Indian athletics lacks iconic figures like Milkha Singh, P.T. Usha and Anju Bobby George, and is marred by doping scandals today. It will take a miracle to improve national performance at the Moscow World Championships.

“We have only one world-class athlete in Vikas Gowda right now”, says Gurbachan Singh Randhawa. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics finalist in the high hurdles who is also the Selection Committee Chairman of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), hardly minces words when he talks about Indian athletics.

Gowda, the US-based discus thrower, was the lone individual gold medallist for the country in the recent Asian Championships in Pune. The other gold medal, expectedly, came through the women’s 4x400m relay team.

Compare this with what the country achieved when it hosted the Asian meet last time, in Delhi in 1989. There were 22 medals in all, eight of them gold. P. T. Usha accounted for three of them (200m, 400m, 400m hurdles) and had a part in a fourth, the 4x400m relay.

The tragedy with Indian athletics today is, it does not have a Milkha Singh or a P. T. Usha or an Anju Bobby George to cash in on. It is difficult to sell athletics, or for that matter any sport, without an icon or two catching the attention of the public and the sponsors.

“People want to see athletes running but we have chosen to concentrate on unattractive events”, says former National Coach J. S. Saini about the focus on throws for more than a decade.

Dwindling sponsorship money, lack of stars, perennial doping problems, limited reserves of junior talent, substandard coaches, an unimaginative, almost illogical domestic calendar and the ever-shrinking national circuit have left Indian athletics in poor shape.

Indian athletics standards have plummeted during the past decade, especially the past two years despite its rare feat of having two athletes in the Olympics finals last year.  There is no one in sight to inspire confidence, as we approach the World Athletics Championships in Moscow (Aug 10 to 18), that a medal could be possible.

Long jumper Anju George’s 2003 feat of a bronze in the World Championships in Paris remains India’s solitary athletics medal at the senior level in global-level championships.

In as many as 18 of the 47 events to be contested at the Moscow Worlds, the qualification standards are better than our National records. Invariably Indian athletes just aim for World Championships or Olympics qualification and feel content with that achievement, exceptions notwithstanding.

“What kind of improvement have we had in recent years? If you take my gold-winning timing in the 1989 Asian Championships at home in the 400 metres (51.90s) and compare it with the recent Asian meet, you will find  the Chinese winner timed 52.49 and (Indian runner) Poovamma was poorer ( 53.37) for the second place”, points out track legend P. T. Usha.

“They generally run 3:45 nowadays for the 1500. Eddie Sequeira ran 3:43.6 in 1966”, laments Saini who feels India should once again start focusing on middle and long distance events to make domestic athletics more attractive and to have any chance of success at the international level.

Misleading image

The Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010 provided a misleading, inflated image of Indian athletics — a dozen medals including two gold medals that sent the nation into rapture.  A month later, another impressive collection of 11 medals and a second place in the athletics medals standings behind China in the Guangzhou Asian Games all but confirmed India’s ‘rising stature’.

It did not require much time to find out the true strength of Indian athletics. Just one gold medal in the Asian meet in Kobe, Japan, in 2011 exposed its limitations. The doping scandal in which the country’s top six woman quarter-milers figured was a huge setback to India’s Olympic preparations.

“The Commonwealth Games did give us 12 medals. But look at the standards. They (Indian medal winners in Delhi) did not figure much in the Asian Games that followed”, says Saini.

It is true that the 2010 Commonwealth Games were by far the poorest in terms of athletics participation and standards, with performances in several events dipping to the level of the 1970s. Yet, the success gave such a euphoric feeling to the Indian authorities that the talk of a medal in the women’s 4x400m relay in the London Olympic Games was no longer considered a pipedream.

Let us face it. India’s national record (3:26.89) in the 4x400, set in the Athens Olympics in 2004, is not remotely close to medal standards in either the Olympics or World Championships. The bronze in the London Olympics went for 3:20.95 while that in the Beijing Games for 3:20.40.

India’s best since Athens had been the 3:27.77 clocked by the quartet of Manjeet Kaur, Sini Jose, Ashwini A. C. and Mandeep Kaur in the last Commonwealth Games. Only Manjeet escaped doping suspension from that batch in 2011, though she also had to face the disciplinary panel once for an alleged ‘evasion’ of testers.

Doping is rampant in Indian athletics. Testing out of competition is the key to anti-doping measures. And here the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) lacks in having the expertise to carry out ‘target’ testing.

Foreign coaches and experts, hired at considerable expense, are mostly second-grade and thus resort to doping practices to produce ‘results’. Even then targets have remained unfulfilled through the past decade and more.

That India currently tops the list of number of suspended athletes for doping offences with 42 should be a matter of shame. But the ‘big fish’ has eluded the net so far even though NADA has ‘caught’ more than 100 athletes during the past four years.

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