Optimism is a quality that is never lacking in Indian athletics. Since around the Sydney Olympics in 2000, one had been hearing about the chance of many Indian athletes making the Olympics finals and a few even pulling off a sensational medal.
Nothing much happens, though, in the end except for the odd athlete making the final. This time, however, there is genuine hope that javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra would end the medal drought. The 2016 World junior champion, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games champion, thrust into the cauldron of Indian hopes, has an arduous task even in a modest field where one German, Johannes Vetter, towers over the rest while the rest looks beatable.
Olympic forecasts can often go horribly wrong, especially in Indian athletics. The weight of expectations might crush an athlete, nerves begin to jangle, everything might not fall into place from then on. Lack of form might force a few to “experience” a streak of fouls in field events or to mention “niggles” if not major injuries. Covid-19 and the resultant lack of competitive exposure is a readymade excuse this time.
Chopra has the credentials to go for a medal which if it materializes would be Independent India’s first in athletics. Despite the lack of competitions in a heavily disrupted season because of the pandemic, the national record holder has expressed optimism that he would be able to do well in Tokyo.
German Vetter is the odds-on favourite in javelin. Seven throws of 90-metre-plus this season give him a psychological advantage over the rest from which defending champion Thomas Rohler of Germany and a couple of other big names would be missing because of injuries.
Barring injury, Vetter should dominate. The rest including Chopra could be a toss-up to fill in the podium places. There are no clear favourites for the lesser medals. Pole Marcin Krukowski and 2012 Olympic champion Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad and Tobago have gone over 89.00m, past Chopra. The Indian’s curtailed European programme and a dip in performance after his 88.07 national record at Patiala have contributed to some uncertainty regarding his form. A medal for Chopra cannot be taken for granted.
India’s second entry in javelin, Shivpal Singh slumped to 77.31m in the inter-state meet in June and would not be a serious contender even for a place in the final. He had acquired qualification through an 85.47m effort at Potchefstroom, South Africa, in 2020. His best (86.23m) had come in the Asian championships in Doha in 2019 where he took the silver.
If Chopra’s performance in Tokyo would be keenly awaited in the hope that an athletics medal comes India’s way, at last, it would be futile to expect a medal in any of the other events, notwithstanding the hype that has been created in the media and the social media.
It is customary for Indian athletes to talk about a place in the final or to aim for a medal. That could be their way of pepping themselves up. But a single performance, say a 66m-plus by discus thrower Kamalpreet Kaur or an 8.26m by long jumper M. Sreshankar should not have led to medal projections.
Their medal chances look very slim. The top woman discus throwers of the world have shown consistency through the years while Kamalpreet’s is a new-found status at sixth in the world lists this season. Her national record of 66.59m at Patiala in June was as surprising as her previous best of 65.05m in March. Till then she could show only a 61.04 in 2018 as her top mark.
An Olympic year is often peppered with national records in India. Hopes are raised in domestic competitions but almost everything falls flat in the Games eventually.
Seema Punia, out of competition since the 2018 Asian Games, abruptly came into focus as a possible contender for an Olympic spot in discus. She did 62.64 in her first meet, made a surprise dash to Minsk for the Belarus National, managed just 58.62m there as against the Olympic qualification of 63.50m. She rushed back to Patiala for the last day of inter-State competition and qualification deadline (June 29) and promptly went onto record a 63.72m that ensured her fourth Olympic appearance. At 36 this could be her last chance to make her first final which looks dim, though.
The field will have two experienced competitors in world champion Yaime Perez of Cuba (68.99m in 2021) and two-time world and Olympic champion Sandra Perkovic of Croatia (68.31m). Perkovic has thrown the discus beyond 67 metres a staggering 65 times! Dutch Jordine van Klinken, season leader at 70.22m, and American Valarie Allman have both crossed 70.0m. Van Klinken has steadily slumped since.
Sreeshankar and his father Murali look confident that he would jump around 8.35 and beyond for a medal in Tokyo, but one 8.26m jump alone might not be sufficient to portray him as a possible medal contender. His pull-out from the Nationals only added to speculation about his form.
There are others, more consistent and with better past records, who are in the fray. Greek Militiadis Tentoglu is the season leader with 8.60m, but American JuVuahgn Harrison (8.47m) , also a top-class high jumper, Cuban John Miguel Echevarria (8.38m) and world champion Taje Gayle of Jamaica (8.29m) look equally formidable.
Other strong contenders would be American Marquis Dendy (season-best 8.38m) and Cuban Maykel D’Masso (8.39m), world junior champion in 2016. Also in the field would be Japanese Yuki Hashioka, the 2018 World junior champion, who registered a personal-best 8.36m in the National championships in Osaka in June.
In the last Olympics, India had concentrated much on the 4x400m relays, always under the mistaken notion that the teams were capable of winning medals, but this time around those calculations have gone completely awry.
The women’s 4x400m team, despite two years of preparations, has almost disintegrated following the inability of Hima Das to run the 400m. Two of the better runners from 2019, V. K. Vismaya and Jisna Mathew, failed in the trials. The team did not qualify even for Tokyo.
Perforce, AFI had to pick three inexperienced runners in V. Revathi, V. Subha and S. Dhanalakshmi (reserve) for the mixed relay. Ostensibly, injuries to a few others made the task of the federation that much tougher.
The men’s 4x400m team did better than the women’s in qualifying with 3:01.89. It would be creditable, however, if the team or the mixed one crosses the preliminaries. The women’s 4x100m team was never expected to qualify though many experts including the chief coach felt it would. It did not.
Dutee Chand who clocked a stunning 11.17s in the 100m has made it to both 100m and 200m through her rankings. She also has talked about a medal, but it would be a surprise if she makes the 100m final.
Shot putter Tajinder Pal Singh Toor crossed the 21-metre barrier with a 21.49m throw at an Indian Grand Prix and did one more 21.0m. Given his steady improvement, he can make the final in Tokyo if there is no plunge in the upward graph.
Among the others, javelin thrower Annu Rani has consistent performances to back her up in her bid to make the final while steeplechaser Avinash Sable, stricken by Covid-19 in April and also having health issues later, and 400m hurdler M. P. Jabir would find it tough to cross the first hurdle.
The big six-member racewalking team may do themselves proud to get among the top-15 placings.