Siblings' success

K. P. MOHAN

INDIAN athletics had its best and worst moments almost together at the Busan Asian Games. Accounting for seven of the gold medals out of the total Indian tally of 11 was perhaps the proudest moment for Indian athletics in more than two decades.

India's K. M. Beenamol on her way to victory in the 800m. Her compatriot Madhuri (No. 657) took the silver.-V. SUDERSHAN

But before the last gold was struck, through the women's longer relay team, on the final day of track and field action, the darkest moment in Indian athletics had also arrived - Sunita Rani had tested positive.

Only the previous day, a group of Chinese journalists had cornered this correspondent and asked the one question that kept cropping up everywhere: "What is India's secret?" There were knowing smiles all around even as one started answering the query.

Eventually Sunita Rani was punished by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF). From now on, everyone will take Indian performances only with a pinch of salt, if they have not been doing so already. Those seven (six, after Sunita's medals were taken back) gold medals have lost some of their sheen.

Anju George, who won the long jump gold, is congratulated by former Indian sprint queen P. T. Usha.-V. SUDERSHAN

That really is unfortunate just as it was uncharitable of the official Games bulletin in Busan to suggest that India was a country with no history in athletics and suddenly the country had started winning gold medals. By implication the bulletin was suggesting that dope played a major part in the Indian success and that inference was drawn from Sunita Rani testing positive.

Indian athletics has paid a heavy price for that one positive test, whether anyone accepts it or not. Yet, we have to take note of those who won for the country the medals, the gold medals in particular. Even as we do so, we also have to note, with some amount of scepticism, the below-par performances of some of those who were billed to shake up Asian equations.

Neelam J. Singh exceeded her own expectations to clinch the discus gold.-V. SUDERSHAN

But the gold medallists first. Without doubt, K. M. Beenamol should head that list. A gold and a silver from individual events plus another gold from the relay constituted Beenamol's collection. She might have been expected to win the 400 metres also, at least in the Indian think-tank calculations, but Damayanthi Darsha, if fit, always looked to have the edge. In the event, Darsha won with plenty to spare.

The 800 metres has been Beenamol's forte from a young age. But from 1999, she shifted her focus to the 400 metres. This time, though, at the behest of the AAFI Secretary, Lalit Bhanot, she pitched herself into the two-lap event. By doing so, she was running the risk of being in slightly lesser shape for the 400m which was to follow the 800 in Busan.

As the race developed, an opening lap of 63.8 was just what Beenamol was looking for in the 800 metres. She held herself back so much that at one stage, she was to say later, she herself was wondering whether she was capable of catching up. But her 400m strength came to the fore on the home straight and from her fifth position, coming into the final bend, she was easily able to overhaul the field to win in 2:04.17. In underlining the Indian strength in this event, Madhuri Singh won the silver in 2:04.19 while Uzbek Amira Zamirova was third at 2:05.05.

The biggest bonus for India was the gold by Saraswati Saha in the 200m.-V. SUDERSHAN

There has been some criticism in some quarters about Beenamol's timing. For someone who had clocked a personal best of 2:02.01 at home before going to Busan, this was indeed an ordinary performance, timing-wise. But then, no one runs for time in major international meets, especially in tactical races such as the 800 metres and 1500 metres. Medals are what count and Beenamol was simply looking at the gold medal, not at the clock. That is the way it should be. Had there been someone who was capable of pushing her to the hilt, the timings might have been different. Then again, Beenamol had to preserve herself for the 400m final.

Beenamol was no match for Darsha in the 400 metres and lost rather tamely. In fact the Kerala girl was lucky to end up with the silver against a strong challenge towards the end by Svetlana Bodritskaya of Kazakhstan.

Next only to Beenamol should come another Kerala athlete, the tall, lithe, stylish long jumper Anju B. George. In the pre-meet analysis, Anju might have looked only second best to Kazakh Yelena Kashcheyeva since the latter had beaten her through three Asian Grand Prix meets at the beginning of the season. But her 6.74 in the National Open, that equalled her own National record, seemed to have given Anju the confidence that showed in the manner in which she approached the competition in Busan.

