When the IAAF World Championships began in London earlier this week, two events were sure. First, that the era of Usain Bolt would be coming to a legendary finish and second, India would fail to capitalise on the success it enjoyed at the recently concluded Asian Athletics Championship.
Despite having participated in every edition of the Worlds since the first one in 1983, the quantifiably extensive appearances by an Indian at this competition has not been encouraged by a medal. In all these years, Anju Bobby George’s bronze at the 1983 Games has been the only bright spot in an otherwise bleak series of participations at the Worlds. And now, we see a different trend altogether.
After consecutively notching up poor performances, three Indian athletes have attributed their dispirited presentations to injury. On August 6, Dutee Chand provided her Facebook followers with a detailed explanation as to why she failed to progress from the 100mts heats. According to her very detailed post, she claims to have been informed quite late about her inclusion in the World Championships contingent. Post the Asian Athletics Championship, she was down with a bout of viral fever and it was this tryst with an illness that, apparently, led to a timing of 12.07 seconds in the heats.
While it is widely accepted that athletes should not have to provide explanations for their poor performances to the audience rooting for them back home, the concern as to whether sickness is being used as a fall-back excuse always remains. With the month leading up the World Championships riddled with controversial tiffs between the Athletics Federation of India and the athletes, who exactly is responsible for the failure to build up on the positive performance by the team in Odisha?
Shoddy planning may be a reason. Multiple athletes who had previously been promised a berth in the contingent were suddenly told that they would not, in fact, be traveling to London. Take the case of Chithra PU whose case was argued even by the Chief Minister of her state.
Regardless of the fact that this encounter between Chithra and the AFI brought out the exceptionally shoddy state of affairs within the federation, the fact that two more athletes have claimed sickness is problematic.
Nirmala Sheoran, after shooting into the limelight following her run in Odisha, completely fizzed out at the Worlds yesterday. She finished at an unimpressive 22nd out of 24 athletes, third from the bottom. A very ordinary timing of 53.07 seconds notwithstanding, accounts of her sluggish and tired body language have been doing the rounds since the completion of her race. In a press interview after her race, Nirmala admitted to being distracted by the fact that her personal coach was not traveling with her. A Federation appointed relay coach is indeed accompanying the team but Sheoran refrained from commenting on how much positive training she had received from the coach in question.
The glaring problem here might be within the administration itself. However, athlete responsibility cannot be completely ignored. An injury, whether major or minor, has the potential to effectively change the outcome of a participation and, consequently, affect the international standing of the country. As such, it must be made completely unacceptable to even think about representing the country when one is not cent percent fit. And if an international tournament is unavoidable, explanations of weakness should not have to be the norm as is the case now.
The third athlete to cite illness was Swapna Barman. Barman’s inspiring story about how she battled conditions of dire penury to beat the odds and pursue athletics. Heptathletes in India are rare and Swapna Barman’s brilliant run at the Odisha Championships was seen as a positive remedy to that. However, she too failed to make a mark on the bigger stage.
While, as far as popular speculations go, a lack of international exposure may be an issue, a constant neglect of Barman’s lingering back problems seems to be the larger hurdle to tackle here. The onus should not completely be on the federations in cases like these. It would be completely unfair if the athletes were absolved of all responsibilities.
As things stand, Neeraj Chopra is the only remaining hope for the Indian contingent. A lack of medals was expected but the Indian contingent was also expected to fight for a competitive place at this international stage. So far, the spirit has been lacking and mediocrity has been increasingly showcased. A comprehensive system should be put into place to ensure that the best possible team is sent for such competitions in the first place.