Salvaging some pride

K. P. MOHAN

Frankie Fredericks (254) winning the 200m, beating the challenge from Gennadiy Chernovol (middle) and Oumar Loum. — Pic. VINO JOHN-

AMIDST the general mediocrity that various disciplines presented in the Afro-Asian Games, athletics salvaged some pride for the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the host State with a few big names making it to Hyderabad. Of course it could have been a world-class fare had all the top stars made it. But then such an eventuality was never really on, despite the projections, promises and claims.

The very fact that Indians were able to win five gold medals in such a championship should tell its own tale. This is not to take any credit away from those who won the gold medals, discus thrower Anil Kumar and shot putter Shakti Singh in the men's section, and long jumper Anju George, discus thrower Neelam J. Singh and heptathlete J. J. Shobha in the women's section. At least in the case of Neelam, she can claim with some pride and satisfaction that she had recorded a season best of 61.94m to claim the gold in a field that included all those who mattered from either continent.

John Kemboi (249) of Kenya won the men's 3000m steeplechase. India's Arun D'Souza (173) took the silver pushing Joel Kiptanui Chelimo (246) to the bronze. --Pic. VINO JOHN-

Though the same could not have been said of the other events where the Indians gained gold and lesser medals, they can as well counter that it was not their fault that the big names stayed away from this meet. The world-class fare many people talked about came only in a few events; in a majority of the events the performance levels were below our own National records. The oft-repeated argument that the Indians would be stretched to give off their best in such a competition did not manifest itself into personal bests, leave alone National records. Any talk thus of Indian athletics having benefited from this meet will be totally misplaced. So, too, any attempt to paint this meet as next only in magnitude, importance and standards to the Olympics. That will be laughable.

Thin fields and empty lanes, not to speak of the absence of a large majority of the champions from either continent, projected a disappointing picture, no matter that the officials kept parroting the jingle, `the cream of Asia v the cream of Africa.' A total of 23 Asian Games champions and 12 All-Africa Games champions, apart from eight world champions from Africa besides innumerable other medal winners from both continents were missing. And yet they kept talking about this `cream v cream' business.

India's Shakti Singh proudly displays the shot put gold. --Pic. VINO JOHN-

It was a wrongly timed meet and it was indeed a wonder that some of the world-class athletes such as Frankie Fredericks, Shingo Suetsugu, Tirunesh Dibaba, Meseret Defar, Silesh Sihine, Hailu Mekonnen and Gebregziabher Gebremariam competed in Hyderabad. Obviously, extra efforts were made to get at least some of them if not all.

Fredericks for one praised the initiative taken by India and said that it was a "powerful concept" and in future such meets could even challenge the World championships. The 36-year-old Namibian was the star attraction in a meet starved of big names. Despite arriving at 6 a.m. on the day of his event, the 200m, the former World champion gave a classic display, winning in an Indian all-comers' record of 20.57 seconds from Kazakh Gennadiy Chernovol and Senegalese Oumar Loum.

Yevgeniy Meleshenko (117) of Kazakhstan on way to victory in the men's 400m hurdles. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

Nigerians Deji Aliu and Uchenna Emedolu were conspicuous by their absence, but the shorter sprint title still went to a Nigerian all right. Nineteen-year-old Olufasuba Olusoji clocked a personal best of 10.15s to launch himself into top-flight international levels. Team-mate Tamunosiki Atorudibo was second, leaving Japanese Suetsugu, the 200m bronze medallist at the Paris World championships, with the bronze. Suetsugu, like Fredericks, was a late arrival in the Andhra capital.

The track events, thanks to the Ethiopians and Nigerians, generally provided a decent fare, barring the 3000m steeplechase where you had the rare sight of a Kenyan (John Kemboi) clocking 8:56.43 to win a title and another Kenyan (Joel Kiptanui Chelimo) timing 9:24.08 to be pushed to the bronze status by an Indian, Arun D'Souza. Men from the land of Kip Keino and Moses Kiptanui are not expected to clock such timings, forgetting for a moment the defeat of Chelimo to the Indian. D'Souza's 9:05.97 was well below his best of 8:50.92. Incidentally, Kemboi's timing in Hyderabad was his personal best!

Talking of personal bests and all-comers' records, Olusoji's 10.15s for the 100m, Kenyan Ezra Sambu's 45.03s for the 400m, Ethiopian Hailu Mekonnen's 13:49.08 for the 5000m, Ethiopian Sileshi Sihine's 27:48.40 for the 10,000m, and Kazakh Yevgeniy Melshenko's 49.66s for the 400m hurdles were the best recorded on Indian soil. So, too, Hardus Pienaar's javelin mark of 84.50m, a personal best for the South African, and Chinese woman hammer thrower Liu Yinghui's 68.03m.

Anju Bobby George lived up to expectations to clinch the women's long jump gold. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

There were four National records in all. Sudanese Todd Matthews Jouda timed 13.68s to win the 110m hurdles gold in a National record time, Aissata Soulama of Burkina Faso clocked a 57.99 for the fourth place in the women's 400m hurdles, Sri Lankan Gallage Geetha Nandan timed 52:58.80 for another National mark while finishing fourth in the women's 10,000m walk and the Thai women's team timed 43.90s for the bronze in the shorter relay. Nineteen-year-old Cameroonian, Delphine Atangana had a National junior record of 23.37s while winning the women's 200m.

