Will Anju George deliver?

ANJU BOBBY GEORGE brought about a sea change in the Indian outlook towards global meets last year.

K. P. MOHAN

Anju Bobby George, who clinched a historic bronze at the Paris World championships, will lead the Indian challenge at Athens. — Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

ANJU BOBBY GEORGE brought about a sea change in the Indian outlook towards global meets last year. "Yes, an athletics medal is possible even at the Olympics." That was her message as she clinched a historic bronze at the Paris World championships.

Anju will once again lead the Indian challenge at Athens. But is there any other Indian athlete with a medal chance? Even with a chance to get a place in the final?

The pre-Games hype, the flurry of national records, personal bests and `A' norm achievers and all suggest that there would be a cavalcade of Indian athletes queuing up for the finals in Athens. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

Discus thrower Neelam J. Singh has been quite steady and consistent through the season. -- Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

The events leading up to the Games suggest that a near repeat of Sydney might well be on the cards for the Indians. The phenomenal improvement of the women quarter-milers and the quantum leap made by discus throwers Seema Antil and Harwant Kaur will be difficult to sustain. Sydney was a classic example of hollow claims based on suspicious marks at home. The script cannot be all that different in Athens.

Let us look at the Indian team and find out where our athletes stand in the Olympics context:

K. M. Binu (400m): The switch to 400m from his pet 800m was not deliberate. It just happened. He ran the 400m in the first circuit meet in New Delhi, clocked a career-best 45.59s, just 0.3s shy of the National mark and found that he had made the Olympics grade. By the time he left for Ukraine for the last phase of his training, Binu's only ambition was to aim for a place in the Olympics final on his debut and clock a National record on the way. For a spot in the final Binu will require a sub-45 timing that looks extremely unlikely. A repeat of his personal best can see him through to the second round. All these calculations will prove futile if he is forced to run just the relay, something that Beenamol's younger brother is bound to resist.

Bahadur Singh (shot put): Bahadur's 20.40 in Kiev on May 22 was followed by another of 20.20 a week later at the same venue. After that there was a slump, 19.76m at Kravchuk and 19.45 at Chennai. He was one of the two athletes who skipped the Asian Grand Prix circuit rather mysteriously. Bahadur's Sydney experience was dismal, an 18.70 for a 27th placing in the qualification round after crossing 20.00m at home. Anything below 19.90 might not be sufficient this time in the qualification round in Olympia on August 18. And Bahadur's best in a major competition abroad is 19.03 for the gold in the Busan Asian Games.

Anil Kumar (discus): He made it with a last-ditch 64.37m at a meet in Szombathely just a day before the so-called final trials in Chennai. Anil, who had missed qualification last time, had been training in Hungary for three years and it is only this year he has shown consistency. His championship output is nothing much to shout about since the 1998 Asian Games. A repeat 64-plus should see him through to the final, but that is going to be a very difficult task.

Vikas Gowda (discus): The US-based athlete, who threw to a distance of 64.35m at Salinas, California, to stake his claim for inclusion in the team, disappointed at the Chennai inter-State, managing only a 58.48. He might well be over-awed by the Olympic ambience at Athens.

Saraswati Saha (200m): Her 23.01s to qualify in the Bangalore circuit meet was a big surprise. For, she had come back from an injury and prior to the fourth circuit meet had just a best of 23.30s for the season. Though she is the Asian Games champion over the longer dash, on this big stage the Bengal woman cannot hope much. Anything beyond the opening round will be a huge bonus.

Bobby Aloysius (high jump): Bobby has been dreaming about this. She had been planning this for two years. She had always wanted to be an Olympian. She never realised it would be so tough. But then her event is like that. "A centimetre improvement means a lot," says Bobby. She scaled 1.91m for a National record and the qualifying standard for the Olympics in Chennai and went back to her training base in England with the hope that she would be able to aim for somewhere around 1.93. That or 1.94 could well be the automatic qualifying height. Bobby has an outside chance of making the final.

J. J. Shobha posted a National record of 6211 points in heptathlon in Delhi. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

Anju B. George (long jump): For the first time since P. T. Usha missed that tantalising bronze in 1984, the nation is pinning hopes on an athlete to bring home a medal. The 27-year-old glamorous jumper from Cheeranchira makes light of the pressure when she talks about her chances. She knows she is a contender for a medal even as an `outsider'. But can she pull it off, to add to her World championship bronze?

The gold might look out of reach right now, especially when you consider the two Russians, Tatyana Kotova and Tatyana Lebedeva, and American Marion Jones, all having touched seven metres this season. The season leader is Jamaican Elva Goulbourne, the Commonwealth gold winer, at 7.16m. This is going to be far tougher than Paris, even if world champion Eunice Barber's form might be unpredictable following an injury. To add to the worries will be world heptathlon champion Carolina Kluft. Too many jumpers in the 6.90-plus range.

Anju is not yet in the 6.90-7.00 bracket. She is quite capable of being there. One jump is what matters. And that is why she never rules herself out of the golden bracket. But before that she has to qualify for the final. That itself will be tough. Nothing comes easy in Olympics. Anju and husband-coach Bobby George know that. On page 30 Anju has discussed her chances.

Neelam J. Singh (discus): Neelam has the experience and her Paris World championships show to back up her claim for a place in the final. She has been quite steady and consistent through the season, barring a steep slump to 58.91m in the Asian Grand Prix meet in Manila. She had a season best of 63.99 while winning the silver at Songkhla, Thailand. That level of performance can take her to the final in Athens. Her Sydney experience was forgettable, a 55.23 for a placing of 26th among 32 contestants in the qualifying round.

K. M. Binu made the Olympics grade in the 400m, clocking a career-best 45.59s, in the first circuit meet in New Delhi. — Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

The other two woman discus throwers, Seema Antil and Harwant Kaur, if they are fielded, will struggle. That three discus throwers qualified for the Olympics was in itself a remarkable achievement. But then the fluctuating form of Seema and Harwant did not inspire much confidence during the run-up.

J. J. Shobha and Soma Biswas (heptathlon): Shobha posted a national record of 6211 in Delhi at the beginning of the season; Soma just made it in time with a 6162 in the inter-State in Chennai. The `A' qualification norm, by which both could qualify for the Olympics, stood at 6050 points. Both were in the top-20 in the world with their efforts for the year. But then placings in Olympics hardly ever turn out that way. Soma, recalling her Sydney experience when she finished 24th with 5481 points after having set a National mark of 6186 in Chennai, was quite pragmatic in not talking about medals or placings. A top 15 finish for either or both of them would be very creditable.

4x400m relay: This was the only team that eventually made the cut of 16 in the world. Mercifully we were spared the farcical trials that characterised relay qualification four years ago. Theories do often get exploded in track and field. In theory, looking at their individual timings this season, the Indian relay team of Rajwinder Kaur, Manjit Kaur, Chitra K. Soman and K. M. Beenamol should clock below 3:25. In practice it does not happen. The team's best timing this season was 3:27.35.