Still a long way to go

Splendid effort... Om Prakash Singh who won the lone gold medal for India.-R. RAGU

Coaches and experts will have to re-evaluate the Indian strengths and targets in the light of these championships if our athletes are to make any sort of mark in next year’s Commonwealth Games. Going to England or South Africa for training is not going to change the fortunes of Indian athletics, writes K. P. Mohan.

Indian athletics stood exposed in Guangzhou in the second week of November when the 18th Asian Championships were gone through. A bag of 12 medals, with just one gold, happened to be one of the worst performances for India in the continental championships.

Of the 57-member Indian squad at Guangzhou — there is no confirmation about numbers even after the championships — 40 athletes finished without a medal, eight of them coming fourth. There were just nine individual medal winners from among the Indians.

Compare this with a country like Iran which finished third in the standings with five medals comprising two gold, two silver and one bronze. Iran had a 15-member team. In fact, India’s was the largest contingent outside China. The host had an 80-member team and finished on top of the medals standings, rather expectedly, with 47 medals including 18 gold while Japan fielded a 54-member squad, winning 22 medals, a dozen of them gold.

Among the medals... Kavita Raut (silver, 10,000m; bronze, 5,000m) and (below) Joseph Abraham (silver, 400m hurdles)-A. M. FARUQUI

The absence of the top Chinese and Japanese, not to speak of many other top-ranked athletes from the rest of the continent, had helped India finish second in the standings in the last edition with 15 medals including five gold.

This time, though, the going was expectedly tougher.

That just five athletes, Sunil Kumar (10,000m, sixth, 29:28.73), Om Narayan (javelin, fourth, 75.36m), H. M. Jyothi (100m), Kavita Raut (5000m) and Sudha Singh (3000m steeplechase) managed personal bests or season bests should tell the tale of India’s poor preparations and its standing in the continent, not to speak of the unachieved ‘peak’ of the athletes.

VIVEK BENDRE

The lone gold came through shot putter Om Prakash Singh. He had just three valid attempts, one of 19.00, another just above 19 and a third one, his fifth that measured 19.87. As he pumped his fists and turned around to face the stands, the 22-year-old Haryana youngster knew he had clinched it. Surprisingly, the rest of the field was subdued. It contained Sultan Abdulmajeed Al-Hebshi of Saudi Arabia, who only this season had posted an Asian record of 21.13 metres. Al-Hebshi finished fifth (18.89) eventually. Chinese Taipei’s Chang Ming-Huang (19.34) and Chinese Zhang Jun (19.15) took the minor medals.

In terms of performance, Om Prakash’s was a splendid effort in an event that had been monopolised by Indians since the beginning. Last time, Navpreet Singh (19.70) had won the title.

This was Om Prakash’s third best result ever, behind his 20.02m at the Chennai Inter-State and the 19.89m in Istanbul in June this year. After having been an 18-metre-plus performer, Om Prakash has broken through big this year with eight marks over 19 metres.

India’s Manjeet Kaur (right) celebrates on the podium after finishing third in the 400m of the Asian Championships. Asami Tanno of Japan (centre) won the gold, while Chen Lin of China took the silver.-AP

“I was under pressure since I was competing for the first time in the senior Asian with others who have had the experience at this level,” said Om Prakash, an ONGC employee who hails from Gurgaon.

“I knew all that was required was one big throw and I was confident of getting that,” said the 6-foot 4-inch Haryana man.

Another Indian who came up with a creditable performance was intermediate hurdler Joseph Abraham, who won the silver. The 28-year-old Railwayman was smoothly over the hurdles and even challenged Japanese Kenji Narisako, Doha Asian Games champion, before the final hurdle despite being drawn in Lane Eight. Abraham clocked 49.96, his eighth best career timing.

India’s other silver medals came through woman distance runner Kavita Raut, woman steeplechaser Sudha Singh and the women’s 4x400m relay team.

