K.P. Mohan

NEW DELHI: Indian athletics is in the doldrums. Seventeen top athletes of the country are under suspension, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) chief, Suresh Kalmadi, has resigned and the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) are watching.

It is not just these factors that make Indian athletics look so depressing these days. Performances have hit a plateau or slumped beyond belief. The fear psychosis created by the WADA raids, both at Potchefstroom, South Africa, and the NIS, Patiala, have had much to do with this phenomenon on the eve of a major multi-discipline games.

An Asian Games-Commonwealth Games year is normally a "high performance" year in Indian athletics. Not this time, though. The planning went awry after what turned out to be a disastrous training mission to South Africa.

Two National circuit meets have passed with mediocrity reigning, barring a handful of exceptions. The best athletes of the country were under suspension when these two meets were held. On the eve of the Federation Cup meet starting at the Nehru Stadium here on Tuesday, the AFI was pre-occupied with the suspensions issue and faced the prospect of its long-standing president sticking to his resignation.

Tough time

Though a sizeable squad was projected for Melbourne at the beginning of 2005, with 10 events in men and 11 events in women's sections, including all relays, being identified, reality shows that the selectors will have a tough time picking even a dozen, given the lack of performances so far this season.

If one were to exclude long jumper Anju George and the US-based discus thrower Vikas Gowda, India's best hopes for an athletics medal in Melbourne, there should be no certainty in the team unless a few stake their claims over the next four days. Or maybe some of them might be given another chance in "confirmatory trials" at Patiala, away from the gaze of the media.

For Anju this meet is a build-up for her campaign in the World Indoor championships in Moscow (March 10-12) and the Commonwealth Games. Her 6.32 for the silver at Pattaya in the Asian Indoor championships was rather disappointing, but she is a woman who raises her level a notch when she steps onto a big stage. She had won a bronze at the last Commonwealth Games.

Early days

These are early days yet in the season and the athletes cannot be expected to hit top form. But they should not be expected to show junior-level standards either. Only the walkers, P. S. Jalan and Gurmeet Singh (men's 20km) and Deepmala Devi (women's 20km) have made the third-place grade for the Commonwealth Games so far.

What about the rest? The middle distance runners in either section have performed creditably, but are nowhere near a qualifying norm barring Ghamanda Ram, who is slightly off the criterion. The rest, especially the quarter-milers, the jumpers and the throwers will have to prove their form within the time available.

The AFI might have projected the women's 4 x 400m relay team as a medal contender in Melbourne. Now, with the entire Asian champion team of Manjeet Kaur, Chitra Soman, Rajwinder Kaur and Satti Geetha unable to compete so far this season, there should be doubts about its qualification leave alone the ability to be among the medal contenders.

From among the rest, the decathletes, Kulwinder Singh and Jora Singh and the heptathletes, Soma Biswas and Sushmita Singha Roy, along with the suspended J. J. Shobha, if she is allowed to compete, could be fancied to go for the qualifying marks. It looks a hopeless task for the others.

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