Uninspiring standards in the Olympic year

Anju George at the South Asian Championships in Kochi. She is capable of clearing seven metres.-VIPIN CHANDRAN

The Athletics Federation of India was initially hoping that around 30 athletes would make it to the Beijing Olympics. The figure has since been scaled down to 20, and now it looks unlikely that even that many athletes will qualify, writes K. P. Mohan.

With five months to go for the Beijing Olympics, where do our athletes stand? Are they ready to take on the world’s best on the biggest stage of them all, or are they just good enough to run a round or two and make an exit as they have normally been doing in the Olympics, bar a handful of honourable exceptions, through the years?

The unprecedented success of the middle-distance runners in the Asian Indoor Championships in Doha projected a picture of well being. But the euphoria was short-lived. As three outdoor meets were gone through at home — in Patiala, Bhopal and Kochi — the reality struck the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) think-tank that even qualifying for the Olympics was not all that simple as it was thought to be at the beginning of the year.

The ones who made the grade… discus thrower Vikas Gowda.-R. RAGU

In fact, the AFI was initially hoping that around 30 athletes would make it to Beijing. The figure has since been scaled down to 20 and now it looks unlikely that even that many athletes will qualify.

Only four athletes have made the grade so far: triple jumper Renjith Maheswary, discus thrower Vikas Gowda, long jumper Anju George and heptathlete Susmita Singha Roy. Of these, only Susmita came through with a qualification standard from a meet this year, the Federation Cup in Bhopal. The others had achieved the norm in meets last year.

Among the individual contenders for qualification, the woman discus throwers, Krishna Poonia, now training under former world record holder and Olympic champion Mac Wilkins in the US, Seema Antil and Harwant Kaur, should be the frontrunners. If more than one has to make it from this batch they should be aiming at 61.0 metres. But even 59.0 metres, the single entry norm, has looked difficult to achieve for the likes of Seema, who holds the National record of 64.0 metres. From Patiala to Kochi she had only a series of 57.89, 57.54 and 57.94 even as coaches predicted at least a 59.0.

Much will depend on the proposed training programme of the throwers, and possibly the women’s quarter-milers, in Ukraine before the athletes get ready for the final trials for the Olympics in the form of the National inter-State in Chennai in June.

If one thought that Neelam Jaswant Singh, returning to competition from a two-year suspension for a doping violation charge, would also challenge the younger women for a spot in the Beijing-bound squad, he was in for disappointment. Neelam managed just 47.63m and 47.10m in Patiala and Bhopal. She said she had “no feeling” for the competition in Patiala and all but ruled herself out of contention for Beijing.

The most encouraging aspect of the Indian performance at the South Asian Championships in Kochi was the launch of her outdoor season campaign by long jumper Anju George. Her 6.50 metres, though it was not exactly what husband-coach Bobby George was looking for, was by far the best effort, alongside Sinimole Paulose’s 2:03.16 for the 800 metres, by an Indian athlete in the regional meet.

Triple jumper Renjith Maheswary.-VIVEK BENDRE

Bobby said that many aspects needed fine-tuning and alterations, but he was quite happy with the rhythm with which Anju jumped. The only worrying factor could be Anju’s slide in the second half of the competition when she could not go past 6.45, her opening jump.

Of course, the Olympics will be a vastly different proposition for which Anju and Bobby are seriously preparing with participation lined up for the Asian Grand Prix series apart from the IAAF Super Grand Prix in Doha and the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. There should also be attempts to get entries into a few more top-level European meets.

Anju and Bobby had always felt that a medal in the Olympics was not beyond her reach since it depended on putting together just one good jump, maybe a seven-metre jump or something close to that.

The next three months will show whether Anju can be counted among the top four or six in the world and whether she has any realistic chance of being among the medals in Beijing.

Four women broke seven metres last year compared to just three in 2006. Pertinently, with her 6.65 in the Asian Championships in Amman, Anju occupies only the 50th position in the 2007 list. That, however, should cause no particular worry, for in 2003 she was way below the rest and still won a bronze in the Paris World Championship. In 2004 also she was way down the list going into the Athens Olympics and yet made the final with a 6.69m and then finished sixth (it will get revised to fifth following Marion Jones’s disqualification) with a personal best of 6.83m. Anju still thinks she has a seven-metre jump in her.

Heptathlete Susmita Singha Roy.-A. M. FARUQUI

Away from Anju, it is Sinimole Paulose who has held out a lot of hope in recent times. When we say “hope”, it is with regard to Olympic qualification and, at best, for aiming at a second-round entry in Beijing in any given event. Anything beyond that will be a big bonus.

Given her 2:03.43 and 4:15.42 in the Asian Indoors in the 800 and 1500, the coaches were looking forward to at least a 2:01 and 4:08 outdoors, but that did not happen.

“I don’t want to rush into it (qualification) since I know there is time. A few tough competitions in Europe or elsewhere should help in the coming months,” said Sinimole in Bhopal.

More or less the same has been the story of Chatholi Hamza in the men’s metric mile. His 3:41.18 for the silver medal in the Asian indoor meet was a fabulous effort, but since then he has not been able to come close to that mark and, to make matters worse, was beaten by the Delhi youngster, Ravinder Sharma Bharadwaj, in Patiala and Bhopal. Hamza had his revenge in Kochi in front of family members and home fans, but the timing (3:44.67) remained ordinary. He has to aim for 3:49.00 to make the Olympic grade.

The men’s 800m runners, Ramesan Rajeev and Sajeesh Joseph, also looked poised to qualify for the Beijing Games towards the end of last season but they too have not come up to expectations at the beginning of the outdoor season. In a field that also included Ghamanda Ram, making a comeback after more than a year’s absence due to health problems, one of the runners could have been sacrificed for pace but that did not materialise. Instead, Rajeev, sprinting down the home straight, clocked 1:48.43 while looking for 1:47 in Kochi.

The early focus was on the women quarter-milers this season as it had been during the previous two Olympic years. More than the individual 400, it is the 4x400m relay that holds out possibilities, at least in the eyes of the AFI and its coaches. In reality, the girls struggled to clock a decent relay time from last year, keeping the team’s Beijing qualification in suspense.

Sinimole Paulose (left) celebrates her 1500m victory with team-mate Sushma Devi at the South Asian Championship in Kochi.-VIPIN CHANDRAN

Only the top 16 teams in the world will qualify for the relays. The 3:37.04 that India clocked in Kochi will be irrelevant in the qualification race. The 16th best team in the world last year, Romania, had a time of 3:30.22. The Indian team should be looking for something close to 3:28 or 3:29 to make sure of qualification. With the girls running 53-plus right now, that looks impossible. A quantum jump from 53 to 51 in three or four months will generate suspicions.

It is unfortunate and rather inexplicable that in an Olympic year, we are languishing at the bottom in a majority of the events. The shot putters at home are finding it difficult to cross 18.0 metres while the qualification mark is 19.80; the discus throwers are hovering around 53 metres while the norm is 62.50; the long jumpers are yet to touch 7.60 while the standard is 8.05.

A rush for Olympic standards could be expected in June. But, is there any point in making a desperate dash in just one meet if performances cannot be sustained over a longer period? The wait now would be for the competitive programme of the athletes in Europe. If it materialises.