WEEKEND SPORTS | Athletics

Vision 2020: a look at India's best hopes for an athletics medal at the Tokyo Olympics

Hima Das of India celebrates winning gold in the final of the women's 400m on day three of The IAAF World U20 Championships on July 12, 2018 in Tampere, Finland.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Hima — the fastest 18-year-old in 400m history

Early this year, when Galina Bukharina, the national coach for quartermilers, predicted that Hima Das was capable of running the 400m in under 52 seconds, many in the AFI thought the Russia-born American was joking.

But now, with almost every competition, the young girl from Assam has left the world gasping. Just a year ago, she won the junior East Zone title in a hand-timed 55.8s in Kolkata. She stunningly brought it down to 50.79s in winning the Asian Games silver.

 

And it looks like no 18-year-old in history has run the 400m faster! According to the world body IAAF’s records, even East German Marita Koch, who still owns the women’s world record (47.60s) which she set in Canberra in 1985, only had a best of 51.60 as an 18-year-old in 1975.

And Bahamas’ Shaunae Miller, the Olympic champion, had a best of 51.25 at that age and while the record at 18 for American Phyllis Francis, the current World champion, are not available, she had clocked 52.93 at 19.

Although she triumphed at the under-20 World Championships in Finland in July, Hima is virtually a beginner in the quartermile. If she continues her progress at the same pace, and if all goes well, she is capable of beating anybody in Tokyo.

But coach Galina, who has worked wonders with the Indian quartermilers and relay runners, strikes a note of caution.

“It’s too early to assess how far she will go in the Olympics. She is currently 23rd in the world. If she is able to jump up to 15th this year, then we can talk about plans for the Games,” Galina told The Hindu from the USA where she is vacationing after the Asiad.

“In future, it will be an entirely different training programme…different work, different levels of concentration. I don’t know her really well as an athlete yet, so I can’t say whether she will withstand it or not. Only time will tell.”

Galina, a bronze medallist with the Russian sprint relay team in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, feels that the country should be patient with Hima.

“I have seen athletes who have come up with such a progression before, specifically in the USA and Jamaica, even as young as 16. But when they get older, their natural talent limits them and their bodies change. Natural changes can sometimes cause some conflict to training,” explained the 73-year-old.

“Also, the high expectations may hinder her. We should all wait patiently and see what happens next in the training cycle and wish her the best.”

But what powers Hima? How is she able to produce those magical timings?

“She is incredibly talented and has qualities such as courage, which is not coachable. She has it naturally,” explained Galina.

Still, there is a lot of talk about Hima on the national and international circuit; she is also the most-tested Indian athlete in recent times. The AFI is aware of the many doubting Thomases, but it has maintained that the Assam star is clean and has passed all the tests.

Hima will be closely watched over the next few months as she gets ready for the two majors in Doha next year, the Asian Championships in April and the Worlds in September-October. Her performances there could signal where she is headed.

Neeraj — in pursuit of javelin greatness

India's Neeraj Chopra celebrates with the tricolour after winning the Gold medal in men's javelin throw event at the 18th Asian Games 2018 in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 27, 2018.

India's Neeraj Chopra celebrates with the tricolour after winning the Gold medal in men's javelin throw event at the 18th Asian Games 2018 in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 27, 2018.   | Photo Credit: PTI

There is a strange thing happening in the javelin world. It’s not very often that the top three men go over 90m in a world-class competition, but surprisingly that happened early in the season in Doha, the first leg of the Diamond League series in May.

Looking at the circuit, one gets the feeling that javelin’s big boys have been stung into a response by the young Neeraj Chopra, who is closing in on them. They are trying their best to take the sport to another level.

Happily, Chopra is raising the bar and quickly too.

While Olympic champion Thomas Rohler, World champion Johannes Vetter and Andreas Hofmann went past 90m in Doha, the 20-year-old former Junior World champion also pulled out a personal best, a national record 87.43m, as he finished fourth. He bettered it to 88.06 while winning the Asian Games gold by a huge margin in Jakarta recently.

