With just days to go for the qualification deadline for the Rio Olympics, triple jumper Renjith Maheshwary suddenly set a national record of 17.30 metres at the Indian Grand Prix in Bangalore. At that point in time, his jump was the third best in the world in 2016. In Rio, Maheswary finished 30th. Yet, his sudden return to form had triggered talk of a top-six finish at the Games. Some even went to the extent of naively uttering ‘medal’.
Recalling one of the many false dawns in Indian track and field is a timely reminder of how Indian athletes have often peaked at home but flopped when it mattered. The qualification period for the World Championships in Doha ends in less than a fortnight and athletes are scrambling to get their names into the Indian squad list.
There are two competitions lined up for athletes to make a final dash for Doha with the deadline looming, the first being the 59th National Inter-State championships in Lucknow from Tuesday, followed by the sixth leg of the Indian Grand Prix in New Delhi, pencilled back into the calender last week to provide a lifeline. Going by past trends, if there is a sudden surge in performance by some of the country’s leading athletes, it should be seen as par for the course.
In all, 17 individual athletes have met qualifying standards or won gold at the continental event – Asian Athletics Championships – to guarantee an entry at the World Championships. Some of them have been laid low with injury in the intervening period, such as Asian Games 400 metre hurdles silver medallist Dharun Ayyasamy (shin injury), while India’s brightest star, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra underwent an elbow surgery.
Others who had promised much have gone off the boil, like Anjali Devi (400m). So sudden was Anjali’s implosion, after posting an impressive 51.79 seconds at the Open Nationals in Bhubaneswar last September that she was dropped from the national camp. She is not the only one who has struggled to maintain form ahead of the prestigious event in Doha. A sport swooning in a heady mix of medals at the 2018 Asian Games and the Asian Athletics Championships earlier this year is set for a sobering knock in a little over a month.
The elite 400m runners have been whisked away to lengthy foreign camps in Portugal and Czech Republic.
They have been competing on the European circuit but erratic performances make it difficult to gauge their current form. Hima Das, the world junior champion and an Asian Games silver medallist in the 400m, hasn’t been able to qualify yet, despite picking up half a dozen gold medals in low-key events abroad in 200m, 300m and 400m. The 45-day break she took in February-March to study for her Class 12 examinations is touted as the reason for her slower timings.
Hima will be part of the women’s 4x400m relay team, in the 14th spot in the World Championship qualification race, but alarm bells have been ringing in Athletics Federation of India (AFI) circles about the men’s squad precariously placed at the 16th and last available cut-off slot.
Men’s relay predicament
To guard against another team surging ahead, like Colombia did earlier this month, those part of the men’s 4x400m relay team have had to travel 6,000 kilometres from the cooler climes of their training base in Jablonec in Czech Republic to sultry Lucknow to try and improve their timings.
A group of India’s best, including Muhammed Anas Yahiya, the Asian Games 400m silver medallist, will race against teams from Maldives, Sri Lanka and Iran – participation of foreign teams is a criteria for official IAAF recognition – at the Inter-State championships. To provide the men’s relay team an additional event before the September 6 deadline, the AFI has also included the 4x400m event in the sixth edition of the Indian GP.
Medallists at Asian meets over the past year are also in a race against time to qualify. Dutee Chand, a two-time medallist at the Asian Games and a third-place finisher in the 200m at the Asian Championships is yet to meet qualifying standards. She won a historic gold at the World University Games in the 100m last month, but will have to better her national record to join the Indian squad heading to Doha.
Triple jumper Arpinder Singh, the Asian Games gold medallist, will be one of the stars hoping to excel at the Inter-state championships. The qualification standard for the World Championships is set at 16.95m. For inspiration, he needs to only look back at Maheshwary’s form-defying jump two years ago.