weekend sports | Athletics

Is Indian athletics finding its feet?

Star javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra bears the tricolour as he leads the Indian contingent at Gelora Bung Karno during the opening ceremony of Asian Games 2018, in Jakarta on August 18, 2018.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Two years ago, as he flew from country to country trying to qualify for the Rio Olympics, one could sense a note of desperation in Neeraj Chopra’s voice. It was June 2016 and the javelin thrower, then 18, had competed in Germany, Poland, Belgium and Vietnam, all in the space of about 20 days, and he did not feel good.

 

His shoulders hurt, his mind too. A few days later, he was in agony as the Rio gates closed on him.

A lot has changed since then. Chopra is cool and composed now. He is just 20 and has already won gold at the Junior Worlds, Asian Championships, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. The big ones missing are medals at the Olympics and World Championships.

Although Milkha Singh and P.T. Usha came heart-breakingly close, independent India has never won an athletics medal at the Olympics. But Chopra’s presence and awesome progress give one hope that things could be different at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

There is a feel-good factor about Indian athletics at present, especially after the rich haul of 19 medals at the recent Asian Games in Jakarta which included seven gold and 10 silver. In all the other sports put together, India managed eight gold.

Not surprisingly, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) is a confident body these days.

 

“We are a superpower now,” says AFI president Adille Sumariwalla. “The AFI’s aim, over the last four years, has been to start looking at the Olympics and not worry about the Asian and Commonwealth Games. Our vision has changed to the Olympic Games.”

A superpower without an Olympic medal sounds hollow, but the AFI appears to have mapped its road to Tokyo meticulously.

“We have a plan in place, but we are not going to reveal it to the world, we don’t want others to know about it. Everything has been given confidentially to the Government, including our target events,” says Sumariwalla, an Olympian himself. “These things will not be made public.”

Whatever it is, at this point of time, only Chopra and quartermiler Hima Das, the country’s only two under-20 World champions, have a chance of winning a medal in Tokyo. And it will be their maiden Games.

While Chopra’s javelin graph looks steady, many are astounded by Das’ magical progress in the women’s 400m.

The AFI’s choice of countries, like Poland and the Czech Republic, for the quartermilers’ national camp has only added to the mystery. Strangely, in many of the meets there, the Indian quartermilers were mainly competing among themselves!

The Olympics is a different league altogether, and the Indian athletes should be competing in world-class meets over the next couple of years to get a feel of what it will be like in Tokyo.

 

Jinson Johnson, currently Asia’s finest middle-distance runner and the Jakarta Asiad 1500m champion, feels that he requires big-race experience.

“I didn’t need many quality races before the Asian Games because I had done a lot of Asian Grand Prix meets and also the Asian Championships,” says Johnson, also the 800m silver medallist in Jakarta.

“But I need to run more world-class races before Tokyo. I’ve just run three world-class competitions so far: the Rio Olympics [where he crashed out in the heats], Commonwealth Games and Continental Cup.”

Middle-distance races can be very unpredictable, and Johnson feels this factor could contribute to him doing well at the Olympics where he will be focusing on the 1500m.

Two 19-year-olds, high-jumper Tejaswin Shankar and long-jumper M. Sreeshankar, also show a lot of promise and have the potential to at least reach the final, but their Tokyo chances will depend on how they shape up over the next two years. If not Tokyo, they should be medal contenders in 2024.

After raising the bar and the national record nicely to 2.29m, Tejaswin — currently studying and training in the United States — injured his neck and closed his season a few weeks before the Asiad. He plans to tweak his technique and come back stronger next year.

In Sreeshankar’s case, a ruptured appendix wrecked his season early, but if he finds his rhythm, he is capable of producing some big jumps in Tokyo.

Of course, a few others, including Asiad gold-winning triple-jumper Arpinder Singh, are capable of pulling off a big surprise, but history has shown that the form of some of India’s biggest stars takes a shocking dip on the Olympic stage. Will 2020 buck that trend?

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 7:51:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/athletics/is-indian-athletics-finding-its-feet/article25010323.ece

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