jueves, 24 de marzo de 2011

After Commonwealth and Asian Games breakthrough, Indian Athletes aim for Olympic Medals

Preeja Sreedharan kisses Kavita Raut after their extraordinary 1-2
 at the Asian Games 10.000 meters final.
(Adam Pretty/ Getty Images AsiaPac)

      Recently (1), Indian long distance runner Kavita Raut has made one of the bravest statements we have heard in the athletics world for a long time: along with mate Preeja Sreedharan, she feels capable of breaking the 30 minutes barrier in the 10.000, in order to win a medal at next year’s London Olympics.
       Pushed to the limits first by Lornah Kiplagat and, in the crucial stages of the race by Elvan Abeylegesse, Tirunesh Dibaba had to run an almost unbelievable Olympic record of 29:54.66 to beat the field and achieve her Olympic dream in Beijing. It was the second time ever a female athlete had dipped under 30 minutes, after Wang Junxia from China did it at the National Games in 1993. Abeylegesse, the silver medalist, also achieved this feat, setting a new European best.  Two more women have joined this exclusive club since:  Meselech Melkamu, who improved Dibaba’s brand African record, after running 29:53.80 in Utretch in 2009, and Meseret Defar.  Long distance legends as Derartu Tulu, Paula Radcliffe, Fernanda Ribeiro or Ingrid Kristiansen could never manage those magical figures. Tirunesh Dibaba is precisely cited by the Indian athletes as her inspiration for running.  Yet, now they look forward to competing against Ethiopian and Kenyan runners in order to beat them. 
        Raut is not the only one Indian athlete feeling optimistic about her chances for the Olympics.  Akkunji Chidananda Ashwini, one of the leading heroines of the marvelous Indian team who shocked the athletics world at last Commonwealth Games and Asiad, claimed last December she expects to improve enough in her technique to be in contention for the gold medal in London in the 400 meters hurdles event.(2) Besides, along with her 4x400 mates, Mandeep and Manjeet Kaur and Sini Jose, promise to work hard to shorten the distances between the Indian relay and the best teams in the world such the American, Jamaican or Russian.  She believes they have a good chance of climbing on the podium, provided everyone in the “awesome foursome” can cut down her PB to a timing under 51 seconds. (3)
Dreaming is free of course but the question is as follows: 
How seriously can be taken Kavita Raut and A.C. Ashwini self-assertions?  

               Apart from Field Hockey, India’s curriculum in the Olympic Games is not really what you can expect from a nation, which population surpass one billion people.  Since their independence in 1947 they have not won a single track and field medal. Their only one at global level was obtained by long jumper Anju Bobby George at 2003 Paris World Championships.  However, India happened to be host of the XIX Commonwealth Games and, suddenly, their athletes, who have carried for decades a deserved reputation of complexed underperformers where it really mattered, have radically transformed themselves  into fearsome opponents no matter who the enemy is. The 101 medals overall tally, including 38 gold, are eloquent enough. In athletics, only surpassed by shooting and wrestling in results, a 52 years drought was broken by no less than a clean sweep of the medals in the female discus throw, followed by the groundbreaking exploit of the four girls who ran the 4x400 meters relay. 
       The Asian Games, held in Guangzhou one month afterwards, ratified and increased the sensational impression the Indian athletes had produced between amateurs and specialists. Three out of four individual champions demolished their previous PBs to beat effortlessly an on paper superior field, and the relay closed again in apotheosis a brilliant collective performance, which placed them ahead a powerhouse as Japan in the final ranking. All the athletics world was wondering about the secret of this amazing progression.  "Systematic training, hard work and strong support from the government", stated the brand 10.000 meters Asian champion Preeja Sreedharan. (4)

