Women salvage Indian pride

K. P. MOHAN

Manjeet Kaur (middle) crosses the finish line ahead of compatriot Satti Geetha and Olga Tereshkova of Kazakhstan (right) to win the women's 400m. Geetha took the silver.-

THE women salvaged some pride for India in the 16th Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon. In a total of 13 medals for the country, the women contributed all the four gold medals. That helped India climb up to the fourth position in the standings, a jump of 10 places from the last championships in Manila in 2003 when the country had finished without a gold.

Unlike in Manila, this time India had fielded a full-fledged team. And that included its star long jumper Anju Bobby George. She won the gold duly, though stretched a little by a Filipino.

Here's how the Indian medals were earned: Gold medal winners:

Manjeet Kaur (400m): If someone had suggested that Manjeet would clock a sub-52 at the Asian Championships after her inter-State performance in Bangalore in the first week of July, you would have laughed it off. It was not that Manjeet did not have the credentials to back up her claims. She was the National record holder (51.05s) and she was easily the best one-lap runner in 2004. But she had struggled this season. Till the time she went to Ukraine along with others for a month-long training, Manjeet's best timing at home was 53.64s. On return she clocked a 52.33 for the second place behind Satti Geetha in the Delhi circuit meet. That prompted many to forecast that the Punjab girl was sure to challenge the rest for the gold.

She ran a 51.50 for the gold at Incheon, her second best ever. She paced herself nicely through the first 200 and then held off the challenge from Geetha on the straight. Japanese Asami Tanno, the only Asian credited with a sub-52 this season before the final, clocked 52.91 for the bronze.

"My target was to clock 51.5 this season. That's what my coach told me. I have achieved it," said Manjeet, a Sub-Inspector with the Punjab Police.

Anju Bobby George (long jump): The contest turned out to be tougher than what was imagined in pre-meet calculations. Anju managed a best of 6.65 metres in the fourth round and Filipino Marestella Torres came up to a National record of 6.63 in the fifth. The rest was of no great significance in a competition involving 18 jumpers. Why on earth they did not have a qualification round will remain a debatable point.

As Anju noted, there was no protection to the athletes from the sun during a drawn-out competition and that affected everyone. "I felt drained," said Anju.

A notable absentee was Chinese Guan Yingnan, who had a 6.75 this season. Her compatriot, Zhong Mei managed just 6.43m for the fifth place.

"A gold is a gold, but I am disappointed with the 6.65. I was aiming for 6.75 to 6.80," said Anju.

Soma Biswas (heptathlon): Soma was not at her best in terms of fitness and preparation. And yet, she managed to win the gold, though with a mediocre tally of 5377 points. The field contained just five competitors, a shame for an Asian meet. Soma's tally turned out to be the second poorest in the history of the championships.

The top four women in Asia this season, Irina Naumenko (Kazakhstan), Yuki Nakata (Japan), Shen Shengfei (China) and Haili Liu (China) were absent.

Soma was far behind her own standards in almost all events. She felt that she had done reasonably well in long jump (5.90m) and rather very poorly in high jump (1.59m). She was trailing in fourth place after day one and in second place, going into the final event, the 800 metres. She knew, however, that she was going to win the 800 metres with enough to spare from Thai Masim Watcharaporn.

Soma's best is the 6186 she set in Chennai before the Sydney Olympics. She had a 6162 last year.

"I wasn't focussed fully this year. And I hadn't prepared thoroughly for this meet. A gold is of course a happy ending. However, I do know I will have to work much harder if I am going to make a mark in next year's Asian Games," said the 27-year-old Soma, a trainee of Dr. Kunthal Roy.

Women's 4x400m relay (Rajwinder Kaur, Satti Geetha, Chitra K. Soman, Manjeet Kaur): This has been India's preserve from 1985 to 1991 and again from 2000 till now. Once Manjeet and Geetha won the gold and silver in the individual 400, the task looked simpler than before. In the end, the Indian team won comfortably in 3:32.61.

Silver medal winners:

Navpreet Singh (shot put): It was a close contest between Navpreet and Qatari Khaled Al-Suwaidi. At 19.40 in the fourth round, the Indian had the lead, but the Qatari, who, this season, set an Asian record of 20.54m, responded well in the next round with a 19.45. With chief coach Bahadur Singh, an Asian champion in the event 30 years ago in Seoul, gesticulating and praying from the stands, Navpreet had one last shy. He jumped and pumped his fist as though to indicate that he had gone beyond 19.45. It turned out to be 19.39 only.

Vikas Gowda (discus): The 22-year-old US collegian had opened the Indian medal count on the first day with the silver behind Iranian Ehsan Hadadi. Not many would have taken Hadadi into contention though he was the World junior champion. No one would have thought that he would nail an Asian record with his opening throw. That measured 65.25. Vikas' 62.84 was a good start, but then the gap was too big to bridge. "I think the Iranian's opening throw upset Vikas' concentration," said father and coach Shive Gowda. To win an Asian silver on debut was a good achievement for Vikas.

