the 1500m.

It will also be of interest to the Asian fans to see whether steeplechase world record holder Saif Saaeed Shaheen comes and competes in his favourite event or not. Last time around, Shaheen, a Kenyan by birth, had come to Manila but tried his hand in the 1500m and 5000m and got beaten in both. He was clear in his mind that his aim for the year had only been the World title that he had by then and the rest was just an effort to contribute to the medals tally of his adopted country.

In the men's distance events, Saudi Arabian Moukhled Al-Outaibi will be the key figure, having clocked an Asian record of 12:58.58 for the 5000m in July. The double gold winner at the last Asian Games should head the Saudi challenge that should also include the Al-Bishi brothers, Hamed and Hamdan, in the 200m and 400m.

India had slumped in the continental meet during the last two editions, ending up without a gold last time and with just one gold, won by the women's longer relay team, in the Colombo meet in 2002. On both occasions India did not enter its best.

This time the best will go, but then the `best' does not look good enough to cause a huge impact, like our athletes did at the Busan Asian Games in 2002 when they won six gold medals.

Some of the sparkle in that achievement was lost following Sunita Rani's doping fiasco no matter that she was reinstated later. Now, with Neelam J. Singh testing positive at the Worlds, Indian athletics is once again under a cloud and will be put to closer scrutiny.

The season has been so ordinary for the Indian athletes that the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) could not look beyond just three athletes, Anju George, Neelam and US-based discus thrower Vikas Gowda for the World championships. Both Anju and Gowda did well enough at Helsinki to promise much for the Asian championships while Neelam's form and reputation took a tumble. Incidentally, both Anju and Gowda would be competing in the Asian championships for the first time. Both should start favourites.

Gowda was the best among the Asians in Helsinki, with a throw of 62.04 in the qualifying round, as against his season best and National record of 64.69m, while Anju also recorded her season best with a 6.66m on a cold evening ruined by rain and swirling winds.

Gowda will have to reckon with defending champion Wu Tao and Iranian Abbas Samimi while Anju, though she is only fourth in the Asian lists for the season, in the lead-up, should clinch gold to add to her impressive collection. "I have peaked late this season," said Anju as she looked forward to the Incheon meet.

From among the rest of the Indians, the remarkable feats of the middle distance runners at Jamshedpur where Ghamanda Ram clocked 1:46.81 for the 800m, looks very promising, though the crucial question would be whether he would be able to reproduce that kind of form on a bigger stage.

The shot putters, as usual, should earn a medal or two. We will have to keep our fingers crossed for the rest.