The gold-medal winning Indian women's 4x400m relay quartet (from left): Beenamol, Manjit Kaur, Jincy Philip and Soma Biswas.-V. SUDERSHAN

It was not a high-class long jump competition that one could have expected. Everyone jumped well below par. Anju talked about the runway not responding, husband and coach Bobby George talked about the way the winds blew. Anju's winning jump of 6.53 was into a headwind of 1.8 metres per second.

Kashcheyeva did not get the right rhythm in her run-up while the others looked well below the class of Anju. Still, it was Japanese Maho Hanaoka, who has a personal best of 6.80, who hauled herself up for a last-round jump of 6.47 for the silver. Anju by then had stretched her first-round lead of 6.45 to 6.53 and looked secure for the gold. But till everyone finished, Anju looked tense and after she fouled her last jump she allowed herself a nervous smile and then waved to the small band of Indian supporters including the media members. Anju later narrowly missed the bronze in triple jump.

Neelam J. Singh's discus gold was a surprise. There was much jubilation in the Neelam camp that evening since she had bettered the National mark with a throw of 64.55 metres. The Commonwealth Games silver medallist had lost to Chinese Song Aimin and Ma Shuli during the Asian Grand Prix meets and might have been expected to take the silver at the most. But she exceeded her own expectations and her National mark of 63.02, set two years ago at Thiruvananthapuram.

Just one valid throw, a 19.03, was enough for Bahadur Singh to take the shot put gold.-V. SUDERSHAN

''All the sins she had committed had been washed away," said husband and coach Jaswant Singh inside the interview room as a beaming Neelam accepted congratulations from all around. Jaswant was of course referring to the oft-repeated charge, including from this correspondent, that Neelam, or for that matter the Indian throwers in general, had always performed well below their home levels in competitions abroad.

This time they were prepared well enough, with "scientific support" from experts from the former Soviet Republics, better in execution than the one during the 1998 Asian Games, with trips to Ukraine and Belarus giving the final touches to a hectic year-long coaching programme.

It is a different matter that the male shot putters fell far below expectations and yet won the gold and bronze for India. Bahadur Singh had just one valid throw, a 19.03. Shakti had a best of 18.27 and tied with Kuwaiti Ahmed Gholoum, but on his last throw clinched it with a second best 18.16 as against the Kuwaiti's 18.05.

Both Bahadur and Shakti were expected to cross 20 metres in Busan. One felt sorry for Shakti as he stood and watched Bahadur revel in his new-found status as the Asian Games champion. This was a field he could have conquered without trouble. But he as well as the others were troubled by a slippery circle, variously described as slippery and rough.

K. M. Binu finished second in the men's 800m event.-V. SUDERSHAN

''I don't want to say anything. That will sound like an excuse. The circle was the same for all. I failed," said Shakti, close to tears. He had won a silver last time, the first time he won anything in the Asian Games. This time, with the Chinese not even bothering to enter a competitor, he had just Saad Bilal Mubarak of Qatar to beat. So we thought. Bahadur had other ideas.

Bilal was happy that he had the silver at 18.98, well below par, but good all the same for his first medal in the Asian Games. Somehow, the shot putters, in particular, come well below their pre-meet form during Asian Games. The Asian Games record stands at 19.26, in the name of Chinese Liu Hao while the Asian best is 20.45, held by Kazakh Sergey Roubatsov. Shakti has a best of 20.60 back home (not ratified as a National record or Asian record) while he also has a National mark of 20.42 metres. Bahadur's best is 20.01.

The biggest bonus for India was the gold by Sarswati Saha in the 200 metres. She might have looked good for a bronze in the pre-meet assessment, but won the race in the absence of Sri Lankan Susanthika Jayasinghe who complained of a hamstring injury on the morning of the race. The Sri Lankan was so confident that she had started talking about the sprint double just after she won the 100 in a Games record. Her focus then was clocking another Games record for the 200 metres.

