File photo of Hima Das.(Getty Images for IAAF)
File photo of Hima Das.(Getty Images for IAAF)

For India’s track teams, Olympic dreams are slipping away

A stock-taking reveals that despite advanced training in Antalya, Turkey, no positives emerged at the World Relays in Yokohama.
New Delhi | By Navneet Singh
UPDATED ON AUG 02, 2019 12:10 AM IST

Asian champions, but no success on the world stage. That’s the story of the Indian men’s and women’s 4x400m relay teams this year, despite several international exposure tours and more than Rs.2 crore in investment in the 2019 season.

As the first half of the season comes to a close, a stock-taking reveals that despite advanced training in Antalya, Turkey (Dec 2018 to Feb 2019), no positives emerged at the World Relays in Yokohama, Japan (May 11-12) with the women’s team getting eliminated in the preliminary round, clocking 3:31.93 and finishing fifth in the heats, thus missing out an automatic berth for the Doha World Championships in September and, possibly, a ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

This is a far cry from the hopes that were raised last year, when the Athletics Federation of India’s (AFI) announced an ambitious plan in November—the women’s team to hit 3:24 by the end of the year, and the men to hit the 3-minute mark. To put that in context, a 3:24 timing is better than the bronze-medal finish at Rio 2016.

This was not a pipe dream; the women’s quartet took the gold at the Jakarta Asian Games in September 2018 with a timing of 3:28.72, a fraction of a second shy of the Games record. But by April 2019, when the team won a silver at the Asian Championships, that timing slid by more than 3.5 seconds to 3:32.21. The massive slump between the 2018 Asian Games and the 2019 Asian Championships is worrying the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), who fear that with this pace, they team will miss the World Championships berth.

“It’s difficult to qualify with this pace. At least one or two runners should have clocked sub-52 sec in World Relay,” said AFI secretary-general CK Valson.

India’s preeminent quartermilers—Hima Das, MR Poovamma, Saritaben Gayakwad and VK Vismaya—find themselves in an almost impossible position — to shave off close to 5 seconds from their current timing or forget an Olympic berth.

None of the athletes are in a position to do so. Hima Das is on a training and competition tour in Europe, but is far off her personal best of 50.79 (2018 Asian Games), only clocking 52.09 in Czech Republic recently after dropping out of the Asian Championships in April due to a back injury. Vismaya clocked 52.48 in Poland, while Poovamma is injured.

It raises questions about the management of the runners that in the year before the Olympics, when they should be entering a cycle designed to peak at Tokyo 2020, two of the quartet are struggling with injuries. The relay team did have a backup. In September, 19-year-old Anjali Devi of Haryana shot off to a personal best of 51.79; a superb timing.

Then Devi too injured her ankle this February. In March her timing had slid to 56 seconds. In April she quit the national camp. According to Radhakrishnan Nair, deputy chief coach of the team, she never reported back. “Since she didn’t take leave her name has been struck off from national camp,” he said.

Men in disarray

The case of the men’s 4x400m relay team is equally dire. After Muhammed Kunhu, Dharun Ayyasamy, Mohammad Anas and Rajiv Arokia came up with a blistering run to win silver at the Asian Games, clocking 3:01.85, they too are struggling to qualify for the World Championships. They too are beset by injuries. Arokia has pain around the joint of his toe; a scan revealed no fractures, but he has been advised not to run. “I went for treatment in Poland but it did not help,” Arokia said.

“Now I have come back to Chennai for Ayurvedic treatment.” Only Anas has gotten stronger; the national record holder recovered from a foot injury and improved his 400m record to 45.21 on July 13, which is better than the Worlds qualifying time of 45.30.

The reforged team of Kuhnu, Jithu Baby, KS Jeevan and Anas clocked a dismal 3:06.05 to finish 17th in the World Relays, following which they were sent to Europe in May for the second phase of advanced training, which will conclude on August 5. The AFI is trying to help them achieve Worlds qualification by extending their stay.

At the 2017 World Championships, the men’s quartet had finished 10th overall with a season’s best effort of 3:02.80. This year, they may not even qualify. Which will mean the end of the road for the team’s Olympic dreams.

But Valson put up a brave front. “We still have two months for the Worlds. The athletes will definitely hit the fast mode,” he said.

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