Uncertainty stems from Chinese inconsistency

K. P. MOHAN

CHINESE athletics is no longer intimidating. Yet, everyone is concerned about the form of the Chinese alone. Rather contradictory, you might say. But that is the way it is in Asian athletics on the eve of the Asian Games in Busan.

No one is sure about what China has in store for the Asian Games track and field programme. And because of that, no one can be sure of where one stands. The uncertainty stems from the Chinese inconsistency, beginning with the last Asian Games in Bangkok, through the Sydney Olympics and the Edmonton World championships.

Japan's hammer-thrower Koji Murofushi has been in such terrific form this season that it would be futile for anyone else to even make an attempt to dislodge him.-AP

From a phenomenal collection of 26 gold medals out of 43 at the Japanese backyard of Fukuoka in the Asian championships of 1998, the Chinese booty had come down to 15 golds by the time the Bangkok Asian Games were through. The Asian meets in Jakarta in 2000 and in Colombo this year only confirmed the slump in Chinese standards, nine golds in a total of 29 medals at Jakarta and 10 gold medals in a total haul of 20 at Colombo.

One important point, however, stood out at Colombo. The Chinese topped the medals tally without a majority of their top-notchers in either section. The missing stars will be there in Busan during the Asian Games, though Ma Junren's world famous trainee, Dong Yanmei, who took the fourth place in the 5000 metres at the Edmonton World championships last year, will be missing. So will be several other Ma proteges.

If China could top even with an ordinary-looking team at Colombo, what can it do with a full-strength team? That is what should worry the rest. A repeat of Bangkok will mean unexpected windfall for the others; a repeat of Fukuoka will mean crumbs for the rest.

Bangkok, four years ago, should have seen a Chinese sweep, especially since they had so convincingly shattered the Japanese hopes at Fukuoka a few months earlier. But when the pieces were put together at the end of a crazy championship, the Chinese puzzle was baffling to many.

Said the Japanese National coach, Yasunori Hamada, then: "Other teams have failed to give full play to their strength due to injuries or some other reason, I don't know. It looks they have lost the events rather than we have won them."

Will the Chinese lose some more this time? Or will they come back to avenge Bangkok?

Just one gold from the track in the women's section in 1998, the 100m title by continental record holder Li Xuemei, was an inexplicable fall by the Chinese. Probably they were not prepared; possibly they paid the price for their new-found 'clean image'.

With Beijing getting ready to host the 2008 Olympics, the need to projet another 'clean image' cannot be over-emphasised. The others do have another golden opportunity. Will they be able to? We will try to find the answers in the paragraphs that follow.

Between June, when they competed in their National championships in Benxi and the second week of September, when they went through a National Grand Prix meet at Baoding, there has been some improvement in some events in Chinese athletics this season. But they are far from their form in November 2001 when, in the National Games at Guangzhou, they registered a few Asian records, season bests, Asian junior records and a world junior record.

The 'downward graph', if it could be called that, after a National Games year is nothing unusual in Chinese athletics. Still, in a majority of the events, the Chinese are far too superior. The Japanese will try, as in the past; the Qataris will put up a good fight, while the 'minor players' including India will have to hope for the best.

Qatari Ahmed Ibrahim Warsama is a redoubtable performer in both the men's distance events.-RAJEEV BHATT

The South Koreans, though they should be able to take advantage of the home conditions, have not performed with any distinction this season. There could still be a few Koreans right up there in contention, especially in their traditional strongholds like the men's 800m, 1500m, marathon and high jump and perhaps women's javelin.

Of the 10 gold medals China won in the Colombo Asian meet, if at all there could be a doubt in their retention at Busan, it could be in the men's high jump where defending champion Lee Jin-Taek, though not among the leaders this season, could be a serious threat at home. Some of the toppers who missed Colombo are back, notably women's triple jumper Huang Qiyuan, discus throwers Song Aimin and Ma Shuli and javelin throwers Liang Lili and Ha Xiaoyan and the No. 1 and No. 2 male walkers of the country Yu Chaohong and Zhu Hongjun. The depth that was missing in Colombo is back in the Chinese squad. That should put the rest on guard, though there could be many more surprises from the Chinese squad.

In an event in which they rule supreme, the Chinese did not have an entry at Colombo. Feng Yun and Su Yiping who head the high hurdles Asian rankings this season are back in the team and we know where to look for the favourites in the 100m hurdles unless Kazakh Olga Shishigina makes one of her comebacks out of the blue. Also back and in contention for top honours is male triple jumper Lao Jianfeng who has a best of 16.60 this season.

