Why do some of the top athletes stay away from domestic competitions when the need of the hour is participation in such meets in a long-drawn season that includes the Asian Championships and the World Championships?
The recent series of Indian Grand Prix meets held in the North proved once again that many Indian athletes are 'competition-shy'.
Four Indian GP meets were held with an idea of providing athletes the much-needed build-up towards the Asian Championships in April and a platform to gain qualification marks (selection criteria if one may like to use another term) for the Asian meet.
The sight of a lone sprinter competing in the women's 100m in the third meet at Sangrur and clocking a poor 13.76s to win the gold did little credit to a federation that strives to provide competition to national-level athletes but invariably is let down by the athletes. Also, several of the women's field events having just one competitor made for poor advertisement for Indian athletics. That this happened in just about six months from the Asian Games in Indonesia where the Indian athletes made a huge impact, winning as many as 19 medals including seven gold, was perplexing.
Or is it really perplexing? For the past several years, this phenomenon stood out. The past decade has been particularly glaring in this aspect. No matter that even the president of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), Adille Sumariwalla, agrees that a strange contradiction exists between the athletes' demand for more competitions and their eventual reluctance to compete when the chance materializes, the AFI has not gone deeper into the issue.
The foremost reason for an athlete to skip a domestic meet that is not a final selection meet for a major championship is the fear of losing. If the meet comes very early in the season, as is the case this season, the problem gets aggravated. Top athletes of the world do not bother losing in early outdoor meets of the season. They compete just to get into the rhythm, to prepare themselves for the bigger challenges ahead in that season.
Injuries, examinations etc could be other genuine reasons to skip meets. Injury problems affect all athletes all over the world. That Hima Das had to miss training in order to prepare for examinations was no secret. Obviously it affected her performance as she opened her season in the third leg of the GP series, finishing fourth in 55.19s, her poorest since breaking through in the one-lappet with a time of 53.21s in the heats of the Federation Cup at Patiala in March last year. She had clocked poorer in 2017 but then she was yet to take up 400m seriously and was a better known 200m sprinter at the under-18 level.
Clearly, Hima had not done her speed-work to her satisfaction but the two and a half months training in Turkey should have given her the base for better endurance than she showed in Sangrur. Adding to the confusion about the Assam girl's form this year was the observation of the Russia-born American coach, Galina Bukharina, made to The Indian Express, that Hima could take one or two years to regain her old form.
That statement must have baffled many an athletics follower. Why should a 19-year-old girl who went from 55-second-plus for the 400m in 2017 to an amazing national record of 50.79s in 2018 (Asian Games) take so much of time to get back into form even if she had missed six weeks of training as claimed by Bukharina? Hima skipped the fourth GP meet and we will have to wait for the Fed Cup now to see where she stands.
While noting Hima's pre-occupation with her exams and the circumstances that forced her to miss training, one should not also forget the fact that there were other girls in the GP meets who too had devoted their time to studies and attended exams and obviously devoted precious time for their training, too.
February is surely not the month to start an outdoor athletics season. But since we do not have an indoor season, perforce the outdoor season starts early, this time earlier than normal. The AFI must have been forced to go for it because of the proximity of the Asian Championships in April and the need to give adequate competition to the athletes to fine-tune themselves for the major internationals. Presuming that the coaches also were party to the drawing up of the calendar, the question will remain why four GP meets were fixed in such a short span of time when the coaches and athletes were apparently not ready.
Just two would have sufficed. Many of the leading athletes eventually competed in one or two meets only, preferring to keep their batteries charged for the all-important Federation Cup, the final selection trials for the Asian meet, to be held at Patiala from 15 to 18 March.
The doping angle should not be lost sight of here when we talk of too early a season or lack of form or confidence. This is not to suggest that every other athlete in India is a doper. One is also not suggesting that those who missed all or any of the Indian GP meets could have been on dope. But it is a fact that competing in February at home with the Asian Championships in April may mean a critical rejig of the doping schedule as well. Unless you have completed the cycle of doping you cannot break off and unless you have washed it out, you cannot compete where dope-testers were likely to pick you for a test. The National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) was present at all meets but the feedback one got suggested that its selection of events and athletes continued to be inadequate as in the past. We will come to that on another day.
