The miserable failure of the 4x400m relay teams in the World Relays Championship at Yokohama, Japan, must be an eye-opener for the authorities.
Given the hype surrounding the longer relay teams since 2016, it was a shock when the Indian teams finished out of the finals, even the 'B' finals meant for teams failing to make it to the top-eight bracket.
This was India's maiden foray into the World Relays that was started in 2014. Three editions were held in the Bahamas before the event was shifted to Japan.
This was supposed to be the first step towards India's Tokyo Olympics qualification. The top 10 places in in men's and women's 4x100m and 4x400m in this meet went through to the World Championships in Doha in September this year while the top 12 in the 4x400m mixed relay made it. The top eight in the World Championships would automatically qualify for the Olympics next year while eight more in each event would join them based on a ranking list.
Six teams in the men's and women's 4x400m will now join the qualifiers from the World Relays for the World Championships through their positions in a ranking list drawn up on performances up to 6 September, 2019.
India thus has still good chances to figure in all the three longer relays in the Doha Worlds. But should it have been left hanging after such a "meticulous" preparation of the teams?
For a country nursing Olympic medal ambitions in Tokyo, with the longer relays very much on the agenda, the least that one could have expected from Yokohama was a place each in the finals of the three 4x400m relays. In the event, India finished 17th out of 21 teams in the women's relay, 17th and last in the men's competition and 15th out of 16 starters in the mixed relay.
There is a possibility of crowing over the season best timing of 3:31.93 by the women's team, an improvement of 0.28 seconds from the team's silver-medal-winning Asian Championships timing in Doha in April. Nothing much should be read into it in terms of improvement.
For, the Asian Championships team did not have Hima Das, the country's best 400m runner in many decades and the national record holder (50.79s). Her place was taken up by Prachi Singh who had created a sensation in 2018 with a time of 52.96s for third place in the inter-state championships in Guwahati, the selection trials for the Asian Games.
Prachi put in an opening leg of 55.2s in Doha while Hima, though reportedly still recovering from a lumbar problem and looking uncharacteristically tense at the start, chipped in with a 52.60s in Yokohama that gave the team the second place at the first change-over. After that it was just a downward journey.
One point we should understand straightaway before going into the details of improvement or lack of it among the Indian teams is the timing of the World Relays. May is just the starting month for international athletics. In this respect the Indian athletes were better off compared to their counterparts especially from Europe. Our runners had the luxury of competing in four Indian Grand Prix, one Federation Cup and the Asian Championships before setting off to Yokohama. It is a different matter whether all the athletes utilised those opportunities. The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) did well to arrange a schedule like that.
Compare this with the other countries. Poland, European champion, which pulled off an upset over the United States in the women's 4x400m, did not have a single woman who had run an outdoors 400m this year, in its team. Italy, which finished third, had just one runner (Giancarla Trevisan) who had competed outdoors this season. Almost all European women were coming off the indoor season. The Asians were better off since they had their continental championships in April. The US had two women (Jessica Beard and Courtney Okolo who had not run a 400m this season) and two others (Jaide Stepter and Shakina Wimbley) who had two races and one race respectively in the 400m outdoors.
Injuries seemed to have hit the Indians hard this season even before the Asian Championships. Not just in the track events but in the field events, too. The continued problems with her back for Das, her participation in Yokohama and her availability for the rest of the season should cause concern to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) if not the AFI. Pushing half-fit athletes into competitions for the sake of earning a qualification is reckless.
Das's split of 52.60s in Yokohama should be seen from her block-start and should not be compared with VK Vismaya's anchor of 52.33s, on a flying start. If one views the splits in this perspective, then MR Poovamma's 53.60s that pushed India into the sixth position from second after the second leg, and Saritaben Gayakwad's 53.40s on the third leg, were below-par efforts.
Gayakwad lost some precious fractions while being pushed by a Ukrainian runner in the process of receiving the baton but the Indian was far from being innocent out there in trying to keep the former gain an ideal position. Ukraine were eventually disqualified after coming a surprise first in the heat. Even if the push had not come, it was difficult to imagine India hauling itself back after Poovamma's leg to make it to the final though experts might disagree.
India can console itself by pointing out the Ukrainian push in the women's relay and be content that its 3:28.72 in the Asian Games will come in handy for rankings that will determine the rest of the six qualifiers for the World Championships. The Olympics qualification will be tougher.
Despite months of training, specially designed towards the relays " unheard of for baton exchange practice or lane running in 4x400m relay " the Indian runners are getting into tangles while receiving the baton. Coaches will have to work on this instead of eventually lamenting, "if only we had a better exchange".
The 3:06.05s clocked by the Indian men's team in the heats of the 4x400m was shocking. True, India did not have the services of Arokia Rajiv, its best quarter-miler this season. He was ostensibly injured on the eve of the heats. There are differing versions about his injury. We may come to know the truth only in due course of time.
His place was taken by Jithu Baby in the team. The latter did reasonably well, turning in a split of 46.50s. Quite surprisingly, KS Jeevan, who had come up with a 44.7 split in India's Asian Championship time of 3:03.28 (the team was later disqualified), could manage only 47.00. Kunhu Mohammed opened with a 47.10s and Muhammed Anas put in a great effort on anchor with a 45.45s. Do remember to add between 0.5s to one second gain for any running start and you get a better idea where our quarter-milers are right now in terms of preparation.
Anas has been injured for a long time, reports suggested. Why SAI allows injured athletes to be part of Indian probables training abroad is inexplicable. Also inexplicable is the necessity to train in Europe even during winter when North India should be ideal for training purposes. Unless there are specialist coaches available for the Indian team in places like Antalya (Turkey) where the 400m runners were prior to the Asian Championships or Spala (Poland) or Jablonec (Cezch Republic) where the teams were prior to the Asian Games last year, it is beyond one's comprehension that our athletes should train in such places supported by the same coaches who otherwise would have trained them at Patiala or Bengaluru or Thiruvananthapuram.
Fielding a weak team in the mixed relay, apparently because the main runners in either section were exhausted after their events in men and women relays, the Indian side ensured that the country would not even figure among the top 12 that was needed for World Championships qualification.
Of course, the time of 3:15.71 clocked in the Asian Games for should be sufficient to clinch the rankings-based place in the coming months. The question would be, what next, either in the World Championships, where teams would come with far better combinations than what they managed for World Relays in this early season, and then the Olympics, where qualification alone is not AFI's aim.
In order to get Olympic medals in relays, the whole approach of sending teams abroad or having a foreign coach will have to be reviewed. The injuries also should be thoroughly analysed by expert panels. Why should stress fracture develop for an athlete like A Dharun, 400m runner and 400m hurdler, in his prime? He was probably missed in Yokohama.
The contribution made by the US-based Russian coach, Galina Bukharina, should also come under review following the Yokohama debacle of the longer relay teams. The planned trips, once again, to Poland or Czech Republic should also come under scrutiny. If apparently there is little gain in training for months together in Europe, why should the government fund such trips?