For the last two decades, the Open National Athletics Championships has been scheduled as the domestic season-ending event in India. The competition, held after the international season, is not a platform for athletes to get selected for major events. So, it invariably fails to attract cream of athletes in the country. This year’s edition, which began in Lucknow on Tuesday, is no exception.
PK Srivastava, treasurer of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), says the federation has no intention of shifting the competition to a much more relevant time in the year — at the start or the middle of the competitive season. Many top Indian athletes would continue to skip the event, making the meet irrelevant.
The athletics season in India starts from March/April and ends in September or October. With the Open National meet slated at the end, it basically gives department teams such as the Indian Railways or Services an opportunity to corner glory.
Top names such as Odisha sprinter Amiya Kumar Mallick, who set the 100m national record of 10.26 seconds in April, has skipped the meet. So have the other two sprinters from Odisha, Srabani Nanda and Dutee Chand, who have decided to take a break after the long season.
In the absence of quality runners, the performances on the opening day were lacklustre. Much was expected of G Laxamanan of the Services in the men’s 5,000m, but his winning time of 14 minutes and 16.07 seconds was almost 35 seconds slower than his personal best. In the women’s group, upcoming distance runner L Surya reached home in 16 minutes 05.90 seconds, again far below her best.
The performances were not setting the track ablaze, while the laissez-faire attitude of the organisers making things worse. Since the competitions were running behind schedule, the women’s hammer throw event was abandoned after the preliminary three rounds as there were no floodlights at the venue. They postponed the event to Wednesday.
The leading thrower, Sarita Singh of the Railways, said that it affected her momentum but the competition was so shallow that she managed to win.“There was no one in the field to challenge me in the final three rounds,” she told HT.
Since all the department and state units fielded teams, the number of competitors in the fray was good in almost all events, but the depth was missing.
In the women’s shot put, for instance, the winner Manpreet Kaur’s best was 16.22m, while silver medallist Navjeet Kaur Dhillon only managed 14.26m.
The AFI claimed that the championship would serve the purpose of selecting athletes for the national camps. But with performance being below par, by what criteria would they be selecting the athletes, wondered experts. “There should be series of event to gauge the performance and not just one meet,” said a national level coach.
Critics feel that instead of organising the event just for the sake of completing the annual calendar, the federation should become take proactive measures to attract top athletes.
Introducing prize money for winners and bonus money for good performances and national records, for instance, should help elevate the meet’s status. “It is time to look at the national meet as a product and invest to broaden its scope as well as increase the fan base. It would also help attract sponsors. That’s the way forward,” added another coach.