Satti Geetha (400m): "I am happy to have clocked my personal best," said Geetha after she and Manjeet made it an Indian affair in the quarter-mile. For the first time, the Andhra Pradesh girl went below 52 seconds, clocking 51.75s. She felt she could have been a little faster for the first 200 metres, but was not sure of her finishing capacity.

S. Shanthi (800m): The 24-year-old Tamil Nadu woman had practically emerged out of obscurity this season to come into reckoning and win a medal on her debut in the Asian meet. She or any one else in the field could not have chased Japanese Miho Sugimori (2:01.84) as the latter pulled away on the back-straight to build up a lead of around 80 metres. Shanthi did well towards the finish to ward off Uzbek Zamira Amirova while clocking a personal best of 2:04.01. Shanthi should thank Sinimol Paulose for the pace the Kerala girl set to make sure that the big kickers won't have the final say.

Sushmita Singha Roy (heptathlon): The tall Bengal girl is another fine talent from the Kunthal Roy stable. The 21-year-old was second after day one and climbed up in the last event to pip the Thai, Wattacharaporn, for the silver. She had a tally of 5308 points.

Bronze medal winners:

Anil Kumar (discus): A disappointment in the Athens Olympics, Anil made light of his lack of competitive preparation this season to eke out the bronze with a modest 59.95. "I couldn't have expected more. I had missed four months this season due to an injury and had just one competition in July," he said.

Jagdish Kumar Bishnoi (javelin): Quite often he had let the team down coming up with performances far below his `home form'. This time Bishnoi did manage to get a medal with a throw of 74.83. That there were five others with 74-plus should tell the tale about the closeness of the contest. Chinese Li Rongxiang edged Korean Jung Sang-Jin with a last round throw of 78.28. Bishnoi had a best of 77.17 at home this season. He also has a personal best of 79.67.

Men's 4x400m relay (Anil Kumar Rohil, Bhupinder Singh, Satbir Singh, P. Shankar): The medal for India came only through the disqualification of Saudi Arabia which won the event only to be told there was a lane-cutting violation by the second runner. The Indian foursome clocked 3:07.45. Sri Lanka, the pre-race favourite, was pushed to third and then upgraded to silver behind Japan.

Krishna Poonia (discus): She had emerged from the shadows of Neelam J. Singh, Seema Antil and Harwant Kaur only this season. And Krishna has a medal on her Asian debut. She was very nervous to begin with, as her 40.64m throw indicated. But she gathered momentum, with words of advice and encouragement from chief coach Bahadur Singh. Eventually, she finished with 57.67, behind Chinese Song Aimin (65.15) and Sun Taifeng (59.09).

The others: Even while not getting a medal, decathletes Kulwinder Singh (7157 for fifth place) and Jora Singh (7032 for sixth) were impressive. It is not often that Indians cross 7000 points, especially in international competitions and this in itself should be considered encouraging. Kulwinder had logged 7285 points for the sixth place last time and he had a national record of 7325 points at the Combined Events National in Chennai in August.

Sinimol's 4:17.18 for the fourth place in the women's 1500m and O. P. Jaisha's 4:17.49 behind her were career-best efforts that were also praiseworthy. Jaisha also clocked a career-best 16:34.32 for the seventh place in the 5000 metres.

V. S. Surekha equalled Chetna Solanki's national record of 3.80 metres in pole vault but she and Chetna (3.70m) could only take the ninth and 10th positions Anil Kumar (10.61s) came sixth in the men's 100m, Poonam Tomar (11.96s) last in the women's dash. Both said they didn't know what happened to them! "I hadn't clocked a 10.6 since 1996," a distraught Anil said.

The men's sprint relay team comprising Anil, Sandeep Sarkaria, Vilas Neelgund and H. Jayachandran finished fifth in the final in 39.83 seconds.

The Indian show in middle and long distance events were predictable and ordinary. After such hype about the foreign coach having done wonders at the Jamshedpur camp, this was a big disappointment.

The 800m programme change and the resultant confusion in the Indian team management led to Ghamanda Ram and P. Francis Sagyaraj missing the scheduled heats, the team lodging a protest and the jury granting a `special' heat. Ghamanda (1:50.44) still failed to make it to the final since he would have been expected to better 1:49.86.

Ghamanda (3:49.62) and Pritam Bind (3:51.49) finished seventh and 10th in the 1500 metres; Kuldeep Kumar (31:18.75) was seventh among eight runners in the 10,000 metres; Arun D' Souza (9:11.87) was ninth among 10 runners in the 3000m steeplechase and L. Aruna Devi (37:44.68) ninth among 10 runners in the women's 10,000 metres.

P. Shankar probably got himself disqualified for two false starts in the 400m hurdles, in order to concentrate on the relay; Gajanan Updhayay (4.80) was 11th and last in pole vault; Mahan Singh (7.64) and Shamsher Singh (7.61) were sixth and seventh in long jump and veteran Shakti Singh (17.88m) was seventh in shot put.

Suman Devi (52.58m) was seventh in the women's javelin while Y. Bala Devi (1:54:52) brought up the rear in the women's 20km walk.

It is time the AFI redrew its priority list and assessed its chances for the Asian Games in Doha next year.