Sudha Singh, in fierce battle against Chinese Yuan Jin for the 2010 Asiad gold
(Mark Dadswell/ Getty Images AsiaPac)
       Certainly, no one can blame Indian athletes about their effort and sacrifice.  In a preparation based in exhausting long stages at training camps, Ashwini said she could not meet her family for one year, Raut for two and so on. Commonwealth champion Krishna Poonia had even to be far away from her 8-year old son for a long period.  The discus thrower had to pay by her own means her training in the US since the authorities did not approve her petition of assistance. This negative fact, not at all the only one, calls into question the strong supportive government actions which Preeja talked about.
At least, the AFI (Athletics Federation of India) had finally agreed to engage some prestigious foreign coaches as Belarus Nikolai Snesarev and Ukrainian Yuri Ogorodnik.  Much of the credit for recent Indian Athletics victories must be given to them.  Snesarev, a former assistant in the Soviet Union national team for more than ten years, arrived in 2005 to take in charge Indian athletes. Also a man with good knowledge in therapeutic massage and sports medicine, his plight to improve the chaotic and deficient conditions in which his trainees have to function has not really work out, but his committed dedication and tough discipline have contributed enormously to the steady progress of national middle and long-distance standards. Yet, the Indian performances at Osaka and Beijing Olympics were still poor, but he had stated time was needed for a visible improvement. Now, six years after his first  lessons, the time to reap the fruits has come. (5)   
Among the three Indian long distance medallists at 2010 Asian Games, Preeja Sreedharan was the one who started working with Snesarev since the very beginning.  In her first international outing she already had established a new 10.000 meters national record of 33:48.45 for fifth place in the 2006 Doha Asian Games.  Then, she improved to 32:04.41 in 2008, and competed in the Olympic Games, where she finished 25th.  Kavita Raut, followed on her steps, winning medals at the 2009 Asian championships in both 5000 and 10.000 distances, before grabbing a remarkable bronze in the Commonwealth Games, after experienced Kenyans Momanyi and Changeiywo, while Sreedharan finished 7th.  Then came the exciting race where they revealed themselves to the world. 

Harwant Kaur, Krishna Poonia and Seema Antil,
on the podium, after completing a clean sweep of the discus throw medals
for India at the Commonwealth Games.
In a superbly executed strategy, really a Tirunesh-Dibaba-like one, Preeja and Kavita left the Japanese and Bahraini athletes lead. Running effortlessly in the bottom they always seemed, though, in full control of the race, and this impression was confirmed when, with just 200 meters remaining, Sreedharan started a long sprint which ended in a devastating kick, romping home unopposed in 31:50.47, with Raut in her wake.  they were too much to handle for the likes of Kayoko Fukushi, 9th the year before at Berlin Worlds, Shitaye Eshete, Bahrain biggests hope for the future and a creditable 12th at last week World Cross Country  Championship, and current world marathon champion Xue Bai.  The two Indian runners looked so fresh and confident all over the race, she probably could have won the same had they been forced to run one minute faster. In the 5000 they proved again their gigantic progression, being able to hold a 15:15 pace, which meant snatching half a minute from their previous PBs.  However, this time around, they surged too late and Mimi Belete had the better of both of them. 
   Althought not as impressive in the Asiad as her 10.000 meters mates, steeplechaser Sudha Sing has earned a solid reputation, with her victory over consolidated specialists Yuan Jin and Minori Hayaraki, climbing one step on the podium from her first international outing, last year on occcasion of the Asian Championships, held in the same venue. Besides, she placed herself a splendid 5th in the Commonwealth Games, in front of a strong field. Next year, she might perfectly be in contention for a place of finalist in Daegu.  Sreedharan and Raut, after their high quality showing, will try to challenge the best, but they will need much more international exposure out of Asia if they expect to succeed in the next World Championships and Olympic Games.

