Indian athletics in 2019: A story of promise and hype

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BY ROHIT MUNDAYUR
New Delhi, Dec 31 (IANS)
The six medals that India had won at the 2012 London Olympics had given an air of positivity to India’s build up to Rio 2016. Several officials from the Athletics Federation of India and Sports Authority of India were quoted as predicting medals in the double digits with multiple golds. Commentators and pundits bookended the introduction of an Indian athlete with a mention of the country’s population.
And then, as has so often been the case at the Olympics, those expected to perform Fell behind. There were exceptions, and these were badminton star PV Sindhu and wrestler Sakshi Malik, the only Indian medal winners in the event.
The lead up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has similarly seen a lot of hype around Indian track and field athletes — specifically around Hima Das, Dutee Chand and Neeraj Chopra. It is important to note that neither of them have managed to qualify for the Olympics. The only individual Indian track and field athletes to have done so are Avinash Sable in the men’s 3000m steeplechase event and KT Irfan. The Indian 4x400m mixed relay team also confirmed their Olympic qualification at the Doha World Athletics Championships in October.
Hima Das and Neeraj Chopra have both been sidelined for much of the year with injuries. Hima was active for much of the first part of the year but the back injury she suffered during the 2018 Asian Games returned to haunt her.
In the time that she spent recovering from the injury, Hima won six gold medals in low-key competitions across Europe, which created a media frenzy around her. She was however dropped from the Indian contingent that travelled to Doha in September, with murmurs of mismanagement of her injury. Athletics Federation of India chief Adille Sumariwalla even said that the pressure to attend government and private functions is affecting her training going into the Olympic qualification events.
Neeraj Chopra established himself as one of the strongest contenders to win India’s first athletics Olympic medal since 1900 with a national record throw of 88.06m at the 2018 Asian Games. It would have earned him a close bronze at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
However, an elbow injury in May had led to him being completely sidelined for the better part of the year. He has recovered but parted ways with coach Uwe Hohn in November, under whom he had managed the national record throw at the Asiad. Neeraj is expected to resume his bid to make the Olympic cut from early 2020.
2019 was a year in which Dutee Chand went to places that no Indian athlete, and indeed few athletes across the world, have gone to as she revealed that she is in a same-sex relationship with a woman from her village. This coupled with her success after winning the battle against the World Athletics’ hypoandrogenism rules, makes her pretty much a trailblazer off the track.
On it, she became the first Indian woman athlete to clinch gold at the World University games in July. She also improved upon her own national record in 100m by achieving a time of 11.22 seconds. The Olympic qualification mark in the event however is 11.15s which she failed to reach at the athletics world championships.
The first Indian from athletics to qualify for Tokyo 2020 was race walker KT Irfan. The 29-year-old clocked 1 hour 20 minutes and 57 seconds in the 20km event of the Asian Race Walking Championships in March, thus going past the Olympic qualification mark of 1 hour 21 minutes.
India’s next two successful qualifications came at the athletics world championships.
Muhammed Anas, VK Vismaya, Nirmal Noah and Jisna Mathew made up the Indian mixed relay team that reached the finals of the athletics world championships and thus qualified for Tokyo 2020. They finished seventh in the final, recording a time of 3:16.14.
Avinash Sable recorded a time of 8:21:37 in men’s 3000m steeplechase event in Doha. He had made it to the final after the AFI had successfully protested stating that he had been obstructed in the heats which led to him initially failing to qualify.
Doping and age fraud remained amongst the headlines in 2019. Nearly 20 doping cases in the country came from athletics, placing it third on the ignominous list after bodybuilding and weightlifting. The biggest case came in the form of half-miler Gomathi Marimuthu, who was stripped of her Asian Championships gold after testing positive for banned substances. Sanjivani Jadhav was suspended provisionally for a doping offence while shot putter Manpreet Kaur was slapped with a four-year ban by the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) for failing dope tests held in 2017.
The National Inter-District Junior Athletics meet held in December was touted as one of the biggest talent hunt programmes in the world. It was also one in which 51 athletes were reportedly found to be overaged and 169 others fled from the competition when faced with age-verification tests.
(Rohit Mundayur can be contacted on rohit.m@ians.in)

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