Quite surprisingly, China has not fielded a shot putter in the men's section this time. Li Hao, the 1998 champion, is no longer in the news and the other Chinese are nowhere near his standard. It should be good news for the Indians.

The one gold that looked surely headed China's way in Colombo but which went through its grasp was in the decathlon. Qi Haifeng, the 19-year-old sensation from Liaoning was injured and had to pull out after leading at the end of nine events in Colombo. He is back in business and should be the overwhelming favourite once again. For two years running he has crossed 8000 points and there is no one in sight who looks capable of even challenging him.

If Qi Haifeng does win the gold, then Qatar will have at least one less than what it had in Colombo where the decathlon gold went to Ahmad Hassan Moussa. Qatar would also be hard pressed to retain its hold on the distance events, though the 36-year-old Ahmed Ibrahim Warsama is a redoubtable rival in both the events.

In ideal weather conditions, the Japanese should pose the question in long distance running, notwithstanding the absence, for a second time running in the Asian Games, of the great Toshinari Takaoka, the continental record holder in both 5000 and 10,000. Instead Japan has Toshihiro Iwasa (13:32.72 this season) and Tomohiro Seto (13:33.01) in the 5000 metres and Tomoo Tsubota (27:51.85) and Astushi Satoh (28:13.18) in the 10,000 metres.

Japan had a tally of five gold medals at Colombo last month and 12 in Bangkok in 1998. Of the five from Colombo, Koji Murofushi's hammer gold looks the easiest for Japan to retain. The gentle giant has been in such terrific form this season, winding up at the world stage with the title in the Grand Prix final in Paris (81.14m), that it would be futile for anyone else to even make an attempt to dislodge him.

Japan has also named Nobuharu Asahara, the long jumper-turned sprinter and the man who has a 10.05 this season apart from some notable feats in the Grand Prix circuit, as its entry along with Nobuhiro Tajima in the men's 100 metres. Asahara should start the odds-on favourite to add to the sprinting glory that Koji Ito had provided last time. The other 10.05 man for the season, Shingo Suetsugu, who also tops the 200m (20.32s) comes in for the longer dash along with Hisashi Miyazaki who has a 20.65s as his season's best.

Like in Colombo, the men's 400 metres should provide a high-class contest among Kuwaiti Fawzi Al-Shammari, Saudi Arabian Hamdan O. Al-Bishi and Sri Lankan Sugath Tillakeratne. The others, including Japanese Kenji Tabata, Sri Lankan Rohan Pradeep Kumara and Indian P. Ramachandran could be aiming for a medal just in case someone slips up at the top. Al-Shammari's preparations had gone off very well up to the Grand Prix final in Paris where he came in last at 45.88. Only the previous week he had clocked a 44.98, his second sub-45 this season, while coming second in Berlin. He will of course be the man to beat at Busan.

Susanthika Jayasinghe of Sri Lanka is tipped to bag the sprint double, especially in the absence of the Asian record holder, Li Xuemei of China.-AFP

Upwards of 400 metres, the Qataris will come into the picture, with Salem Amer Al-Badri aiming to make up for the loss in Colombo where he kicked too late to be in contention for the gold in 800 metres. Abdulrahman Suleiman, following in his brother Mohamed Suleiman's footsteps, has already made a mark in the 1500 metres and he should call the shots again despite the presence of Japanese Fumikazu Kobayashi.

An exciting battle should be on in the 5000 metres with the Japanese crossing swords with steeplechaser Khamis Abdullah of Qatar and possibly Saudi Arabian Saad Shaddad Al-Asmari. The latter should also renew his duel with Abdullah over the hurdles and water jumps. While Chinese Liu Xiang looks the man likely to win the 110m hurdles gold, the clash between two of Asia's best known athletes in the world, Dai Tamesue of Japan and Haadi Soua'an Al-Somaily of Saudi Arabia, in the 400m hurdles, will be worth waiting for. Add to these two the reigning Asian champion Mubarak Sultan Al-Nubi and a mouthwatering contest is on the cards.

In recent years, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have also made inroads into the Chinese-Japanese territories of jumps and throws, though the strength of the Central Asian republics was not fully evident at Colombo for one to make a clear assessment. Saudi Arabians Hussain Taher Al-Sabee (long jump) and Salem Mouled Al-Ahmadi (triple jump) and Qatari Rasheed Shafi Al-Dosari (discus) look good enough to repeat their Colombo performances.