Vikas Gowda, the discus throw  silver medallist at the Commonwealth Games
       Yuri Ogorodnik, also an erstwhile Soviet Union coach, is the main responsible of the extraordinary relay team who made the highlights in both Commonwealth Games and Asiad.  He has been working for Indian Athletics for about a decade and his trainees praise his knowledge and ability to motivate the runners. Ashwini Akkunji has pointed to him as the main responsible of her progression. The Karnataka girl, almost an unknown athlete until last year, made a huge improvement in the Ukrainian training camp, where the group of quarter milers prepared the Commonwealth Games, and so gained her place for the 4x400.  In Delhi, she ran an astonishing third leg, catching the Nigerian athlete that had an advantage of more than 20 meters, and delivered the baton ahead to Mandeep Kaur, who could hold the 400 meters hurdles champion of the Games, Muizat Ajoke Odumosu to win the race. In Guangzhou, Ashwini also ran the decisive leg and got a second gold medal in the 400 hurdles, a discipline she had only entered some months before.  Despite her poor technique between and over the hurdles, she covered the distance, thanks to her powerful long strides, in a good timing of 56.15, not very far away from legend P.T. Usha's 55.42 national record.  This uncut diamond, is in her very beginning and has still plenty of room to improve.  Well oriented, she might become the best Indian athlete ever. 
       Her mates in the relay, thanks to the excellent direction, enjoyable team spirit and the huge boost of confidence after their feats, should all got PBs next year.  As an indication, their timings in the Commonwealth Games were: Manjeet Kaur 52.86, Sini Jose 52.09,  Ashwini Akkunji 51.67 and Mandeep Kaur 51.15.  Manjeet's 51.05 national record is likely to be beaten by Mandeep or Ashwini soon.  The record holder is the only athlete among the team, who is not progressing (the last time she dipped under 52 seconds was in 2005) but her experience is a bonus.  Althought the 3:26.89 Indian record by Manjeet, Chitra Soman, Rajwinder Kaur and K.M. Beenamol back in 2004 Athens Olympic Games is affordable, they will need at least a 10 seconds improvement to be in contention for the medals in London.  Almost a miracle is needed, but all the AFI dedication and investments are going to be fully focused in the quarter milers chances, so who knows...
A.C. Ashwini takes the baton from Sini Jose to kill the race in the 4x400 Delhi Commonwealth final
(Michael Steele/ Getty Images AsiaPac)
       In spite of her triple medal at the Commonwealth contest, the female discus throwers are not expected to shine in London Olympics.  In the past, neither Poonia nor Harwant Kaur lived up to the expectations in major championships, when the discus discipline was in its biggest crisis ever. Antil could not even qualify for Beijing. Now, a young generation has renovated at last the event and the standards are getting up again, making much more difficult than before the way to the medals.  Sandra Perkovic, Nadine Muller, Yarelis Barrios, Dani Samuels or the top Chinese are out of reach for the Indian discus throwers, as the Asian Games contest proved. Nor seem to be consistent enough Prajusha or Mayookha Johnny to take the relay from Anju Bobby George, and the Combined Events are languishing lately.  
       Among the men, veteran Joseph Abraham did his job right at the Asian Games and, as consequence, beat the Japanese favourites, who underperformed.  However to ask him for more than a semifinal in Daegu and London seems too much. Asian Championship winner last year, Om Prakash Singh, a 20 meters shot putter, could not grab any medal this time; neither did new hope, Saurabh Vij.  On the other hand, Discus thrower Vikas Gowda, after many dissapointing finals, showed consistency in 2010 Commonwealth and Asiad, delivering in both contests a good 63 meters throw for second and third respectively. He will try to keep the streak.  Also recovering from some horrible years is triple jumper Renjith Maheswary, back to 17 meters, and bronze medallist at the Commonwealth with a new national record.  He is right now the most likely male Indian candidate for an Olympic final. Watch out also for the progression of the 4x100 relay, third at the Commonwealth with a national record, and one of the five Asian teams, who have already achieved the Daegu standard.

P.T. Usha with her protegee Tintu Luka at the Athletics school she owns
 in Koyilandi  (Photo H. Vibhu)

        The great Pillavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha would not forbid us if we forgot the apple of her eye, the brave Tintu Luka.  Usha can easily be considered the best Indian athlete all time.  She is claimed to have won more than 100 international titles, including four 400 meters straight titles in the Asian Games and a record five golden medals and  one bronze at 1985 Jakarta Asian Championships.  Yet, she is best remembered  for the bronze medal she missed by just one hundredth of a second at 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games in the 400 hurdles event.   
         The same sheer determination which brought her to the top in her career as athlete is present now in her new task of manager and coach in the Athletics school she had  created in 2002 in Koyilandi, Kerala. With the intention of producing the Olympic champion she could never be, Usha is nurturing the new talents from her region, with little help from government and private foundations, finding the same obstacles she had to overcome as a young runner. (6) Yet, one of her protegees is already making an impact in the international scene:  Tintu Luka, who she still remembers coming for the first time to her school "a fragile and undernourished girl, yet aggressive." (7) The new pupil resulted as hard-worker and determined as her coach was, and steadily became the best 800 runner of the country, as she overshadowed Sinimole Paulose. 
      This one, from Snesarev stable, was the Indian middle distance reference between 2006 and 2008, along with sadly untimely retired Pinki Parmanik, with several medals at Asian level.  She had won the winter Area championships in both 800 and 1500 distances and thus made the standard for Doha world indoors, but was not selected, shifted instead to a regional championship.  During the summer, Paulose could not qualify for Beijing and from then on she is not delivering what was expected from her.  Luka will be perhaps luckier. Usha got her to compete in several European meetings last year and she did it in a bold front running.  In the second of them, the Continental Cup, she finished in a well-deserved 5th place,  timing 1:59.17, to beat Shiny Wilson's old national record. 

