The great image boost following the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games feats having come crashing down with last year's doping scandals, Indian athletics is almost back to square one.
Yet, optimism is not lacking despite dipping standards. Everyone wants to make the ‘cut' for the London Olympics. Though officials keep projecting an encouraging picture of 25 or 30 athletes making it, the athletes know only too well how tough it is. Nine Indian athletes have so far attained the requisite standard for the Olympics. There should be some more additions till the July 8 deadline.
If the women's longer relay team qualifies, as lot many people expect it to, the number could go beyond the 17 that made the grade for the last Olympics.
Some of the Olympic aspirants will be on view as the season opens here on Sunday with the first Indian Grand Prix. With the top six female 400m runners still under doping suspension and doubts persisting about their eligibility for a few Olympic qualification races in June, the spotlight will be on the ‘rest of the best.'
The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) is banking on even the ‘second-string' women's 4x400m team booking the London berth, which looks impossible.
M. R. Poovamma of Karnataka leads the bunch of ‘reserves'. She is no novice at this level having been part of the Indian relay teams in the past. She has a best of 53.87s for the 400m, clocked in Kolkata last year while winning the Open National title.
The men's 4x400m relay team is also hoping to make it to the Olympics standard, though its task looks tougher than that of the women's quartet. Just one man (Shakeh Mortaja) clocked a sub-47 last season; three did it in 2010.
Among the others, the performances of Asian Games champion Joseph Abraham (400m hurdles), Renjith Maheswary (triple jump) and Saurabh Vij (shot put)) will be keenly watched.
Abraham has not been in great form after winning the Asaid gold in Guangzhou. He had a best of 50.38s only last year. But he is capable of touching the Olympic standard of 49.80s. He has four career marks below that.
Renjith's best last year was 16.09m in contrast to his National record of 17.07m for the bronze in the Commonwealth Games the previous year. Young Arpinder Singh (16.63m) became the new National champion last year and could be capable of stretching Renjith.
As is routine in Indian athletics, even in an Olympic year, enthusiasm is invariably missing for a season opener. With the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) stepping up its out-of-competition testing programme, and its team almost routinely camping at the National Institute of Sports (NIS), the prospective ‘dopers' have naturally taken a step back.
Just four women's events have been scheduled but there are doubts about even three or four athletes competing in those events.
Sunday's events (with Olympic qualification ‘B' standards in parenthesis):
Men: 400m (45.90s), 800m (1:46.30), 100m hurdles (13.60s), 400m hurdles (49.80s), long jump (8.10m), triple jump (16.85m), shot put (20.00m), javelin (79.50m).
Women: 400m (52.35s), 800m (2:01.30), high jump (1.92m), long jump (6.65m).