The Worlds not quite in their grasp
DOHA 2019: Barring Jinson Johnson and Tajinder Singh, Indian athletes’ performances have dipped since the Jakarta Asian Games and the forecast is bleakUpdated: Sep 26, 2019 10:30 IST
India’s track and field athletes set a new benchmark at the Asian Games in Jakarta last year. Twenty medals, including eight gold, were seen as coming of age for athletics in the country.
There were inspirational stories all around. Most of the stars came from the hinterland and had overcome personal hurdles to shine on the big international stage. Swapna Burman squeezed in six toes into a shoe to win India’s first heptathlon gold, Tajinder Pal Singh Toor dug into his reserves to finish on top of the podium for his cancer-stricken father, Manjit Singh and Jinson Johsnon clinched a rare 1-2 in 800m. There were encouraging signs with 2020 Tokyo Olympics in sight.
However, a year into the memorable performance and the graph of Indian athletics has taken a sharp dip. Such has been the abysmal fall that there is nothing much to cheer about as the World Championships are scheduled to begin in Doha on Friday.
The season has taken a turn for the worse. Falling standards apart, injuries have been rampant. Even qualifying for the Worlds became quite a task for some star athletes. Of the six individual gold medallists from Jakarta, only two — Johnson (1500m) and Toor (shot put) — have stayed on course for Doha. Neeraj Chopra (javelin), Manjit Singh (800m) and Swapna Barman (heptathlon) are on the injured list while triple jumper Arpinder Singh has failed to qualify. Arpinder recorded his season’s best of 16.83m during the Inter-State meet in Lucknow recently but it was not enough. The qualifying mark stood at 16.95m. At the Asian Games, Arpinder had cleared 16.77m.
Asian Games champion Johnson is one of the few Indian athletes who seem to be on the right track for Tokyo. He was surprised by compatriot Manjit in 800m at the Asian Games but he bounced back to win the 1500m (3:44.72secs) in Jakarta. The 28-year-old middle-distance Army runner was injured in April but has made a strong return and has improved the national 1500m record twice within a span of three months, from June to August. He is expected to further lower his timing at the Worlds.
At the Next Generation Meet in the Dutch city of Nijmegen in June, he clocked 3:37.62 secs, which was better than his previous record of 3:37.86 secs clocked at 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Earlier this month, Johnson clipped nearly two seconds to better the national record to 3min 35.24 secs at ISTAF meet in Berlin. It was within the World Championships qualifying norm of 3:36.00 secs.
Johnson is confident of entering the 1500m final at the Worlds. “Everything is in place. I should be able to enter the final,” he said from his training base in St Moritz, Switzerland that has an elevation of 1800m above sea level.
The Kerala runner has been training under Scott Simmons, who heads the American Distance Project in Colorado Springs (USA). After the Berlin competition he shifted to the Swiss Alps and. After Doha he will move to USA to prepare for the Olympics.
Johnson feels a good competition in Doha could also see him crack the Olympic qualification time of 3:35.00 secs. “The 1500m is a tactical race and given my current fitness, I’m hoping for good results,” he added.
In the 2017 edition, the 1500m final was a close race with Kenyan Elijah Manangoi winning gold at 3:33.51 secs. The season’s leading time is 3:28.77 clocked by Timothy Cheruiyot of Kenya in July, while there are at least five runners whose timing is below 3:31.00 secs. Johnson is ranked 33rd in global ranking.
The other Indian athlete to watch out for is Moga’s Toor, The shot putter is ranked 58th in the world and his best this season is 20.36m. The world’s leading shot-putter Ryan Crouser of USA has the best throw of 22.74m this season. Toor was India’s only gold medallist among men at the Asian Championships in April with a third attempt of 20.22m.
The biggest stars to miss out were Hima Das (400m), Sudha Singh (3000m steeplechase) and Neena Varakil (long jump). Hima returned with two relay gold medals (4x400m women, 4x400m mixed) and a silver (400m) from Jakarta but she has struggled to find her feet. The world U-20 champion has been training in Poland and Czech Republic where she ran a series of local races and won gold medals grabbing eyeballs, but it was nowhere near her personal best (50.79 sec in the Asian Games). Her season’s best stood at 52.09 secs in July at a meet in Czech Republic, way off the world qualifying time of 51.80 secs. Das has been complaining of back pain since November 2018 and pulled out in the middle of the 400m heat at the Asian Championships in Doha in April.