Joseph Abraham, the 400 hurdles Asian gold medallist
(Adrian Dennis/ AFP/ Getty Images)
          A hot favourite for medals in both Commonwealth and Asiad, she fell a little short, paying her suicidal pace (57.49 mid race) in the end, to finish only sixth in Delhi; while in Guangzhou (a bit slower, 57.82) she grabbed a bitter-sweet bronze medal.  As a comparison, Semenya was timed in a 56.86 first lap at Berlin World Champinships, to achieve an ultra fast 1:55.45. Indeed, the day Tintu Luka will be able to control her explosiveness and maintain the pace until the end, she will be no more "the rabbit" of the race but a terrific outsider.  
      P.T. Usha's lifetime experience is the most evident example that succes in athletics has always been achieved in India thanks to the tenacity of some commited individuals, athletes and coaches.  Furthermore, the same lacks have been blocking athletics progress for decades, due to the government and sportives authorities weak dedication to overcome them. (8) Usha or Snesarev athletes are still forced to train on muddy tracks. There are very few sport nutritionists or sport doctors availaible. Coaches are not specialised enough and take wrong decisions (Usha makes them responsible of not winning an Olympic medal, because they discovered too late her athletics byotipe fitted best for the 400 hurdles). The top athletes are rarely sent out of Asia to face the best world specialists and they do it for the first time at World championships and Olympics level, where they pay the price of this wrong. Meanwhile, their agenda is filled with uncountable and strenous local meetigs they can not avoid. Finally, improvisation dominates it all.
        Poverty is cited as main reason for these pitiful conditions in which coaches and athletes must work.  Yes, we know Kavita Raut, as a child, had to walk 2 kilometers out of her village to fetch water for her family  and she just entered athletics "to get to see big cities", before setting more ambitious targets as "beating Tirunesh Dibaba at the Olympics". (1) And we also know the amazing story of A.C. Ashwini's parents, who could not see her daughter victory at the Commonwealth, because they were too busy trying to keep their house safe from flood danger.  But there is not poverty in Ethiopia and Kenya?  However, in those African countries, athletics is the number one sport and, in India government, private sponsors and audience seem to just worry about cricket. (9) Only the railway, police and army are commited in investing some money in our sport, through employment.  No wonder many talented runners quit athletics once they have secured a job in one of the three institutions above. (8)   

Indian athletes training in Kochi under the supervision of Nikolai Snesarev
www.thehindu.com        Photo: file
       And, now that the athletes have become some sort of national heroes after their exploits last year, are things up for a change?
      Ashwini Akkunji,  is used to interviews lately.  In one of them, she hurried in  pointing at the necessity of improving sports infraestructure in the country, comparing its precarity with the excellent equipment and facilities China could provide for the Indian athletes training in Guangzhou, prior to competing in the Asian Games.(10) She also said how important would be for them to participate in global meetings as the Diamond League ones, in order to acquire experience and competitiveness for the Olympics.  On the other hand, Sudha Singh profited her chance to chat with Congress President Sonia Ghandi to promote Nikolai Snesarev renewal as national coach. 
             Just a couple of months afterwards, Ashwini is again in the spotlight but this time is to talk about her big troubles to find sponsorship for her meetings abroad next summer. Also Sudha Sing says she is not competing anymore for Uttar Pradesh because she has been ignored by the local authorities and "enough is enough", in similar terms to P.T. Usha last year, when she complained about not being invited to assist to the Commonwealth Games.  Besides, there is the ridiculous situation of the athletes, already concentrated in their training camp of Patiala, waiting for more than one month for their foreign coaches, who also are in their countries waiting for a new contract and new visa. (11)
        Then, in the middle of this craziness, the sports minister Ajay Maken, unveils an ambitious program to bring more medals in the Olympic Games called "Operation excellence London 2012". (12)  The efforts will be focused in 16 disciplines, among them Athletics.  Travels to compete abroad will be scheduled and, of course, foreign coaches Nikolai Snesarev and Yuri Ogorodnik, who helped India to achieve historic performances at the Commonwealth Games will be engaged again...

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