Saraswati clocked a 23.28 while winning after being slightly behind the Uzbek Lyubov Perepelova. Just past the curve, the Tripura-born Bengal girl put in a great effort down the straight to finish comfortably ahead. Perepelova faded towards the end, allowing Chinese Ni Xiaoli and Kazakh Viktoriya Kovyereva to nose ahead.

The Indian men's 4x400m team which took the silver. From left: Bhupinder Singh, Satbir Singh, K. J. Manojlal and P. Ramachandran.-V. SUDERSHAN

The women's 4x400m gold was always taken for granted by India. It was not all that easy, though there never was any real threat. Jincy Philip, Manjit Kaur, Soma Biswas and Beenamol clocked a creditable 3:30.84 for the gold.

Much before they ran, India kept up its historical perspective by going through a trial to finalise the team. Manjima Kuriakose was eventually eased out, bringing in Soma Biswas. True, after a spirited display to gain the silver in the heptathlon, Soma was on a 'high'.

But Manjima had proved herself at home, coming third best behind Beenamol and Jincy Philip. There was nothing to suggest at Busan, without a race, that her form had dipped. As for the trial, she complained that there was a false start and she had stopped. Much after everyone took off she realised that the race was 'on' and she ran and finished third behind Manjit and Soma.

Among the silver winners, K. M. Binu's shone the brightest. Beenamol's brother almost pulled off the gold in an 800m race in which he might have been considered as an outsider with a chance to get a bronze.

Wu Tao of China, who won the gold in men's discus, shakes hands with India's Anil Kumar who took the bronze medal.-V. SUDERSHAN

The debate after Binu finished behind Bahrain's Mohammed Rashid was whether he should have started pulling away early or late. Binu and sister Beenamol felt that he would have been better off had he come up with just one 'kick' from 120 metres out instead of trying to break from 300 metres out and then kicking hard from 220 metres and finally producing a burst on the straight.

Bobby Aloysius came directly from Moscow, where she had shifted to indoor training, was stranded at the Busan airport close to midnight, found a taxi, thanks to a police officer and then waited a whole week before her competition arrived. She wanted to concentrate so hard that she did not step into the stadium to watch the others in action through the week.

The Kerala high jumper produced the second best jump of her career, 1.88, clearing the bar on her first attempt, to share the silver with Marina Korzhova of Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan's Tatiana Effimenko, expectedly claimed the gold.

Bobby was overjoyed. A little disappointed, too, since she felt that a noisy band which just wouldn't shut up, despite pleas, had not allowed her to reach her best technique. "My fitness was there and that helped me jump 1.88 without too much of trouble," said Bobby.

Bobby Aloysius produced the second best jump of her career to claim the high jump silver.

She was denied the chance last time and since then she had just the medal in the Asian Games in her sights. Now on, she has the Olympics participation as her main aim. Towards that she is prepared to go abroad and train, do any amount of sacrifices. Husband, Shajan Scaria, a sports journalist, has been a constant source of encouragement for Bobby.

Heptathlon provided India with two medals, Soma fighting for a difficult gold in the last event, the 800 metres, and J. J. Shobha slipping there after having led. But the Chinese, Shen Shengfei took the gold with 5911, Soma just 12 points away from tying. This was a great effort from the Bengal girl, who, on many occasions, had not come up to her potential in big championships. This time, she fought and came close to an upset. Shobha's bronze, ahead of the Asian champion Svetlana Kazanina, was also a praiseworthy effort.

One point which should be mentioned in respect of heptathlon is the absence of a top-level second entry from Kazakhstan for want of funds. Eighteen-year-old Olga Alekseyeva, who had a 5903 this season was preserved for the Asian junior championships while Irina Naumenko, another young woman with a best of 5808 this season, though selected, could not make it since the National Olympic Committee decided to restrict the number for lack of funds.

