For a brief while, Merlin K. Joseph virtually flew at the National Open in Ranchi last September. The 24-year-old Railway star shook the athletics fraternity with a blazing 11.35s run in the 100m semifinal that broke the national record.
No one could believe it, not many could stomach it either.
Maharashtra’s Rachita Mistry, the national record holder with 11.38s (at the national domestic meet in Thiruvananthapuram, 2000) was one of the first to protest. She argued that since Merlin was a lot slower in the heats (12.07) and in the final (11.95) where she finished third, there must have been a big mistake somewhere.
And despite its technical committee clearing the record and putting it up for approval, the Athletics Federation of India failed to ratify it at its recent AGM in Meerut. But there are some positive developments from the whole affair.
Merlin, last year’s Federation Cup champion, had fulfilled all the criteria needed for the ratification of the record, which would have officially made the Kerala-born sprinter the country’s fastest woman.
“The wind gauge, photo finish equipment — all worked right, and there was absolutely no false start. She had cleared the dope test too,” explained C.K. Valson, the AFI Secretary.
Still, the association’s general body members were not convinced. “They felt that an athlete cannot surprise with a performance like that all of a sudden. They also noted the big difference in her heats and final timings when compared to her semifinal clocking, so the house felt that it cannot give a record just like that,” said Valson.
The AFI Secretary felt that the presence of the reaction time-false start detection system would have offered a clearer picture.
“The problem is, we never had the reaction time,” said Valson, who is also a member of the Asian Athletics Association’s technical and competitions committees. “The reaction time-false start detection equipment was not there. Had it been installed, all these questions would not have come up. Had it been there, the reaction time to the gun would have also been noted. So, it would have been difficult to turn down a result. But since this facility was not available, then we can turn down a record since there is a doubt on that part of the race.”
In that case, one wonders how the AFI ratified all its earlier records in the absence of this crucial equipment.
Lessons learned, the AFI has now decided to use the reaction time-false start detection equipment, which costs around Rs 14 lakh, in all its national championships, for a start at least in the senior nationals.
“We have not used this equipment in the nationals so far but we have decided to use it from this year onwards,” said Valson. “We bought it a few months before the Asian Championship (held in Pune in July 2013) and we have used it only in international meets.”
Incidentally Rachita, a 100m bronze medalist at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games, has run faster than her ‘national record’ 11.38. She had clocked a stunning 11.26s in the Bangalore national circuit meet in July 2000, a few weeks before the Thiruvananthapuram event, but the AFI rejected that record in 2002 on the ground that no dope tests were conducted at the championship.
However, the AFI allowed Rachita to have that performance (11.26) as her personal best time and Merlin too has been offered the same concession.