Federation Cup: Early return to the track for Indian athletes

Nihal Koshie
Keenly watched will be Hima Das, the 400m Junior World Champion and Asian Games silver medallist. (PTI Photo)

Indian track and field competitors have to kick-start their preparations for the Asian championship earlier than usual, and will aim to meet the qualification standards at the 23rd Federation Cup which begins on Friday.

The rescheduling of the Asian Athletics Championships has prompted a change in the training schedule for Indian competitors. The continental competition will he held in Doha, Qatar and as the weather during the traditional window of June-July to August will not be conducive for high-level athletics, the dates of the championship have been brought forward.

This has resulted in the competitors having to resume training earlier than they would have liked. Manjit Singh, the 800m gold medallist at the 2018 Asian Games, says athletes like him had to cut short their break and get back to training faster to ensure they would be in prime form for the Asian Championships.

"I knew that the championships would be held in April because of the harsh weather later in the year. At the end of the Asian Games, I took a break but could not afford to stay away from training for too long because of the early start to the season," he said. The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) had given athletes four events to prepare for the selection trials, which is the Fed Cup. Yet, the build-up has been lukewarm with competition at the four legs of the Indian Grand Prix series marked by shortage of entries in certain events and average performances.

In at least 22 events across the four legs, there were three or fewer participants. During the third leg in Sangrur, a lone athlete - Gayatri Lamba - ran the 100m and clocked 13.76 seconds. At the same meet, Neena Pinto registered 5.88m in the women’s long jump, being the only participant. The women’s javelin throw and shot put also saw just one participant.

In the 400m, one of India’s stronger suits at the Asian level, there was no performance to write home about, though some of the top quarter-milers took part. A few of them ran the 200m to check how far their speed work had progressed after training for over two months in Antalya, Turkey.

Can Hima bounce back?

Most of them, though, will have to show drastic improvement to meet the Asian championships guidelines. Keenly watched will be Hima Das, the 400m Junior World Champion and Asian Games silver medallist. The 18-year-old was given a break to appear for her examinations but during her only appearance - at the third leg of the Indian GP - she clocked an underwhelming 55.19 seconds.

Foreign coach Galina Bukharina put the below-par performance to time away from training. "We allowed her a break of six weeks but believe me, six weeks is too much of time in an athlete’s career. When she rejoins the camp, we have to start from scratch," Burkarina had said. The holder of the national record (50.79 seconds) will have 52.75 in her sights - the qualifying standard in the inpidual event.

Hima is also in the start list of the 200 metres, an event which puts her in direct competition with Dutee Chand, the star of the sprint events.

Johnson returns

Another athlete who will have to literally hit the ground running is 800m and 1,500m specialist Jinson Johnson. The double medallist at the Jakarta Asian Games was absent from the GP series and his return will make the 1,500m a proper showdown. Manjit Singh, who pipped Johnson to gold in the 800m at the Asiad, and Ajay Kumar Saroj, the 1,500m champion from the previous edition of the Asian Championships, will give Johnson a run for his money.

Arpinder in focus

Among the big names who won’t be in action is Asian Games and Commonwealth Games javelin throw gold medallist Neeraj Chopra and promising high jumper Tejaswin Shankar. Chopra has been allowed to continue training in Potchefstroom, South Africa, under foreign coach Uwe Hohn.

Shankar, on an NCAA scholarship at Kansas University, recently crossed the qualifying guidelines at the inter-collegiate meet in the USA. He had requested the AFI to allow him to skip the Fed Cup because of his midterm examinations.

One athlete who has travelled halfway across the world to compete at the Federation Cup is triple jumper Arpinder Singh, the Asian Games triple jump gold medallist. With minor tweaks in technique made under the watchful eye of coach Jeremy Fisher, Arpinder believes he is primed to meet the qualification guidelines. In a year of the World Championships, also to be held in Doha in September, the Fed Cup will give athletes an early reality check.