Kavita’s silver in the 10,000 metres, after taking the bronze in the 5000 metres (PB 16:05.90) was a remarkable effort. In terms of season best and standings, the Maharashtra woman stood little chance in a field headed by World championships marathon winner, Bai Xue of China. The second Chinese, Wang Jiali and Japanese Mari Ozaki were rated well above the Indian while the 5000m silver medallist, Tejitu Daba Chalchissa, a former Ethiopian in Bahraini colours, was a relatively unknown talent on track though she has had success in cross-country events. As it turned out, the Chinese and the Japanese played a waiting game, slowing down the pace that eventually suited Kavita. As she saw Bai Xue taking off with about 650 metres to go, Kavita also speeded up and ensured that the silver didn’t slip away. On a cold day, the others surprisingly could not keep pace with the front-runners.

Sudha Singh’s silver in the steeplechase came in a National record 10:10.77. Women’s steeplechase is yet to get stabilised at the National and Asian levels. In a field of seven runners, the fight for the silver had to be between Sudha and Chinese Fang Xiaoyu with Japanese Yoshika Tatsumi well above the rest. Sudha kept herself in second position throughout. The Chinese was eventually overtaken with more than 1000 metres to go by India’s Kiran Tiwari for the bronze.

To put things in perspective, 93 women including Tatsumi cracked 10 minutes for the steeplechase in the world lists this season. Another 33 bettered 10:10.

The fall from the ‘pedestal’ in women’s 4x400m relay was most galling for the Indian team. The season had not gone exactly according to expectations, though the coaches had talked about at least four runners clocking below 53 seconds with at least two being sub-52 by the time the Guangzhou meet came around.

In the event, it required a lion-hearted effort from Manjeet Kaur to keep Japan away from the silver medal, China having ensured the gold well before the last leg started. The Indian team of Mandeep Kaur, Sini Jose, Chitra Soman and Manjeet clocked 3:31.62 behind China’s 3:31.08. Japan, with 400m individual winner Asami Tanno running a great anchor, timed 3:31.95 for the bronze.

Interestingly, some of the selectors were unaware how Chitra Soman, who finished eighth and last in the 400 metres in the Inter-State in Chennai was included in the relay team and even if she was, how she was taken in the eventual quartet. Many felt that despite her disappointment in the women’s 800 metres earlier, it would have been sensible to pick Tintu Luka to run the relay even though she was, surprisingly, not even given the sixth slot in the relay squad.

Not hundred per cent fit and clearly uncomfortable in the biting cold and winds that swept the city that evening, Luka could not respond on the finishing straight when the others came up with their ‘kicks’ in the 800 metres and settled for the sixth place in 2:07.61. She and her coach P. T. Usha were very disappointed, but then for someone making the senior Asian debut, it should be a lesson rather than a setback. She had shown promise of getting at least a medal by easily qualifying from the heats. Chinese Zhou Haiyan, who had by then won the 1500 metres, took the 800m gold in a modest 2:04.81.

The Indian bronze winners were Chatholi Hamza (men’s 1500m) and the men’s 4x400m relay team of Harpreet Singh, Bibin Mathew, V. B. Bineesh and S. K. Mortaja, and H. M. Jyothi (100m), Manjeet Kaur (400m) and Krishna Poonia (discus) in the women’s section apart from Kavita and Kiran.

There was disappointment in Renjith Maheswary not getting among the medals. He had shown the kind of form at home that might have indicated an encore of Amman where he took the triple jump title with a wind-aided 17.19m.

In a field which was tough even without Asian record holder Li Yanxi of China and Korean Kim Deok-Hyung (17.10m this season), Renjith could not raise his level to seriously challenge the gold-medal contenders though he missed the bronze only by a whisker. Significantly, Renjith’s 16.48 came with the assistance of a wind-speed of 4.4m/s. All the medallists had legal wind-speeds.

Asian Games silver medallist Roman Valiyev of Kazakhstan led from the second round with a jump of 16.56 which he improved to 16.70 in the third round. Chinese Zhu Shujing produced a last-round jump of 16.67 to win the silver while Kazakh Yevgeniy Ektov (16.49) was just a centimetre ahead of Renjith.

Coaches and experts will have to re-evaluate the Indian strengths and targets in the light of these championships if our athletes are to make any sort of mark in next year’s Commonwealth Games. Going to England or South Africa for training is not going to change the fortunes of Indian athletics.