A late pull-out by Ranchi, notwithstanding, India have managed to put in place top-class facility in short time and is set to roll out the 22nd edition of Asian Athletics Championships here tomorrow, with the hosts aiming for a top three finish in the medal standings. More than 800 athletes from 45 countries will descend at this Odisha capital to compete in 42 events in the championships, which is coming to India for the third time after New Delhi and Pune hosted it in 1989 and 2013. As has been the case with every edition, some of the continent’s top stars will skip the championships, robbing some sheen out of the biennial continental flagship event.
With the World Championships also happening in the same year, many top athletes have decided to skip the event. China, which is fielding more than 50 athletes, has come without their top triple jumper Dong Bin, an Olympic bronze medallist and hammer thrower Zhang Wenxiu, who also won a silver in Rio Games, besides some other stars.
Another Asian athletics powerhouse Qatar, which has finished second in the last edition, has not sent long jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim, who recently won a gold in the Doha leg of the prestigious Diamond League in its small 10-member team. Other important absentee include Bahrain’s Rio Olympics gold medallist Ruth Jebet (3000m steeplechase), Kazakhstan’s woman triple jumper Olga Rypakova (bronze in Rio) and Japan’s teen sprint sensation Abdul Hakim Sani Brown.
The Asian Championships will still see 14 athletes defending their titles, including Rio Olympics gold medallist hammer thrower Dilshod Nazarov of Tajikistan. The event also has an added significance as the gold medal winners will get automatic berth for the World Championships to be held in London in August.
Despite some of their top stars not taking part, China is expected to continue their domination. Japan, which has fielded over 50 athletes and the 23-member Korean team would also vie for top five spots. High jumper Zhang Guowei, the silver medallist from Beijing World Championships two years ago, will lead the Chinese challenge. Asian record-holder Li Ling will also aim to achieve a ‘hat-trick’ of titles in women’s pole vault.
Qatar’s 10-men team is led by Femi Ogunode, the fastest man in Asia. 400m hurdles sensation Abdulrahman Samba, who won the gold in the Doha leg of Diamond League in May with a timing of 48.44 seconds, is also in the team. Though minnows at the world stage, India is still a heavyweight in Asian athletics as it is the third most number of medal winner of all time behind China and Japan in the Asian Championships and has fielded its best available team of 95, including 46 women, the biggest contingent of all nations.
India finished third in Wuhan in the last edition with 13 medals (4 gold, 5 silver, 4 bronze) but this time they are expected to increase the count with more gold in its kitty. The federation is expecting anything between 15 to 20 medals with gold count at least five. India’s best ever performance was in the sixth edition in Jakarta in 1985 with 22 (10 gold, 5 silver, 7 silver) medals.
Important gold medal prospects include Neeraj Chopra (men’s javelin throw), Manpreet Kaur (women’s shot put, Muhammd Anas (men’s 400m) and women’s 4x400m relay race. Lalita Babbar, who won a gold in women’s 3000m steeplechase in the last edition, was not named in the Indian team as she got married recently.
Ranchi was to host the biennial continental flagship event but in March they expressed the inability to do so due to financial reasons and Athletics Federation of India had to run around before Bhubaneswar agreed to stage the event.
Odisha government took up the challenge and from the scratch erected a venue at the Kalinga Stadium with a brand new track and other facilities. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s participation was earlier in doubt but a six-member team made it to the championships after getting their visas just in time.
The opening day of competitions tomorrow may see India opening the gold account as Manpreet has the potential to grab the yellow metal in the women’s shot put after she threw 18.86m in China recently to better her own national record. Veteran discus thrower Vikas Gowda, who turned 34 today, will also be seen in action tomorrow but it will have to be seen whether the reigning champion can grab his hat-trick of titles in the Asian Championships.
Gowda, who had won gold in the earlier two editions, will have tough competition from Iran’s Ehsan Hadadi and Mustafa Alsaamah Khadim of Iraq. In the women’s long jump final, rising Nayana James is a medal contender. The same is in women’s javelin throw with Anu Rani expected to win a medal at least.
In men’s javelin, world junior record holder Neeraj will be a strong contender for the gold but he will face tough competition from defending champion Huang Shih-Feng and Chao- Tsun Cheng of Chinese Taipei. Another Indian in the fray in javelin throw is Davinder Singh Kang, who tested positive for recreational drug marijuana. He was not handed a provisional suspension as marijuana was a specified substance under the WADA Code.
In men’s shot put, Tejinder Pal Singh Toor will lead India’ challenge in the absence of last edition gold winner Inderjeet Singh, who is now embroiled in a doping saga. The home state of Odisha will be represented by sprinters Dutee Chand, Srabani Nanda, Amiya Kumar Mallick and heptathlete Purnima Hembram.