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Could Selection Rob India's Chance for Gold in Asian Games Women’s 4x400 Relay?

Leslie Xavier |
Formidable opponents aside, the Athletics’ Federation of India’s power play, a strange rule regarding selection and limited time to perfect the quartet could see India miss out on the top prize in the 4x400 metre relays at the Asian Games in Jakarta, all on their own.
Indian 4x400m relay team at Asian Games 2018

If the result from the mixed 4x400 relay is anything to go by, Indian women’s team, with MR Poovamma (left) and Hima Das as spearheads, will find it tough against Bahrain; while the men’s quartet will have big challenges from Japan and Qatar (Pic: IANS).

Hima Das’ stutter during the final of the 4x400m mixed relay final at the Asian Games gave the Indian athletics bosses ammunition to justify the team’s finish in second place, quite a distance behind Bahrain. They were quick to protest, in effect putting the blame on a race incident. However, when the women step on the track to defend their gold from 2014 in Jakarta for the mile (4x400m) relay final on August 30, they may have only the federation to blame for compromising their chance of putting up a fight against the rampaging Bahrainians.     

In the final of the mixed relay at the Gelora Bung Karno (GBK) Stadium on August 28, Das, running the third leg, took the baton from MR Poovamma and was just about hitting her stride, chasing Salwa Naser of Bahrain, when she was forced to sidestep into the next lane to avoid falling over Oluwakemi Adekoya, who was on the ground after the baton exchange. The Indians filed an appeal (later rejected by the jury) despite it being clear that Das may not have caught up with Naser — her nemesis from the 400 m individual final — even if she was in complete control.

Nonetheless, the race incident gave Indians an opening to pass the buck. But who or what will they protest against if they fare poorly in the women’s 4x400 race on August 30? They might have to train the guns at themselves.

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It seems, the Indians are not going into the final with the strongest possible quartet in their attempt to chase down Bahrain, spearheaded by 400m hurdles champion Adekoya and quartermile champ Naser.

Late last week (on August 24 to be exact), a trial was held at the GBK training ground in Jakarta to finalise the fourth member of the Indian women’s 4x400m relay team. Now, that’s last minute by any standards, but, you would be amazed to know that it is actually early by Indian standards.

At the Rio Olympics politics, power play and intrigue surrounded the naming of the quartet. Finally, the names were announced on the eve of the heats. In Jakarta, by contrast, at least the athletes got six days to train together.  

At the trial, VK Vismaya, with a hand timing of 52.4 seconds, defeated Jisna Mathew (52.8s) to grab the berth, joining Das, Poovamma and Saritaben Gayakwad in the team. Barring injury, India will go with this quartet.

Nirmala Sheoran, you might have noticed, is not on this list.

Sheoran made it to the final of the 400m earlier this week — finishing fourth in that race. This makes her the second fastest Indian quarter-miler at the moment. However, Sheoran, with or without the results, was always out of the reckoning in the relay squad. The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) decided that any athlete who trains away from the national camp won’t be considered for the relay quartet.

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Sheoran, the 2017 Asian champion, played a stellar role in India’s relay victory at the continental championships in Bhubaneswar last year. From an outsider’s perspective she definitely adds value to the relay quartet that will face the likes of Bahrain in the final at Jakarta.

“The federation (AFI) had said months ago that non-campers would not be in the relay team and we have decided to stick with that,” Galina Bukharina, national coach for relay runners and quarter-milers, was quoted in the Hindu following the selection trial last week. “Nirmala will not be running the relay. Saritaben, Poovamma, Vismaya and Hima Das will be running the relay.”

However, there is no explanation for the thought process behind the AFI’s decision-making. There are several dynamics at play in Sheoran’s exclusion, one which would throw open a lot of fronts for the AFI to fight as selection for the relay teams for the Asian Games — since medals are at stake — has always been a lucrative bone for stakeholders (coaches and athletes alike).

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This time round — as is the norm since she has been coaching, say multiple sources in the current athletics squad— PT Usha was keen to see her ward Mathew in the quartet. After selection, she expressed her displeasure, saying Gayakwad shouldn’t have had a direct entry into the team.

“Sarita’s best time in the 400m is 53.24s, it would have been fair if she had been asked to run in the trial too,” she was quoted in the Hindu.

There is no doubt that Usha has a point here. But, questioning an already late selection procedure at the sidelines of a major event doesn’t augur well for the great athlete, especially after her protege was pipped in the trial. Many in the athletics fraternity have alleged over the years that Usha has a history of meddling with the selection process of the relay teams, trying to push her wards in — Tintu Luka or, like this time, Mathew. Apparently, there was bad blood in the camp at the Rio Olympics as well when Usha had a power struggle with the team management regarding inclusion of Tintu into the quartet.

Usha is one among several power players in Indian athletics looking to exert their influence over the course of events. The encouraging results we have seen over the past few days will only serve to intensify this backstage competition.

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The federation, it seems, has decided to try to avoid these conflagrations by sticking to this selection prerequisite regardless of results on the track -- if you haven’t been part of the national camp, you won’t be considered for the relay.

Sheoran might have had a more receptive audience had she joined Hima Das on the 400m podium. She missed that medal by three-hundredths of a second and with that, it seems, a place in the relay team.

Sheoran’s story is also a little sketchy in the context of an anti-doping environment where athletes are expected to submit their whereabouts, at all times, well in advance. Following the IAAF World Championships in London she went off the grid for a while — training with a personal coach in Haryana and Rajasthan, while contending with “personal issues” and a bout of typhoid.

Such long absences always trigger red flags in the cynical world of 21st century athletics. Since resurfacing and qualifying for the Asian Games, though, Sheoran has been tested, including in Jakarta, and no adverse reports have been filed.  

Now that the Indians are set to hit the starting block with a weakness, the question is: do we have enough juice in the quartet to upstage Bahrain through a dream run in the final?  

That dream run would require the relay team to get the basics right, say experts. In relays, setting the order in which the runners hit the track is very important. For instance, in this current quartet, Saritaben, based on her style of running and physical and mental ability, can only be efficient in the first leg. She runs a steady race but is not very good in catching up or reacting if pushing oneself is needed. Poovamma can do either second or third leg, while Das should run the final leg.

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Ideally, Poovamma should run the second leg and Vismaya the third as the second leg is always tricky and India can’t afford to lose or give up a big lead there. Bahrain would most probably have their second fastest, Adekoya, running the second leg like they did in the mixed relay. Poovamma had trouble against her in that race.

Provided she steps on the gas, and provided Vismaya could have a great run against the weaker Bahraini running third, Das could make things tight, but only if she has a head start over Naser. That, as of now, looks unlikely but then again relays don’t actually follow logic, and, the winning team needn’t be the one with the fastest runners in them.

On the men’s side of things, India however would be hoping logic is followed. They have a very strong quartet in Muhammed Anas, Ayyasamy Dharun, Kunhu Muhammed and Arokia Rajiv, one of the fastest in the continent as of now. And it’s a well-set team, having run together in races before and broken the national record as well.

The best possible combo here would be Kunju-Anas-Dharun-Rajiv, with Anas consolidating or building the lead in the second leg, Dharun balancing it and Rajiv giving the finishing kick. They are unlikely to tinker with that formation. However, precedent suggests  anything is possible. Whatever the ending, the final couple of days of athletics action at the Asian Games promise plenty of drama.

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