How difficult is it for an Indian athlete to qualify for the Olympics?

Hima Das. Getty Images

How difficult is it for an Indian athlete to qualify for an Olympic event these days? If one were to just go by how high the qualification standards have been raised, the answer is pretty darn difficult.

Take the women's long jump, for example. Indians harbouring any hope of qualifying directly for Tokyo next year had to clear a distance of 6.82m. For context, that is just 1cm less than the national record set by Anju Bobby George, which has stood for the past 15 years. In 2018, the best jump recorded by an Indian was Nayana James' 6.51m - a good 31cm off the Olympic standard.

"The qualifying standards are very high, probably the highest it has ever been," admits Anju. "It's almost like you have to make a national record to qualify for the Olympics."

If anything, the task facing women long jumpers is easier than most other events, in that the Olympic standard is (marginally) less than that of the Indian national record. Out of the 43 track and field events for which qualifying standards have been announced, qualification for 33 will require Indian athletes to set new national records. Of the 10 events for which a new national record need not be set, only two marks - Neeraj Chopra in the men's javelin throw and Hima Das in the women's 400m - have been set by athletes in the current Olympic cycle.

Will fewer Indians qualify directly?

The Olympic standards have been raised dramatically compared to what they were at the 2016 Games. In the men's distance events, for example, the times dropped from 3:36.20 to 3:35.00 in the 1500m event, from 8:30:00 to 8:22.00 in the steeplechase, from 13:25.00 to 13:13.50 in the 5000m, from 28:00.00 to 27:28.00 in the 10,000m, and from 2:19:00 to 2:11:30 in the marathon.

With standards as high as they are, Anju thinks only a handful are likely to attain them, certainly nothing close to the record 34 athletes who met Olympic qualifying standards at the 2016 Games.

"I can see Neeraj Chopra (personal best 88.06m, javelin throw qualification standard 85m) and Hima Das (personal best 50.79s, 400m qualification standard 51.30s) qualifying directly," she says.

A few others are reasonably close to the qualification standards.

"There is also a chance in the men's long jump (MS Sreeshankar, personal best 8.20m, qualification standard 8.22m) and the men's 1500m (Jinson Johnson, personal best 3.37.86, qualification standard 3.35.00) but it's only a chance."

Why is the standard so high?

While the bar seems to be raised for all athletes - the standard of 2.33m for the men's high jump was the height at which the bronze medal was won in Rio - and particularly high for Indian athletes, Anju can understand why it might be so.

"From what I know, the international federation is trying to keep a cap on the number of players who might be taking part in the Olympics," she says. "They only want the cream of the athletics field to be taking part in the Olympics."

Indeed, the IOC recently approved a measure to limit the total number of summer Games athletes to 10500 individuals across 310 events. Track and field alone has 2200 competitors in any given Olympic Games, more than a fifth of the total participants. As such, the move towards a more streamlined athletics program isn't unexpected. The IAAF is expecting fewer qualifications across events at the 2020 Games. For example, where 88 athletes had qualified for the men's 100m at the Rio Olympics, only 56 quota places are available in the same event in Tokyo.

Is there an alternate way of qualification?

While the qualification standard might be too high, Anju believes more Indians might qualify on the basis of their world rankings. Under the new qualification process, an athlete can qualify for the 2020 Olympics by either achieving the entry standard within the respective qualification period (May 1 to June 29, 2020), or by virtue of the IAAF World Ranking position in the selected event at the end of the respective qualification period.

According to the IAAF, 50% of quota places are expected to be filled by athletes meeting the entry standard while the other half is expected to be met by athletes coming through the ranking system.

Will the ranking system make it easier for Indian athletes to qualify?

The Tokyo Olympics will be the first for which athletes can qualify through a global ranking system. Qualification through the ranking system is unlikely to be easy even though the qualification period has been increased by two months (it was originally expected to begin on June 29 rather than May 1). The ranking system rewards consistency - it is determined on the basis of the average of the athletes' five best performances, with results in World Championships and Diamond Leagues having more value than those at National Championships. Indian athletes don't fare particularly well in the rankings table -- there's just one Indian athlete (javelin thrower Neeraj at fourth place) who currently figures in the top ten of the world rankings.

How can Indian athletes prepare for the changes?

Chief national coach Bahadur Singh admits Indian athletes have their task cut out for them.

"Our athletes have been performing well over the last year but they will have to do even better to match the qualification standard," he says.

While some might hope to qualify on the basis of the world rankings, Bahadur says the better option would be to try to attain the qualification standard as early as possible.

"It might seem that it's easier to qualify through the ranking system but for any athlete, the preference would be to qualify with the Olympic standard as early as possible so that they have time to prepare for the Olympics itself," he says.

He expects it might be easier for the athletes competing in the throws and jumps competition.

"If you are competing in a race, how you do depends on the quality of the field. So they will most likely have a better chance when they compete in international races like the Asian Championships or the World Championships.

"The field athletes only need to get one big throw or jump, which can come anywhere."

While they might be putting on a brave face, both Anju and Bahadur know the magnitude of the challenge the Indian athletes are up against.

"It looks tough for us but that's what the Olympics are supposed to be," says Anju.