As a sport, athletics is sublime. In the Olympics, it transcends into a gladiatorial stage without blood where stupendous human feats are enacted live, in front of millions without any retake. It’s a stage where heroes like Norway’s Karsten Warholm are thrown into the realm of greatness, where American Rai Benjamin symbolises the indomitable spirit of human pursuance and Brazil’s Alison Dos Santos the supporting act. First two smashed the 400m hurdle world record set by Warholm last month. The beauty of athletics lies in such superhuman efforts.
Away from that narrative, tucked in the other corner, is the dismal show of our athletes. Barring a few, most who qualified failed to perform their personal best or even their season’s best. Going by past records, it’s nothing surprising. All on predictable lines. Perhaps, the real picture was obscured by the jingoistic narratives after they qualified. Avinash Sable is an aberration. In the 3000m steeplechase he managed a national record. And of course, the unheralded Kamalpreet Kaur, competing alone without the luxury of a coach, finished sixth in a rain-marred discus throw final.
Take for instance, Annu Rani. At one point of time before the Olympics, she was touted as one who could make the final if not challenge those medal winners in the women’s javelin. She was ranked somewhere around 11th on the World Athletics’ Race to Tokyo ranking early this year. She slipped to 18 when the Olympics qualification period ended. She managed just 54.04m. Her season’s best is 63.24, a national record in March (Federation Cup senior nationals in Patiala), bettering her own mark of 62.43m. And she was training under legendary javelin thrower and coach Uwe Hohn.
Same with shot-putter Tajinder Pal Singh Toor. The burly shot-putter was fit and throwing in the range of 21m. The qualification for the final was set at 21.20m, 0.10m more than the qualifying standard for Olympics and below his national record of 21.49m set during the Indian Grand Prix 4 in Patiala in June. In Tokyo he managed only 19.99m and finished 13th in his group and 24th overall in the 31 player field. Similarly, Dutee Chand went into the Olympics with a season’s best of 11.17s during the Indian Grand Prix where some great timings were set. She had been running around 11.51 (Indian GP 1) to 11.44 (Indian GP 2) until then. In Tokyo she managed 11.54s, way off that 11.17 she set this season.
Long jumper M Shreeshankar too was a disappointment. Like Dutee and Tajinder, his season’s best was achieved in Indian GP 4 where he touched 8.26m. Training on his own with his father in Pallakad, the young jumper could manage only 7.69m to finish 13th in the group and 25th overall. MP Jabir too is a similar story. After a high of 49.78s the during inter-state athletics meet in the later half of June, he clocked 50.71s in Olympics qualification round. With the kind of athletes that took part, there is no use discussing mixed relay results.
This has been the story for the last few Olympics. Yes, this time it had been difficult for athletes due to the pandemic. Chances to compete or train abroad were minimal. But this has been the story. With Asian Games next year, the Athletics Federation of India would be hoping to soothe the scars of Tokyo. And everyone knows, in Asia, athletics is not even as competitive as at the Commonwealth Games.
Asian Games medals are fine but we should not project Olympic performance based on Asian Games. It’s time AFI and the Sports Authority of India evaluate and find a solution rather than just change a few foreign coaches here and there. Only hope rests with javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, the only international star of India.