Chopra, the World No. 5, is currently enjoying the best phase of his career. And he proved it in the Diamond League finals in Zurich which came just three days after the Asiad. Though he was weary after Jakarta and also had to endure a long flight, he came close to shocking Rohler, missing bronze by just four centimetres.

He is a consistent thrower, the natural progression in his graph sending out the message that all is well in his world leading up to 2020. With Tokyo expected to be extremely hot in July when it hosts the Games, it could even feel like home.

The warm and humid conditions could also mean that it may not take a 90m throw to win the gold although Chopra is likely to reach that landmark some time next year.

Two years ago, the late Garry Calvert, who coached Chopra to the 2016 under-20 Worlds gold, said that he had not seen a wonder boy like Chopra in the last 30 years.

The youngster is now with German Uwe Hohn, the man credited with the longest throw in history (104.80m). (It isn’t the WR because javelin records were restarted in 1986 when the rules were tweaked to make the sport safer.)

The combination looks good. And just the thought of an Olympic medal in Chopra’s hands makes an Indian athletics fan shiver in excitement.

Jinson — betting on middle-distance mayhem

India's Sreeshankar competes in the final of the men's long jump athletics event during the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on August 26, 2018.

India's Sreeshankar competes in the final of the men's long jump athletics event during the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on August 26, 2018.   | Photo Credit: AFP

 

Even the best of strategies can be torn to shreds in a middle-distance race, especially if it is slow. Matthew Centrowitz’s 1500m win at Rio in 3:50.00s, the slowest timing for an Olympic gold in more than 80 years, is a classic case.

This unpredictable aspect of the 1500m has played a part in Jinson Johnson deciding on the distance for Tokyo after running the 800m in Rio.

Champion at the Asian Games, he was also fifth with a national-record-breaking 3:37.86s in the Commonwealth Games, Kenya’s World champion Elijah Manangoi taking gold in 3:34.78s.

The qualifying system for Tokyo is based on the world rankings (maximum: three per country). Forty-five berths are available in the 1500m. Johnson’s personal best places him 88th, and he will need to run some world-class races to qualify.

Sreeshankar — can he time it right?

India's Jinson Johnson celebrates winning the final of the men's 1500m athletics event during the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on August 30, 2018.

India's Jinson Johnson celebrates winning the final of the men's 1500m athletics event during the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on August 30, 2018.   | Photo Credit: AFP

M. Sreeshankar, according to national jumps coach Bedros Bedrosian, produced a massive 8.28m long jump during training in Thiruvananthapuram a few days before the Asiad.

This suggests that the 19-year-old from Kerala is capable of doing something like 8.40 on an ideal day in major competitions, says the Romanian. Currently the fourth best junior in the world with an official best of 7.99m, Sreeshankar could work wonders in Tokyo.

But let’s temper the expectations. Although close to his personal best in Jakarta, he could only finish sixth. The teenager has an exciting future ahead of him, but a lot will depend on how quickly he adapts to the pressure of big meets.

Tejaswin — he has it in him

India's Tejaswin Shankar competes in the Men's High Jump final during the Commonwealth Games 2018 in Gold Coast, Australia.

India's Tejaswin Shankar competes in the Men's High Jump final during the Commonwealth Games 2018 in Gold Coast, Australia.   | Photo Credit: PTI

 

Two years ago, he was among the planet’s best junior high jumpers but Tejaswin Shankar missed the under-20 Worlds because he was injured. The national-record holder then appeared to have a good shot at a medal in Jakarta but a neck injury forced him to skip the Asiad.

The stars have not been in his favour for a while but that should turn and when it does, he could soar to a wonderful high.

Three months ago Tejaswin, a student of business administration at Kansas State University, won his maiden American NCAA title. (Triple-jumper Mohinder Singh Gill and discus-thrower Vikas Gowda are the only other Indians to achieve the feat.)

The 19-year-old from Delhi has a personal best of 2.29m and if he can stay fit and jump over 2.35 — which he appears capable of — Tejaswin could have an impressive finish in Tokyo.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 2:33:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/athletics/vision-2020/article25010350.ece

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