The closest that any Indian came to a personal best was in the heptathlon where Shobha's 5884 was just four points shy of her best recorded at the same venue in the last National Games.

"In championships you go for the gold, not for personal bests," remarked discus thrower Anil Kumar. He is of course right. The 60.68 was his season's best. More importantly it was his best in an international competition. Anil himself would readily admit, however, that he won in an ordinary field. Two men who beat him at the last Asian Games and Asian championships, Chinese Wu Tao and Iranian Abbas Samimi were not there. South African Frantz Kruger, who would have been the overwhelming favourite, with a season best of 66.70m (personal best 70.32m) was also not in the field. The All-Africa Games champion, 19-year-old Egyptian, Omar Al-Ghazali finished third with 59.77m.

Ezra Sambu (middle) of Kenya signals his victory in the men's 400m. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

Shakti Singh also had a season best of 19.05m in shot put, off his sixth and last attempt. The veteran has found a new-found enthusiasm in competitions after doing his coach's course at the NIS, Patiala. Asian Games champion Bahadur Singh could manage only the fourth place behind South African Burger Lambrechts and Navpreet Singh. Lambrechts had an 18.97, Navpreet 18.81 and Bahadur 18.68. The only man in the field who had crossed 20 metres this season, Nigerian Chima Uguwu finished fifth with 18.42. Asian champion Saad Bilal Mubarak of Qatar was absent, while South African Janus Roberts, a 20-metre-plus putter this season (PB 21.97) was also missing.

Neelam J. Singh had her revenge. She was beaten by Chinese Li Yanfeng at the Asian championships in Manila, but the Hoshiarpur woman struck form in Hyderabad with a 61.94m that could not be surpassed either by Li Yanfeng or by her better-rated team-mate Song Aimin, world-ranked 11. Incidentally, going into this competition, Song Aimin had the best mark in Asia and Africa this season, a 65.33m.

Anju George talked about the break in training, thanks to the innumerable felicitations following her World championships bronze and the rain-interrupted preparations at Bangalore, as possible reasons for her below-par 6.53. That it was a clear 23cm ahead of the rest was another matter. Anju looked the favourite right through the build-up for this meet and she did not disappoint. Maybe a better field might have brought out the best from this Kerala woman who has stirred a new interest and brought a new vibrancy to Indian athletics in the post-Paris phase.

For the record, it must, however, be mentioned here that the top Chinese this season, Guan Yingnan (6.72m), was not in the field. Another Chinese, Liang Shuyan, though entered and present, pulled out at the last moment. Asian champion Anastasiya Zhuravlyeva was allowed only as a `guest' competitor since Asia had filled in its quota. Japanese Maho Hanaoka (second in Busan Asian Games) and Kumiko Ikeda as well as Kazakh Yelena Kashcheyeva (third in Asian Games) were also not in the fray.

Kazakhstan's Marina Aitova (left), who won the women's high jump gold, has a word with the silver medallist Bobby Aloysius. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

Anju and husband Bobby George have talked about sticking to their Bangalore base for the next season, meaning their association with world record holder Mike Powell might have is as good as ended. Athens is the goal for all the athletes who are either sure of their qualification or are within the range.

One such athlete is high jumper Bobby Aloysius. Her 1.88 and the silver were satisfying efforts for one who had found the switch from a faulty Fosbury technique to the correct one, under coach Denis Doyle, a tough one. Kazakh Marina Aitova (nee Korzhova) was the winner, on a countback. She had shared the silver at the Busan Asian Games with Bobby, at 1.88.

Three other Indian silvers in the women's section came through Saraswati Saha (200m), Gurmeet Kaur (javelin) and Jasmine Kaur (10,000m walk). Saraswati's 23.43 was a good effort in only her first competition over 200m this season, while Gurmeet, though well below her best, should also have some satisfaction that she has come back into the limelight after a long gap. Jasmine as well as male walker Sitaram Basat, who also won a silver, brought coach Harmana Ram plenty of joy.

India's Neelam Jaswant Singh, with a heave of 61.94, won the women's discus gold. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

There was a fine effort from the men's 4x100m relay team as well. A bronze at this level, after more than two decades of emptiness at the Asian level, is something to be proud of. The foursome of Thirunanadurai, Sandeep Sarkaria, Piyush Kumar and Sanjay Ghosh, were indeed thrilled that they won the medal ahead of Thailand.

The other relay teams disappointed, however. With a few African mixed teams being fielded, the relays lost much of the relevance in the overall context.

India's J. J. Shobha (right) accumulated 5884 points to clinch the heptathlon gold. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

Disappointment was also in store for Sunita Rani, coming back into top-level competition for the first time after the doping scandal at the Busan Asian Games.

She looked drained totally as she tried to match the rest in the 1500m, eventually finishing fourth behind team-mate Madhuri Singh in 4:22.60.

She said she was trying herself out after an injury and she was aiming for the Olympics next year. One thing is clear; Sunita is no longer the athlete who took the continent by storm at Busan.