Should we be excited by the performances of the Indian track and field athletes at the Jakarta Asian Games? Or should scepticism kick in like Manjit Singh in the last 50m of his 800m gold-medal winning run? For too long, scepticism has been the default option around Indian track and field. When deputy chief national coach, Radhakrishnan Nair, was quoted in a newspaper saying India could win "at least three medals" at the Tokyo Olympics, polite coughing was the appropriate response.
But should it be? Athletics Federation of India (AFI) president Adille Sumariwala offers this, "I am not saying anything except do not be surprised if we open our account." The last time this kind of a statement was believable before an Olympics Games was 2004, following Anju Bobby George's 2003 world athletics championships medal. In Athens, she jumped her personal best 6.83m, broke the national record and finished sixth. Even before Tokyo however, after the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha (September 28 to October 6), we will have a fair idea of whether Sumariwala's statement holds good.
The best way to check where Indian athletes stand on the international stage is to trawl through the IAAF's excellent data base and study their rankings on current form. The lists tabulate the year's performances and there is no surprise that javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra leads the Indians. He is 6th in the world as of date, the men's 4x400m relay team is 9th, the 4x400m women are 12th, Jakarta gold medallist triple jumper Arpinder Singh is tied 19th, Asiad 400m hurdles champion Dharu Ayyasamy is No. 22 and Hima Das is No. 23.
In his two-part blog, veteran sports journalist KP Mohan, an authority on athletics has further broken down the Jakarta performances of 29 leading Indian athletes (plus both 4x400m teams) using their season's best, personal bests and Asian Games performances in co-relation to the 6th position at the 2016 Olympics. A reality check if there ever was one.
What then is there to celebrate from the Asian Games?
Athletics coach N Ramesh, who has worked with Dutee Chand for the last three years and the 4x400m women in the past, has a view. The Asian Games, he said has offered a sign of the Indian athletes "reforming themselves" to compete at the world level where "They are not afraid of anybody now." In a more quantifiable way, Jakarta has marked, he says, an "increasing (of) the event standard." He gives the example of shot put and says, "If you have to come first in India now you have to go higher than the record, it you are above 20m, you are at the Asian level already." What Jakarta has done is elevate the baseline for athletic aspiration.
Could it somehow slide back into a void of irrelevant non-performance, with national records standing still for decades? Maybe that is not an option any more. The AFI, Sumariwala says, "had given it in writing to the government that we will win between 15 and 20 medals" in Jakarta. They got to 19 with the 20th says Sumariwala, being the disqualification of Govindan Lakshmanan from his 10,000m bronze. It was he said, "completely wrong" and is still being contested. Jakarta is therefore "a beginning, a start." It gave a group of leading Indian athletes the confidence, "which was lacking earlier, that we can beat the best in the world. That we can actually stand up and compete."
The saying may be optimistic, but what Indian athletics needs now is the doing. The key components for every young athlete are simple - the right coach at a junior age, medical staff on hand with assistance (and legal supplements) for speedy recovery and injury rehabilitation, a carefully planned calendar of quality competition as opposed to a clutch of events clubbed together, which make for quantity rather than quality.
Antony Yaich, track and field head coach of the Inspire Institute of Sport established by the JSW group, says, "There is no recipe for how many competitions are perfect for an athlete to peak at an event. Every athlete could be 90% similar to another, but it's how you handle the 10% percent that will make the difference."
It is where the AFI's next steps are crucial when counting down to Tokyo 2020 (or maybe that should be Doha 2019) and Sumariwala knows it. Within a month, the AFI would like to go into a three or four day workshop with officials, coaches and medical staff. "We are looking how to make our training programmes better," he says, "enhancing our sports science so that our athletes can recover faster, we are talking about getting in a few more foreign coaches. Looking at what the temperatures will be in Doha when we compete, what they will be in Tokyo."
The list goes on: blocking places for training overseas, listing international competition and in the workshop go through "coach by coach, event by event, athlete by athlete."
From the outside, the most visible change in Indian athletics has been the willingness to spread the 'camps' across the country, rather than clump things together in NIS, Patiala or SAI, Bangalore. Over the last two-three years, the discipline-specific camps were held in Patiala, Dharamsala, Thiruvananthapuram, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, and Kolkata. Athletes' personal coaches were invited in as well, and given access to the infrastructure, living conditions, and diet available in SAI centres.
Doubts about training and preparation methods on the outside can only be responded to with performance. At the Commonwealth Games in both 2014 and 2018, a far tougher level of competition in track and field than the Asiad, India won three medals each, all in field events. At Gold Coast 2018 on the track, however, three of its six men made the finals with two national records, two of three women runners achieving their personal bests in the finals. The women's 4x400m relay finished seventh, against the top five teams in the world. (Jamaica, England & Scotland, Nigeria, Australia, Botswana) at 3:33.61. (The national record stands at 3:26.89 from the Athens Olympics heats, which sent the women into the final)
Then came the Jakarta medals, 19 to Incheon's 13 (two golds, three silvers eight bronzes). As promised. The only other promise being made now is that an Olympic medal is "no more a dream, it's a clear possibility."
Once again, it is the doing that will matter.