A team weak on steam

A jab at the medals: Neeraj Chopra has been consistent in his international performances. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

A jab at the medals: Neeraj Chopra has been consistent in his international performances. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout   -  The Hindu

In an Indian contingent dogged by controversies, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra remains the only realistic shot at a medal in the World Athletics Championships

The IAAF World Athletics Championships, under way in London, will mark the end of two glorious sporting careers. Multiple Olympic champions and world record holders Usain Bolt and Mo Farah will run their final two races each, and stride off into the sunset, untarnished by the controversies the sport is embroiled in.

Both Bolt, who blazed the tracks with record timings unlikely to be broken for generations, and Farah, who won an Olympic gold despite falling midway during the race in Rio, have established reputations that will be difficult to match. They rekindled joy in a sport (even saved it, some would say) that was crying out for superstars.

While international athletics grapples with doping scandals, gender debates (Caster Semenya, Dutee Chand, anyone?) and even a push from European officials to strike off all world records prior to 2005, India will hunt for merely its second medal in the competition. The medal kit has been empty since 2003, when Anju Bobby George brought home a bronze in long jump. Of the 25-member squad announced last month, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra may spring a surprise.

But that is as close as it will get.

With the exception of Chand’s ongoing hyperandrogenism case, neither the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) nor the athletes are fighting the same battles as their international counterparts. The controversial selection of the Indian contingent is merely a precursor to the disappointing pattern of results set to follow.

The Asian Athletics Championships (AAC) in Bhubaneswar last month became a futile exercise for a few Indian athletes. Though India topped the tally with 29 medals (12 gold, 5 silver and 12 bronze), some gold medallists, who had automatically qualified for the World Championships as a result, were not included in the London-bound team.

Winners in the men’s and women’s 1,500m races, Ajoy Kumar Saroj and PU Chitra, respectively, and women’s 3,000m steeplechase champion Sudha Singh were left out of the squad by the AFI. The reason: although they had qualified for the world event by virtue of their performances in the AAC, their timings — at least in Chitra’s case — were poor in the inter-State event in Guntur later. Their show, they were informed, was worse than junior national records.

But that was not the end.

Chitra approached the Kerala High Court, which ordered the AFI and the Sports Ministry to include her in the team, but the IAAF rejected AFI’s request as it came too late. And in Singh’s case, her name was displayed on the IAAF website though she was not part of the squad. The IAAF eventually struck off her name.

In an open letter, AFI president and former Olympian Adille Sumariwalla wrote, “All athletes were informed by secretary, AFI, that they must participate in the inter-state Championships in Guntur and if they do not perform close to the IAAF qualifying standards, they will not be considered by the selection committee for selection for the World Championships.”

While that was his justification for dropping Chitra, Sumariwalla said Singh was not considered since she skipped the inter-State event. “It was informed to all athletes including medal winners from AAC 2017 who did not attain IAAF World’s QM (qualification mark) that it was mandatory for them to compete and get at least close to QM for being considered for selection.”

While the ground rules for qualification themselves seem contradictory — continental event winners get automatic qualification, but their timings can be way off the qualification standards — the logic of preventing athletes from participating because they will embarrass the country is just bizarre. Won’t participating in a world event improve the athlete and make him or her aware of the level of competition?

In 2016, 19-year-old Neeraj Chopra appeared from nowhere with his javelin and sent a throw so far that it fetched him the world under-20 gold as well as the junior world record. This was his throw of 86.48m in Bydgoszcz, Poland. His consistency fetched him golds at the Federation Cup as well as at the AAC, with throws hovering around the 86-m mark, which would have been good enough for a medal in the last edition of the World Championships in 2015.

But at the IAAF Diamond League meet in Monaco a week ago, Chopra finished seventh with a sub-78m throw. The poster boy of Indian athletics doesn’t have a coach, but has praised the efforts of the AFI in giving him the right exposure. His rivalry with former national record holder Davinder Singh Kang has meant both athletes will be part of a strong field in the men’s javelin competition.

Saroj, Chitra and Singh may have felt hard done by all that happened, but the rest of the Indian contingent will have to shake off the confusion and focus on the job at hand. And they might find inspiration in Chopra, who is quietly hoping to surprise the German favourites. For now, even a place in the finals in any of the events appear a step in the right direction.

Tanmoy Mookherjee is a Delhi-based sports writer

Published on August 04, 2017



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