Toor, Dutee stay away
Shot putter Tejinder Pal Singh Toor, the Asian Games champion, and female sprinter Dutee Chand, the double silver medallist at the Asian Games, qualified early for the Asian Championships. He had a 20.13m as against the criterion of 19.50m in the first GP meet at Patiala. After that, he went off for training abroad. He holds the national record at 20.75m " the mark with which he nailed the Asian Games gold in Jakarta last August. Inderjeet Singh, coming back from his doping suspension, came second in the Patiala meet with a 19.35m. He had only 18.94m and 18.70m in the last two meets.
Dutee Chand got off to an impressive start in the season by clocking 11.51s for the 100m in the first GP. That was not enough for the Asian qualification (11.40s) but it showed she was in good form. She confirmed that belief with a 23.30s effort for the 200m in the second meet that equaled the standard required. Like Toor, Dutee also preferred to stay away from the circuit after that.
Dutee has been reported to be planning a training trip in the US. She was quoted as saying she needed money to make that trip to correct her technique and improve her finish. That bit of news should be a surprise for many, if true. In these days of liberal financial assistance from the Sports Ministry, not to talk of support from NGOs, why should top athletes be still left searching for funding?
Two male and two female athletes in the metric mile achieved the Asian criteria in the fourth GP meet at Panchkula. Asian Games champion in the 800m, Manjit Singh, and 2017 Asian champion Ajay Kumar Saroj, were the men to make it with timings that bettered 3:46 in the 1500m. Saroj had missed it by a whisker in the second leg. Lili Das beat Asian champion PU Chithra while winning the 1500m in the women's section. The standard was 4:15.00.
Asian Games silver-medallist Ayyasamy Dharun easily qualified for the Asian meet in the 400m hurdles with a time of 49.94s (criterion 50.00) in the second meet after having opened with 50.05s. He should be a strong contender for a spot in the 4x400m relay team as well.
The focus was on the 400m because of the extended training men and women quarter-milers had in Turkey, and the jostling that is expected for the 4x400m selection. In the event, nothing noteworthy happened. Arokia Rajiv was the best on view clocking 46.32s in the third meet with Muhammed Anas, the National record holder, second in 46.60s, both pedestrian by their standards. Anas, reportedly injured and coming into the fray, later ran a 200m behind Arokia (20.74s) in 21.15s in the Panchkula meet. It is too early to think of speed and also too early to talk of the form of the 400m runners in either section.
VK Vismaya, part of India's gold-winning 4x400 quartet in the Asian Games, proved the best in the women's 400m, in which none came under 53.0s. Vismaya had a 53.60s in winning in leg one and took the third leg also in 53.80s. M. R. Poovamma won two legs with a best of 53.73s in the fourth. Jisna Mathew who made her 800m debut and won, joined the fight for the 400m only in the fourth leg, and disappointed, finishing third overall in 54.17s. Some of the others who returned some stunning timings last season figured nowhere. The fireworks should come in the Fed Cup.
The overall standards were ordinary in many of the events. Lack of competitors in many throwing events stood out. Women's shot put had four entries in the first meet when the gold went for 14.66m, three in the second meet (gold 14.41m), one in the third meet (gold 14.26m) and one again in the fourth meet (gold 13.94m).
It seemed totally illogical that the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) would fix 12 metres as the basic minimum entry standard for women's shot put in the Grand Prix meets while the Asian Championships qualification was pegged at 17 metres. With National record-holder Manpreet Kaur under provisional suspension for a doping charge, there is no one in the country who can even cross 15.50 metres at present.
The AFI is exploring the possibility of inviting Australian athletes next season for the GP meets. That will be an important season since Olympics qualification would be at stake. This time, as AFI chief said, the World Championships qualification is in focus, though the early performances have not inspired. The Australian season starts early when Europe is battling snow and freezing temperatures, but AFI may have to ensure only some quality athletes are invited if they do agree to the proposal. It is also essential that the AFI pick and choose events for the GP series and make it tougher for domestic athletes to attain entry standards. The purpose is defeated if you keep the standard low.