The men's 4x400m silver was some sort of a bonus, though the Indian camp had set its eyes on the gold. Paramjeet Singh having failed miserably in the rounds of the individual event, the quartet comprised P. Ramachandran, K. J. Manojlal, who ran a spirited second leg, Satbir Singh and Bhupinder Singh. Saudi Arabia expectedly claimed the gold, while Sri Lanka, with an injured Sugath Tillakeratne on the anchor, came just behind India.

China's Shen Shengfei (centre), who won the heptathlon gold, is flanked by silver medallist Soma Biswas (left) and J. J. Shobha, both from India.

Among the bronze winners, the performance of Anil Kumar, though creditable, fell below expectations. Anil was unhappy that after having worked so hard through the year in Hungary, he had to finish with just the bronze.

Anil led up to the fifth round with his 59.81, but after that Chinese Wu Tao, the world junior champion, and Iranian S. Abbas Samimi took over. Long after the competition was over, well after he had reached back home, Anil was unable to fathom his debacle, after his excellent series, culminating in a National mark of 62.12 in Hungary.

Among the also-rans were Anand Menezes (200m), P. Ramachandran and Paramjeet Singh (400m), Kuldeep Kumar (1500m), Pramod Tiwari (hammer) and Harminder Singh (javelin) and Rachita Mistry (100m), Vinita Tripathi (200m), Harwant Kaur (discus) and Hardeep Kaur (hammer) plus the sprint relay teams. The men's team did clock a National record of 39.36, but the composition of the team came in for some debate before eventually Anil Kumar was retained in the team.

There was also the curious case of Gulab Chand. He gave up past the half-way mark in the 10,000 metres and was pulled out of the 5000m and was asked to leave Busan. He was there till the very end. Those who were supposed to have recovered from injuries and were declared fit by a special panel, including Gulab Chand, fared miserably.

Like it happened on the last occasion, the athletics medals helped India camouflage a mediocre performance overall. For a 400-member contingent, the eventual returns were dismal. Yet, like last time, athletics seemed to have bailed the rest out, even when some of the athletes failed. But, in the end, the Sunita Rani doping issue marred an otherwise fine effort.

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

KOMBODINJAL is a village of largely Christian settlers - most of them farmers - in the high ranges of Central Kerala. But it gave India three precious medals at the Asian Games in Busan. To be precise it was just one family that made that significant contribution to the Indian medals tally. Kalayathumkuzhi Mathew and Mariyakkutti must be feeling over the moon. And why not?

Their daughter K. M. Beenamol and son K. M. Binu have given them, and India, plenty to cheer about. Not too many families can boast of such an achievement: a gold and two silver medals on the track from one major international competition.

Beenamol's gold in the women's 800m wasn't entirely surprising; it was perhaps India's most assured gold in Busan in athletics. "Beenamol is definitely our best bet," P. T. Usha, India's greatest athlete, had told this writer a few days before she left for Korea as a cheerleader of the Indian athletes at the Asian Games, courtesy, Samsung India, the official sponsor of the Indian team. "She should win the gold in the 800m," she had said, as she assessed India's prospects in Busan.

Usha, a veteran of six Asiads (including that unforgettable Seoul Games where she had won four golds and a silver), was proved right of course, as Beenamol sprinted to the gold after trailing in the first half of the race. Usha believes that Beenamol has in it her to be a world class performer in the 800m, only if she concentrated in just that event.

It was Beenamol's younger brother Binu who called up their parents first from Busan after his sister's moment of glory. He may not have thought that a day later he would make another long distance call, all the way to Idukki district in Kerala, to tell them about his own success.

Binu's silver in the 800m was a surprise to many. This was his first appearance in a competition of this magnitude, and he wasn't exactly counted among the medal prospects when the Indian contingent reached Busan a few days ago.

But with a splendid show he ensured that the celebrations in Kombodinjal - the entire village, reportedly, was in the church, praying for the siblings' success in Korea - continued for another day. There was more joy for the villagers when the Indian athletes came up with a stunning show and Beenamol struck silver in the 400m.

Usha marks Binu as one for the future. She wasn't very sure of his chances in Busan while she discussed the Indian athletes, but she had said, "He has the potential to develop into a good athlete."