The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has wisely resisted the temptation to name a large squad for the World Championships in Doha beginning later this month. It could have roped in all the eligible athletes to pick a team of 36 or more. Instead, it preferred a 25-member team with the possibility of a couple of more athletes being added as per invitation from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to complete the latter's targeted numbers.
Nothing seems to have gone right for the AFI this season, after what was touted as the most successful Asian Games last year. Nineteen medals, including seven golds, were won by Indian athletes in Jakarta. 'Have we touched world standards' was the poser in the immediate aftermath of the Asian Games.
India's Hima Das reacts after the women's 400m final at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. AFP
"Yes," concluded the AFI. There were several backers, too, perhaps without realising that the world standards are, in most cases, quite high and in a few others, beyond the reach of Indian athletes.
As we approach the Doha World Championships, the AFI has not lost any of its confidence nor given up its bragging. Since 2010, the 4x400m women's relay had been projected as the best bet in the Olympics. By Rio 2016, the men's 4x400m was also added to the list. Everything came apart in the Brazilian capital.
Three relay gold medals were yet predicted for last years Asian Games. Only one accrued. But to keep up the narrative, coach Galina Bukharova was hoisted as the most successful to have descended on our land, contributing to six medals in Jakarta.
Though that is true, what has subsequently happened in a long-drawn training-cum-competition programme in Europe, covering two countries and many 'B' grade meets, has exposed the real standards of Indian athletics, no matter that the AFI keeps talking of an Olympic medal or a few medals next year and the Sports Ministry too looks convinced that Tokyo could be the turning point.
The Indian relay teams fared poorly in the World Relays in Yokohama, Japan, in May. India was 17th in the men and women's relays and 15th out of 16 starters in the mixed relay. No qualification was earned for the World Championships and it was a huge relief for the AFI when the relay teams clung onto their precarious positions in the qualification race till the qualification deadline of 6 September.
In fact, the AFI was so anxious to defend its stance of relay teams having reached world standards that in order to rule out the possibility of the men's team slipping out of the qualification bracket, it arranged special relay events at the Inter-State meet in Lucknow and a hurriedly-convened Indian Grand Prix at Patiala, with teams from Iran (for inter-state), Sri Lanka and Maldives to fulfil the requirement of a minimum of two international teams for such meets to be taken into relevance by the IAAF. The move flopped, however, though there was no price to pay in the end.
The men's team was disqualified at Lucknow after one of the coaches shouted to the anchor, Muhammed Anas, to grab any baton that came through in front (as per the athlete's version) after the team's third runner, Alex Antony, had pulled up on the back straight. Was the coach trying to pull wool over the eyes of the large media contingent present plus athletes and coaches?
At Patiala GP, the team clocked 3:03.68. It was supposed to look for something better than 3:01.78 in order to climb up from the 16th and last place in the qualification race. The team had won the silver in the last Asian Games in 3:01.85 and that time had remained India's best through the qualification period for the World Championships.
The worst fiasco to strike the Indian preparations was not the uncertainty concerning the men's relay team, but the reported back injury that seemed to have ruined Hima Das's preparations for the World Championships.
Described as the brightest prospect to have emerged in Indian athletics following her stunning victory in the 400m at the World Junior Championships in Tampere, Finland, Das was hailed by VIPs after every victory in Europe. She competed more in the 200m than in the 400m for which she was supposed to be preparing for the World Championships. With her national record of 50.79s for the silver in the 400m at the Asian Games, she was expected to go below 50.0s this season. A study break, according to coaches' explanations, had pulled her back to such an extent, she had to begin from scratch.
The country, it seemed, was carried away by the hype created. "Hima Das wins her eighth title in Europe" was such a routine headline that people expected her to sweep everything including the World title. No one cared whether the meets in Poland or the Czech Republic had foreign opposition worth challenging the Indians or whether it was all-India contests.
Then came the news that began circulating when she pulled out of the 400m in the Asian Championships on the back straight due to what was described as back pain, she has a serious back injury. Due to this mysterious back injury she did not go after the World Championships entry standard of 51.80s for the 400m after her last race on 24 August at Mlada Boleslav, Czech Republic, in which she timed 53.07s, poor by her standards and far off the qualification mark.
