For Lalita Babar, the 3000m steeplechase final in Rio was her last race of the season.(PTI)
For Lalita Babar, the 3000m steeplechase final in Rio was her last race of the season.(PTI)

Indian athletes pack up after Rio while rest of the world find fresh highs

India’s athletes wind down their season after the Rio Olympics while top competitors around the world go on to set fresh marks.
By Navneet Singh | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON AUG 30, 2016 08:04 PM IST

Post the Rio Olympics, there has been a lot of talk about planning for the future — a systematic approach to nurture athletes with potential to become medal winners on the big stage. But going by how some of our athletes seem to be cooling their heels when the best in the world in their respective disciplines are back in competition, things hardly seem to be “systematic” or “planned”.

For Indian athletes, once the Olympics are done it is time to put their feet up. Not so for the rest of the world’s professionals who carry on until the season ends.

Lalita Babar, the national record holder in women’s 3000m steeplechase who did well in Rio by qualifying for the final and finishing 10th in a quality field, was conferred the Arjuna Award on Monday. Over the weekend though, the gold medal winner in her event in Rio, Ruth Jebet of Bahrain, was back on track. The Kenyan-born athlete set a world record at the Diamond League meet in Paris on Saturday, beating a quality field, including a few top finishers from the Games.

Over the weekend when the best in the world were back in competition, Lalita Babar was in New Delhi to receive the Arjuna Award. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)
Over the weekend when the best in the world were back in competition, Lalita Babar was in New Delhi to receive the Arjuna Award. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

On overdrive

Jebet won gold with a record of 8:52.78, breaking the previous mark of Gulnara Galinka of Russia, set at the 2008 Beijing Games. The bronze medal winner in the race was US record holder Emma Coburn, who had won bronze in Rio as well.

Poland’s Anita Wlodarczyk, who won the hammer throw gold in Rio with a world record (82.29m), went one better. She returned to Warsaw and improved her mark with a winning throw of 82.98m at the Skolimowska Memorial meet.

For athletics, the Olympic Games, though the biggest event of the year and a focal point for preparations, is not the final event of the season. In fact, the Rio Games is right in the middle of a busy season comprising the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) events.

Ruth Jebet, gold medal winner in Rio, set a new world record in the womens 3,000-metre steeplechase at the IAAF Diamond League. (AP)
Ruth Jebet, gold medal winner in Rio, set a new world record in the womens 3,000-metre steeplechase at the IAAF Diamond League. (AP)

Season still on

The rest have shaken off the fatigue from Rio to compete again. There are two more Diamond League meets this year — in Zurich on September 1 and in New York on September 3.

For Babar, though, Rio was her last track race for the season. For that matter, the others too seem to have finished their season. HT approached the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) to understand why Indian athletes stay away from regular international competitions when it is clear that competing against a competitive field will only benefits them?

The AFI chose to pass the buck.

CK Valson, secretary of the AFI, blamed the national distance-running coach for women, Nikolai Snesarev, saying it was the coach’s job to look beyond the Olympics and plan.

“The coach should have thought of it. We have given a free hand to him. Whatever facilities he asks for, we provide him. Since he has been doing well we don’t interfere in his plans,” Valson said.

No exposure

Emma Coburn’s yearly schedule highlight the difference in preparation between India’s athletes and the best in the world. (REUTERS)
Emma Coburn’s yearly schedule highlight the difference in preparation between India’s athletes and the best in the world. (REUTERS)

Lack of experience did show when Lalita wasn’t able to repeat her heats performance of 9:19.76, a national record, in the final, where she was slower by three seconds. Valson added: “The difference might be small, but it counts in the final.”

Lalita’s build-up for Rio was also without any exposure to quality races. She only took part in one good race, at the Shanghai Diamond League in May. Prior to that she had only participated in domestic events in the last week of April. Her next stop after Shanghai was Rio.

Compare that to the preparation of Coburn.

In the 2015 season, she raced five times in global competitions. In the build up to Rio, besides two qualifying races for the 3000m steeplechase, she also clocked 4:06.92 in a 1500m race. She will again compete in two more races this year before chalking out plans for next year’s World Championships.

Valson acknowledged that top Indian athletes would gain valuable experience if they compete more on the European circuit. But for that, they will have to improve their current personal bests.

The Indian athletics contingent for Rio was 29 strong, larger than in the previous editions. But it is evident from the performances that quantity, not quality, was the hallmark of the squad.

“The problem is our top athletes are not of world standard, which is why they don’t get entry in the Diamond League,” said Valson. “They should perform at a high level in the domestic meets, otherwise chances are bleak. There is benchmark set by organisers, which our top athletes don’t achieve.”

Of the original squad that made the cut for Rio, two were dropped due to doping, and only Babar and Sudha Singh got a chance to compete in one international race in Shanghai. Neeraj Chopra, who holds the world junior record in javelin, opted out of that meet due to an ankle injury.

The federation’s top official hopes things will be better in the future. “I have contacted global athlete representatives. The agents would ensure our top athletes get exposure at the world level, particularly in Europe,” he said.

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