Sudha and Neena had won silver in Jakarta but weren’t able to qualify for the Worlds. Anu Raghavan (400m) and Seema Punia (discus), who bagged bronze in Jakarta, skipped the domestic competitions.
Former athletics great PT Usha says Indian athletes have a long way to go to meet the world standards. “We might win at the continental level but the Worlds are the real test,” she says.
But what left Usha more intrigued was the prolonged injury to athletes. “I also got injured but bounced back within a short period of time — 15-20 days or a month. There are always minor aches and pains, as long as you train hard and learn to manage injuries effectively.
“But what is intriguing is that some of the elite runners have a prolonged injury problem. It has seriously hurt the progress made in 2018, mainly the Asian Games,” Usha adds.
Patchy performance isn’t a healthy sign with a year to go for the Tokyo Games, says Usha.
She especially points to 400m, which is a priority discipline. Since November, the sports ministry has sanctioned more than ~2 crore for preparation of quarter-milers. The relay teams have set up base in Antalya (Turkey) and Europe since December for advanced training but the results have been ordinary.
“A top female 400m runner would clock 52 secs in 400m one day and in another race her timing would be 54 secs. Or, it might surge in key domestic qualifying events and then dip again in international meets. There is something seriously wrong somewhere,” she says.
The inconsistency of quarter-milers is highlighted by the performance of MR Poovamma, one of the key members of the 4x400m relay team. The quartet of Poovamma, Hima Das, Sarita Gayakwad and VK Vismaya won gold at the Asian Games with a timing of 3:28.72 secs.
Poovamma began her season with 54.12 secs at the second edition of the Indian Grand Prix here in February . A month later, at the Federation Cup, her best time was 53.15 secs. In April at the Doha Asian Championships she improved to 52.45 secs in heats, but slipped to 53.21 in the final. In the season’s last competition at Prague on September 19, she was back to 54 secs.
Another member of the relay team, Revathi V from Tamil Nadu wasn’t impressive in the confirmatory trials held at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on September 21, and was dropped from the team. During the trials, she clocked 57.59 secs, which was slower by four secs from her previous best of 53.63 secs clocked in the first week of September.
The World Relays in Yokohama, Japan (May 11-12) was an eye opener. The women’s team was eliminated in the preliminary round, clocking 3:31.93. In mixed 4x400m relay, India qualified as the 14th-ranked team in the world with a timing of 3:15.71 at the Asian Games.
At the beginning of the season, javelin was ranked as a medal prospect at the World Championships. But the Athletics Federation of India’s (AFI) plan took a beating with the injury to Neeraj Chopra, who won gold at the Asian Games with a national record of 88.06m — the sixth best in the world in 2018.
The AFI has roped in Germany’s former world record holder Uwe Hohn since November 2017 for a group of six javelin throwers, including Vipin Kasana, who have been training in Europe since May. A biomechanics expert has been hired to support Hohn. The combination, however, is yet to give results.
During the 2017 World Championships in London, India had two javelin throwers in Chopra and Davinder Singh Kang. Kang too is injured now. “I have a shoulder injury for the last one year. I’m going through rehabilitation which is why I couldn’t qualify for Doha,” Kang said from Patiala. In the absence of Chopra and Kang, the focus has been on Shivpal Singh after his outstanding silver-winning performance of 86.23m at the Asian Championships. His performance raised hope of a strong finish at the World Championships.
However, Shivpal’s throwing graph showed a massive dip of 10m from April to June/July. On his debut in the Diamond League (Oslo), he finished eighth with an 80.87m throw while a week later, at the Golden Spike meet in Ostrava, Czech Republic he slipped to 79.69m. Three days later at a Poland’s Grand Prix it was 76.90m. The decline isn’t a “big concern” for Shivpal ahead of the Worlds. He says, since his main goal was the Worlds, he didn’t put in extra effort.
“Since April, the focus has been on hard training and not competition. Hence results were ordinary,” he says.
Estonia’s Magnus Kirt is the leading contender with a throw of 90.61m in June, while Germany’s Johannes Vetter is a close second at 90.03m. Despite his unimpressive throws, Shivpal is hopeful of a showing at the Worlds. “My goal is to record a personal best,” he adds.