This is how India’s elite 400 meter runners fared in the final of the men’s relay on Friday. The first two legs were completed smoothly by Amoj Jacob and Noah Nirmal Tom. Then, tragedy struck. The third-leg runner, Alex Antony, pulled up with a sore hamstring. The race should have ended at that point for the Athletics Federation of India’s ‘A’ squad – one of the three fielded by the athletics body – comprising the country’s best. But it wasn’t to be.
Perhaps at the back of his mind, as he stood waiting endlessly for Antony, anchor leg runner Muhammed Anas felt the pressure of qualifying for the World Championships.
The Indian men 4×400 metre relay team’s chances hang by a thread – they are 16th, the cut-off spot in the rankings. Anas shouted out to a coach to check if he could complete a baton exchange with the athlete from the ‘C’ team of the AFI. It seems he got the nod and one of the country’s most experienced athletes, took the baton from Mohan Kumar Raja, who was not his teammate, and made a dash for the finish line. The nerves were understandable since he and the rest of the men’s 400 metre squad, integral to the success of the relay team, had travelled nearly 6,000 kilometers from Jablonec in the Czech Republic to Lucknow to try and better the Asian Games timing of 3:01.85, which has given India its current rank. Instead, Friday’s race turned out to be an ill-timed debacle as the team sheet showed ‘DNF’ (Did Not Finish) against the AFI’s best squad.
The men’s 4×400 metre relay event on the final day of the National Inter-State Athletics Championships was as comical as it was tragic with injury, DNFs and a bizarre baton exchange. Of the eight teams which started, there were four DNFs and one disqualification. Sri Lanka, one of the two foreign teams running here, the other being Maldives, won gold (3:11.40) while Kerala and Delhi took silver and bronze respectively. India’s rank remained stuck at 16. AFI officials will have one eye on the results of the relay to be held later on Friday evening at the African Games in Rabat in Morocco. If one of the teams run faster than India did at the Asiad, it will make qualification tougher.
There is an additional lifeline with the relay event added to the sixth edition of the Indian Grand Prix to be held on September 5 in Patiala. The capital was the venue for the GP, but because conditions could be as sultry in Delhi as it is in Lucknow, the venue has been shifted.
The AFI, worried about a country leap-frogging India at the last minute with a September 6 deadline looming, is at its wit’s end hoping the team is not left in the lurch. The men quarter-milers were to continue training at Jablonec, from where they would travel to Doha for the World Championships. Colombia sprung a surprise with 3:01.14 earlier this month.
Spooked by the possibility of the men’s relay squad missing out despite investing lakhs of rupees on training at multiple venues abroad, including in Poland and the Czech Republic, the AFI called the team home to participate in Lucknow and Patiala.
“Actually, the race didn’t end well but till Alex Antony had the injury, we were in the range to post a very good time,” Anas said adding that he took the baton from the ‘C’ team runner just to finish the last leg of the race. “I knew we would not get a timing but I decided to just run.” The form of the runners who form the core of the men’s relay team has been a cause of concern and top AFI officials, the athletes and coaches had held a review meeting in Lucknow on Tuesday.
“We called back the men 400 metre runners from the Czech Republic to make the relay team’s position safe in the rankings. It didn’t work out today. Actually, we could have made it but the third runner could not finish and that was unfortunate. Alex Antony was in the camp abroad but he was sent back because he was not showing much improvement. However, after coming to India he was improving (timing),” AFI’s deputy chief coach Radhakrishnan Nair said.