Before the Olympics, India’s track & field in usual disarray
With just a month left for the Olympics, India’s javelin throwers find themselves in the middle of a raging controversy after coach Uwe Hohn spoke out against the Athletics Federation of India for not doing enough to prepare them for the Tokyo Games.
India’s top medal contender Neeraj Chopra spent over 400 days without competition or exposure trips, and only managed to leave India last month after repeated and desperate pleas.
Chopra is now based in Sweden and competed in his first international meet in more than a year last week.
Two other javelin throwers Shivpal Singh (qualified for Tokyo) and Annu Rani (expected to make the cut ), however, haven’t even managed to get that.
Hohn said that Chopra could go only because of help from his personal sponsors.
But it is not just that thrower who are in this predicament--the track teams find themselves in a similar situation too. The relay teams missed their opportunity to directly qualify for the Olympics after the AFI failed to send them to the World Athletics Relays in Silesia, Poland, on May 1. AFI’s plans to send the teams to Turkey in April and then to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan for training and competitions also failed.
AFI president Adille Sumariwalla said they have done their best to send the track and field teams. “There were separate plans for Neeraj and Shivpal and Annu Rani. The other two, along with the relay teams, were supposed to go to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. We have been constantly talking to all the coaches and we make our plans after discussion,” he said.
“Uwe Hohn doesn’t know what he is talking about. This outburst is out of frustration because he could not go out. We were talking to governments, MEA, embassies, consulates, and airlines. We were looking at chartering planes to fly the team. My team has not slept for two days trying to find ways.”
While the relay team still has a slim chance of qualifying through the world rankings, it would need for them to actually compete in an international meet.
Some of India’s other athletes who have already qualified for the Olympics--like long jumper Murali Sreeshankar and steeplechaser Avinash Sable--will not get a chance to peak towards the Games with international competitions either. They only have the Indian Grand Prix (June 21) and an Inter State Senior Athletics Championship to look forward to.
Outside of track & field, almost all of India’s Olympic bound athletes--boxers, shooters, wrestlers, sailors, a fencer, a badminton player--have managed to get both training and international competitions in the lead up to the Tokyo, despite the grave disruptions caused by the pandemic.
“We could have sent them abroad, but can they be quarantined for 14 days at this moment. My athletes will be finished if they miss 14 days of training at this point,” said Sumariwalla.
“It is very difficult to keep the motivation levels of athletes and prepare when you don’t get to test yourself in big competitions before the Olympics,” said a coach who did not wish to be named.
To add to the chaos, even in Patiala, relationships between Hohn and Yadav and Rani have soured. Since the coach made his comments about the lack of preparation, both athletes have issued statements against him.
Germany’s Hohn is a legend of javelin and the only one in the sport’s history to throw beyond 100m.
The 58-year-old has been India’s coach for last three years and took Chopra to the Commonwealth and Asian Games golds in 2018. However, from 2019, Chopra moved to another coach-- Klaus Bartonietz, also from Germany, who is preparing him for Tokyo.
Asked about Indian athletes’ preparing in Patiala in the summer heat, Hohn said, “it is more a damage limitation than a preparation.”
He did not want to comment on whether he would see off his tenure till the Tokyo Olympics.
Needless to say, Hohn is expected to meet the same fate as past foreign track & field coaches like Volker Herrmann or Derek Bossey, among many others.
Herrmann, who was India’s high-performance director, quit in November with the Tokyo Olympics barely eight months away. Before he quit, many of the athletes who were working with him, including Sreeshankar, had moved away.
US Olympian Bossey, appointed in 2015 ahead of the Rio Olympics, had quit after seven months on the job. Chopra’s first foreign coach, Australian Gary Calvert, whom he credits for his U-20 world championships title, had left India before the end of his two-year contract.
“Herrmann did not quit just like that. He is in charge of the Munich Olympic arena in Germany. It is a hugely prestigious position,” said Sumariwalla.