There is a lingering doubt whether all these reports that are being attributed to various unnamed athletics officials are telling us the truth at all. There is also concern among those who follow the sport whether Das would be able to compete at all at Doha, for whatever reason, eventually.
The only consolation could be if Das is in 53.07s shape, she would still be of value to the women's relay team since there are only a few Indians who have shown in recent times the ability to match that timing or to go below that. One is excluding the Haryana sensation Anjali Devi, from this calculation, at least for the time being since she, with a time of 51.53s at inter-state, will have to prove herself once again at a confirmatory trial. She would not be part of the relay team either, as per AFI's policy of not considering any one outside camps for the relays.
Along with the speculation surrounding Das' back injury has come the exclusion of Saritaben Gayakwad, who was in the relay gold-winning team at the Asian Games last year apart from several other Indian squads. She has not done badly either this year, being the fifth best one-lapper with 52.77s, behind Anjali, Das, VK Vismaya and MR Poovamma. Four women below Gayakwad have been included in the team.
Gayakwad's exclusion is as mysterious as the six-month-old back injury of Das who, according to AFI chief Adille Sumariwalla, is unable to speed up since the pain shoots up in the process. Thus, he explained in one of the reports, she was only entered in shorter-distance races in smaller meets.
Apart from javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, who had undergone an elbow surgery and was still weighing his options of competing at the time of selection committee meeting, injuries have also affected Arokia Rajiv (400m), Vipin Kasana (javelin) and Nitendra Rawat (marathon), who have not been considered for selection, as well as Ayyasamy Dharun, who was surprisingly included. There is some confusion whether Dharun would run the 400m hurdles for which he had qualified with a splendid 48.80s in the Fed Cup in March, or the relay.
How he could be included in the relay team when at least 11 other Indians, apart from the top-six, had clocked better than his season best of 47.34s is another mystery. "He is improving while the others are slowing down as the championship approaches," was a cryptic comment by one official. The seven-member men's relay team also includes Alex Antony who won the inter-state with a personal best 46.17s, but was injured during the relay.
Whether Antony or Dharun, who was apparently nursing a stress fracture for five months, would recover in time to compete in a World Championships is anybody's guess. AFI seems to have opted more for the injured athletes than the fitter ones this time, it seems. Or maybe, this also shows the paucity of talent.
Tejaswin Shankar (high jump) and Sudha Singh (women's marathon) have declined to be part of the team though in the case of the latter there is a mention about injury, too. Neither Shankar nor his coach seemed to have taken the World Championships into their calculations and thus he told the federation that it was off-season for him and he was not ready to go. It is the second setback for the talented Delhi youngster within a five-month span since he had to miss selection for the Asian Championships also as the AFI insisted on his coming back home and competing in the selection trials.
The AFI's changed policy, of selecting also those who did not compete in the inter-state that was announced as the final selection trials, baffled many. Just as Anjali's 51.53s for the 400m did. Since she was not a regular part of the camp in Europe, she is not being considered for the relays. The question that would remain is when the federation picks 20 or 30 athletes and keep them at camps in places like Spala and Jablonec, they not only get specialised training in ideal environs but also need not worry too much about dope-testers. That benefit is not available for those who train at home.
The presence of a testing team from NADA on the third day of the four-day inter-state meet at Lucknow once again proved how the agency had neglected athletics. Performance dipped on the last two days in Lucknow and they were low also at the Indian Grand Prix meet at Patiala, the extended chance given to the athletes to go for the qualification standards, when NADA showed its presence. One had to take the sudden spurt in performance levels, whenever it happened this season, with a pinch of salt.
Among those who made the qualification, Jinson Johnson looked the most impressive. He had two top-class timings of 3:37.62 and 3:35.24, both national records, in the Netherlands and Germany, for the 1500m. The last one helped him confirm his place among the qualifiers. Johnson, a gold medallist in the Asian Games, has moved to the US for training. He could be in contention for a place in the final in the Doha Worlds if the semi-final turns out to be of slower type in the range of 3:38-3:40 rather than 3:32-3:33. Middle-distance races are most unpredictable at the highest level with tactics dictating timings.
Global championships are always tough for the Indian athletes. They are to most others as well. Mere qualification should not mean the Indians have chance to win medals or make the finals. In many events they are way down the qualifiers list. Doha may help re-assess Indian athletics before the country gets down to the preparations for Tokyo.