India look to make a mark

India look to make a mark

Chinese start overwhelming favourites despite fielding a weakened squad

India look to make a mark

Indian athletics will face its biennial reality check when the 22nd Asian Championships begin at the Kalinga Stadium here on Thursday.

Four days ago, young javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra had shown the bright face of the sport in the country when he finished fifth in the Diamond League meeting in Paris. The ugly side had come to the fore just last month when his fellow-javelin thrower Davinder Singh tested positive for marijuana.

In between the bright and gloomy sides, there is an entire spectrum of competitors, some hopeful, a few tainted and some deeply desirous of proving their calibre again on the continental stage. The next four days offer them that chance as India hope to improve their recent record in Asia.
In an arena so thoroughly dominated by China – with Japan, west Asian countries and South Korea offering some challenge off and on  – it has been tough for India to make a mark. Even when they have fielded less-than full strength teams, China have proved a cut above.

It is a similar scenario here, with neither China, nor Japan nor even the gulf nations bringing their very best, as they target the World Championships next month in London. The likes of high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim (Qatar), steeplechaser Ruth Jebet (Bahrain) or triple jumper Olga Rypakova (Kazakhstan) would have added lustre to this meet but they are among those missing out this time.

Indeed, the absence of strong fields gives India hope of surpassing their tally from the last edition at Wuhan, where they won four gold, five silver and four bronze medals. Medals won’t come on a platter though at Bhubaneswar. Even in many events where they have gold medal chances, the Indians will have to be right on their toes. An additional motivation for those gunning for gold is the automatic qualification spots assured for the winners at the World Championships.

India’s best gold medal hopes are in men’s field and women’s track events. Discus thrower Vikas Gowda, despite the confusion over his entry, will be at the forefront as he bids for a hat-trick of titles. Vikas’ season’s best of 62.35 may not be huge and he has strong rivals in Iranian ace Ehsan Hadadi and Malaysia’s Mohd Irfan, who has thrown 62.55 this year. The 34-year-old Indian should be hoping to make his experience count.

Defending champion Inderjeet Singh’s positive dope test had left a void in shot put but Tejinderpal Singh Toor has stepped in with a couple of big throws this year. At 20.40M, he is the Asian leader but can he deliver on the big stage is the question as he battles Kazakhstan’s Ivan Ivanov and Asian Games champion Saudi Arabian Sultan Abdulmajed Al-Hebshi.

The Paris stint was a confidence-booster for Neeraj Chopra. With an 85.63 during the Federation Cup in Patiala and his 84.67 in Paris, Chopra has proved his consistency. Chopra’s biggest threat will come from Chinese Taipei’s defending champion Huang Shi Feng and Cheng Chao-Tsun, who threw 86.92 at the Asian Grand Prix this year.

The 400M would have been a good bet but for an injury to top quartermiler Mohammed Anas. Anas, the Asian leader, said he has recovered well but striking the form that saw him touch 45.32 earlier this season will be hard.

The hosts would eye women’s 400, 800 and 3000M steeplechase as strong avenues for gold. Nirmala Sheoran, with a 51.28 seconds, is the top Asian in the 400M this year but even if she flops, India have good prospects in the young Jisna Mathew (52.65 this year) and defending silver winner M R Poovamma (52.66).

Defending champion Tintu Luka, after her 2:02.86 at Almaty recently, has shown she has recovered from her fall during the Fed Cup. Sri Lankans Gayanthika Abeyrathne and Nimali Waliwarsha are the main challengers for Tintu but if she is fit, the Indian should be able to defend her crown.

With Jebet away and just six entries, the 3000M steeplechase field is perfect for Sudha Singh while shot-putter Manpreet Kaur (SB: 18.86) and javelin thrower Annu Rani (61.86) have talked big. Can they walk the talk against strong Chinese opposition will be the big question. Even as they tackle that poser, India can sneak in a gold or two from the relays and in heptathlon --  if Swapna Barman continues her rise.

The weather has been cloudy and the high humidity could trouble the challengers from abroad. Home advantage they call it and India might cash in on that too as they look to troop out with a big haul.

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