Assessing India’s chances at the World Athletics Championships

Jinson Johnson

Jinson Johnson   | Photo Credit: Robertus Pudyanto

With the brown streaks in her black hair shimmering like gold under Jakarta’s night sky, Hima Das shook up Indian athletics late last year.

The dazzling promise the then 18-year-old showed in clocking a world-class 50.79s to win the 400m silver at the Asian Games made the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) dream big.

After the rich seven-gold haul at the Asiad — it could soon be eight, with one of Bahrain’s mixed-relay runners, Kemi Adekoya, failing a dope test that covered the Games period — the AFI confidently proclaimed that India had become an Asian superpower; it would now shift its focus to the Olympics.

“We have a long-term plan, we have been working quietly and we are not going to reveal our plans to anybody. We have submitted our plans for the Olympics to the government, our target events have all been given to them confidentially,” AFI president Adille Sumariwalla had told The Hindu then.


A change in mood

But with the curtain going up at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha, the mood isn’t quite as optimistic. Many of Jakarta’s gains seem to have evaporated.

When he produced that 88.06m stunner to clinch the javelin throw gold at the Asiad, Neeraj Chopra looked like he was ready to win a World Championships medal. But an elbow injury, which required surgery, has played spoiler.Neeraj’s situation isn’t unique in Indian athletics this year. Heptathlete Swapna Barman, 800m runner Manjit Singh, and 400m runners Hima, Saritaben Gayakwad and Arokia Rajiv are on the injured list, too. So much so that the quartermilers’ and relay camp in Poland and the Czech Republic earlier this year looked like a rehab centre of sorts.

With this being the state of affairs, four of the six individual gold medallists at the Asian Games — Swapna, Manjit, Neeraj and triple-jumper Arpinder Singh, who failed to make the qualification standard — will not be in action at the Worlds.

Muhammed Anas

Muhammed Anas   | Photo Credit: Mark Kolbe

The relay story

India’s relay teams will be under the spotlight in Doha. The AFI has long claimed that the 4x400m relay could bring the country its first athletics medal from the Olympics. The Federation appears to have convinced the Sports Ministry and the Sports Authority of India of this, and the relay teams’ preparations under Russia-born American coach Galina Bukharina have certainly been well supported financially.

The AFI’s focus, in its ‘target Olympic medal’, was on the women’s relay team first. Later, with Muhammed Anas, Arokia Rajiv and A. Dharun doing well, the men were in favour, too. Now, the newly introduced mixed relay offers hope, especially since the mixed-relay team is fifth on the current IAAF World performance list, with 3:16.47s, which won it the Asian Championships silver in April.

“Of the three relays, we definitely have a better chance in the mixed relay,” says chief national coach Bahadur Singh.

P.T. Usha, one of the sport’s greats, agrees. “Both V.K. Vismaya and Jisna Mathew should be doing 51-plus laps and with national record holder Muhammed Anas and the other runner [Noah Nirmal Tom is a strong contender for the berth] also looking strong, we have a chance of entering the final,” says Usha.

“I don’t think our men’s and women’s relay teams are capable of entering the final, it will be tough for them,” she adds.

With prospects of the men’s relay team looking rather bleak, it was surprising that Anas wasn’t entered in the individual 400m despite his achieving the tough qualification standard, breaking his own national record (new: 45.21s) in July. The pace set by Doha’s strong field could have pushed him to achieve the Olympic entry standard (44.90s).

The country’s two fastest female quartermilers this year, Anjali Devi and Hima, will not feature in relay action either. Anjali’s time, 51.53s at the recent inter-State Nationals, makes her the second-best Asian this year but, according to Bahadur, the Haryana athlete will compete only in the individual event because she has stayed away from the national camp.


Vismaya   | Photo Credit: PTI


Johnson’s shot

Jinson Johnson will be one to watch in the individual events, given the two good years he has just had. Apart from winning the 1500m gold and the 800m silver at the Asiad, Johnson has improved his metric mile timing by more than 11 seconds, bringing his national record down to 3:35.24s in Berlin earlier this month.

He will have to contend with runners who are about five to seven seconds faster, but the metric mile can sometimes be a strange event, especially if the race pace is slow. At the Rio Olympics, for instance, American Matt Centrowitz took gold in 3:50.00s, the slowest time by an Olympic champion in more than 60 years. Johnson could be praying for such a day.

“I expect Jinson Johnson to do well, he will benefit if the race [1500m] is slow,” says Bahadur. “If it is fast, he will improve his national record. P.U. Chitra, too, should do well and if the 1500m is slow, her ranking will be better.”

Incidentally, Centrowitz has been more than two seconds slower than Johnson this year, but don’t rush to catch a Dreamliner when you read this. For, although Kenya’s defending world champion Elijah Manangoi has pulled out with an ankle injury, his younger brother George will be present to keep the family tradition alive.

Besides, Timothy Cheruiyot, Elijah’s training partner and the fastest metric miler this season with 3:28.77s, is the favourite. But Johnson could well make the entry standard for next year’s Tokyo Olympics which is within reach considering his current form.


Big-stage experience

Shivpal Singh

Shivpal Singh   | Photo Credit: Spl

Another Indian athlete who has caught Bahadur’s eye is long-jumper M. Sreeshankar. Although the youngster was disappointed not to qualify on Friday for the final, competing on the big stage will have taught him many lessons. “Gaining experience is the major goal here,” the 20-year-old national record holder (8.20m) had said from Doha ahead of his event.

Sreeshankar’s top effort on Friday was 7.62m, well below his season’s best (8m). But it wasn’t the easiest day for jumping, with only one athlete, Juan Miguel Echevarria, making the automatic qualification standard of 8.15m.

Considering the expectations from Johnson and Sreeshankar, it’s staggering that the coaches who have played such a big role in their rise and whose technical and moral support they could have done with aren’t a part of India’s travelling staff. Coach J.S. Bhatia — the man behind Johnson’s stunning progress, as well as Chitra’s Asian title — wasn’t included. S. Murali, Sreeshankar’s coach and father, was also left out, but he is in Doha at his own expense.

The javelin scene

Davinder Singh Kang made history at the last Worlds, in London in 2017, becoming the first Indian javelin-thrower to enter the final. This time, Asian Championships silver medallist Shivpal Singh carries the country’s hopes. But Shivpal has been inconsistent this season. After a career-best 86.23m in April, which took him to No. 12 on the world list, he managed only 76.48m in a Czech Republic meet this month.

So, what are India’s chances of adding to its lone medal (Anju Bobby George, long jump bronze in 2003) at the World Championships? Well, let’s just put it this way: considering the circumstances, you may want to say a prayer before tracking the athletes’ fortunes in Doha over the next week.

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 6:07:45 AM |

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