It is only in shot put that Qatar could be having a doubt since Saad Bilal Mubarak won in Colombo (19.22) without Shakti Singh or Bahadur Singh to stake their claims. The Indians top the season's lists with 19.99 and 19.93 respectively. The unpredictability of the Indian challenge cannot, however, be overlooked.

Apart from the shot putters, the best Indian chance for an individual gold or silver in the men's section should rest on the capable shoulders of Anil Kumar. The discus thrower had won the silver last time behind Chinese Li Shaojie, a superb thrower who will be missed this time. Anil, despite his 62.12 in Hungary this season, should still be the second favourite behind Al-Dosari and Chinese world junior champion Wu Tao.

The Indians, as well as the Sri Lankans do come into the fray strongly in the women's section, with K. M. Beenamol and Damayanthi Darsha expected to fight it out in the 400 metres and Susanthika Jayasinghe tipped to bag the sprint double especially in the absence of the Asian record holder, Li Xuemei of China.

Beenamol's 2:02.01 for the 800 metres in Delhi has also given hope to the Indian authorities that this Kerala girl has a chance to bag the golden 400-800 double. The Chinese could be the only threat in the two-lap event.

K. M. Beenamol's 2:02.01 in the 800 metres in Delhi has given hope to the Indian authorities that this Kerala girl has a chance of bagging the 400-800 double.-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

Darsha had come back into top-level 200m after a gap when she won the title in Bangkok last time. She missed the Colombo Asians with a hamstring injury, but indicated that she would be ready for the Asiad. A fit Darsha might just have the edge over Beenamol in the 400 metres, though it could be touch and go. That Beenamol would by then have run at least two races in the 800 metres should be an important factor as well.

Susanthika Jayasinghe continues to be an enigma. Yet, she is Sri Lanka's prime contender for gold medals in Busan unless she provides an encore of Bangkok. Four years ago she had left Bangkok after qualifying for the 100m final. No one explained, why. She had then participated with a doping suspension hanging over her head, the international federation giving her a temporary licence to compete even as it was to decide on the final verdict regarding her doping charge. She was eventually reprieved and went on to win the Olympic 200m bronze in Sydney to be immortalised by the Lankans. She had the Asian sprint double without much ado in Colombo recently.

From the Indian angle, much is expected of Sunita Rani, back after nearly two years of injury-forced absence, in the 1500 metres and 5000 metres. No one has clocked anywhere close to her 4:08.60 at the Chennai Federation Cup this season and she is being tipped also to snatch a medal in the 5000 metres. If she can reproduce her 4:08 or around, the Punjab girl should be a strong gold medal contender in the 1500m while her fortunes in the longer distance could hinge entirely on the form of the Japanese and the North Koreans. The Japanese should find the weather to their liking in early October in Busan.

Long jumper Anju B. George, discus thrower Neelam J. Singh and high jumper Bobby Aloysius are the other main medal contenders from the Indian ranks, if one is almost taking it for granted that the women's 4x400m gold has to be India's and there should be a medal at least from the men's longer relay team.

Anju might have been only a medal contender till the Open National but her 6.74m, equalling her National record set last year and putting her ahead in the Asian lists for the year, should put her in gold contention. Of equal chances should be Yelena Kascheyeva of Kazakhstan, Japanese Maho Hanaoka (6.60m this season with a PB of 6.82m) and Kumiko Ikeda (6.34 this season, with a PB of 6.78). The Chinese, Gu Ying (6.46m this season) and Jin Yan (6.36m this season) should be the dark horses.

Bobby Aloysius has her task cut out in high jump. The favourite will remain Tatyana Efimenko of Kyrgyzstan, who won in Colombo. Bobby, going into Busan straight from her training base in Moscow, will have to battle it out with two Kazakhs, Svetlana Zalevskaya and Marina Korzhova and the two Japanese, Miki Imai and Yoko Ota, as she did in Colombo where she prevailed over the others for the silver.

Neelam J. Singh is the fourth major contender among Indians. She had a bronze last time but she is the continental topper this time at 61.93. Though she has fallen from that 'high' achieved in May, Neelam is a confident athlete in the run-up to the Games, having won the silver in the Manchester Commonwealth Games and being in the range of 59 metres almost throughout.

India is also looking for minor medals in several other events. The country had 15 medals last time including two gold medals by Jyotirmoyee Sikdar. Close to that tally or a better haul will justify the projections and the kind of expenses that have been incurred for training stints abroad. Anything below that will mean uncomfortable questions. But then we do have the habit of forgetting the recent past.