Saraswati sprints into record books


THERE were only three competitors in the women's 200 metres. The event itself was a last-minute inclusion. It looked as though a formality was being gone through. Not many realised that the race was fast. Saraswati Saha was the winner. By a long margin, if that meant anything at all.

Then someone came and informed us that the winning time was 22.82. Saraswati had broken a barrier. A National record has been set. For years to come everyone will remember Ludhiana's Guru Nanak Stadium, the venue of the fifth National Circuit meet, the date, 28 August, 2002, and the athlete, Saraswati Saha. Barriers are not broken every other day. And this one, 23.00s for the women's longer dash, had looked tough all along.

Saraswati Saha (128) winning the 200m event. She set a National record.-V. SUDERSHAN

In fact, it had taken P. T. Usha as many as 10 years to move from 23.27 (1989 ATF in Delhi) to 23.25s (Lucknow) before Vinita Tripathi shattered that mark beyond recognition with a 23.04s in Bangalore in 2000. However, Vinita's mark was not ratified by the AAFI on the ground that no dope control was in place and instead Rachita Mistry's 23.15s clocked in Chennai in 2000 was approved. Saraswati's latest mark looks all too imposing, sounds incredible even.

Saraswati's National record apart, the most encouraging performance, in the Asian Games context, was that in men's shot put where Shakti Singh touched 19.99m and Bahadur Singh 19.93m in one of the most closely-fought contests ever. The women's quarter-milers, led by K. M. Beenamol, also returned excellent timings with seven girls in two races coming under 54.00 seconds. There will be a problem of plenty when the final line-up for the Asian Games 4x400m relay is determined.

Saraswati has been unbeaten on the home circuit this season after having had limited success last year, losing a few races to Kavita Pandya and winning a few others. In the shadows of Rachita Mistry for long, the Tripura-born Bengal girl had first shot into prominence in 1996 by claiming the 200m silver in the Asian junior championships in New Delhi, behind another Indian, V. Pandeeswari. An injury hampered her next year when she finished without a medal in the next edition of the junior championships, though she had a junior National record of 11.75s in the 100m heats at Bangkok.

Since then she had been among the top sprinters of the country, though it was not until 1999 that she established herself firmly with a 11.60s in winning the international circuit meet in Bangalore. Two years ago, she clocked a 11.40 for the silver in the 100m at the Asian championships in Jakarta, behind Uzbek Lyubov Perepelova to further establish her credentials.

The latest 22.82 has put Saraswati right at the top of the Asian ranking lists with only Sri Lankan Susanthika Jayasinghe having another sub-23 for the season, a 22.84, her winning time in Colombo. A medal in the Asian Games, that looked rather unlikely in the women's sprint events, now looks a possibility. Of course, Saraswati will have to maintain her form right into the Asian Games and that might not be easy.

On the brighter side, on the topic of maintaining form, is the contention that the sprinters had been concentrating only on hill-training rather than doing any speedwork during their recent training programme abroad and that should point to a further improvement in timings, come October.

"I have more speed endurance now," says Saraswati as she steals a glance at her husband Amit Saha, the long jumper-turned sprinter. The two who are products of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Hostel programme, had tied the knot in February, 2000.

Behind Saraswati, at Ludhiana, came Vinita Tripathi in 23.51s, in her first race of the season over that distance. Vinita gave further proof of her fitness with this performance if her Delhi show, in the 100m, had left any room for doubt. Another sprinter coming back from injuries, Rachita Mistry, however, pulled out of both the 100m and 200m and pulled up in the trial for the 4x100m on the anchor.

There were a flurry of personal bests and season bests in the women's 400 metres, though Beenamol was not completely satisfied with her best for the season, 51.47s that put her at the top of the Asian lists. She now tops both the 400m and 800m this season.

Behind Beenamol, Jincy Philip and Manjima Kuriakose had personal bests of 52.57 and 52.94 respectively while Sagardeep Kaur, the No. 1 quarter-miler for the country at the Colombo Asian meet, slipped to the seventh position with a 54.20. In the second race, S. Geetha clocked a creditable 53.92s, another pesronal best, while winning.

The men's one-lap runners once again disappointed, though P. Ramachandran established himself as the No. 1 beyond doubt, while winning in 46.28 seconds. Paramjeet Singh, having come through the first 300 metres rather too fast had problems on the home straight and after seemingly in place for the silver or at least the bronze, slipped eventually to the fourth position.

The real drama unfolded at the shot put circle when Shakti Singh and Bahadur Singh battled it out for supremacy. The more experienced Shakti, all of 40 summers, won in the end with a fifth-round putt of 19.99m. Till then Bahadur had led with an opening throw of 19.93 metres.

Bahadur fouled his last four attempts. Navpreet's 18.54 for the bronze was a vast improvement over his Delhi performance while 22-year-old Kulwinder Singh had a personal best of 17.02m to take the fourth place.

The hammer throwers and javelin throwers again failed to reach the norms for Asian Games selection. Pramod Tiwari had a best of 66.10m in hammer while Jagdish Bishnoi, considerably up from his 72.90 in Delhi, at 76.00, was still 2.00 metres short of the Asiad qualifying standard.

Neelam J. Singh was also marginally up on her performance in Delhi with a throw of 59.84 in women's discus. But more importantly, Harwant Kaur maintained her position behind Neelam, pushing Seema Antil to the bronze status once again. Harwant had a 57.60 while Seema had 57.40.