24 days to Tokyo Olympics 2020: What will it take for India to win Olympic medals in Athletics?

Neeraj Chopra at the Commonwealth Games in 2018
Neeraj Chopra at the Commonwealth Games in 2018
D Dharmendra

The qualifying window for the Tokyo Olympics closes on 29 Jun and at the time of writing this article, 15 athletes have qualified for the Athletics events. 5 of the 15 are in racewalking events. No one can say for sure what will happen on the day of the event.

However, it is unlikely that anyone other than Neeraj Chopra has any realistic chance of winning a medal, based on their current performances and that of their competitors.

This is not to discredit any of the athletes representing India at the Tokyo Olympics. If anything, they are legitimate national heroes. In some cases, they are national record holders in their respective events, which means they are the best in India.

That is the basis for being pragmatic about India's medal chances in Athletics events, not only at the Tokyo Olympics but perhaps the Paris Olympics in 2024 as well.

Among men's events, the current Indian national records are better than the Olympic standards in the 3000m steeplechase, 400m hurdles, the long jump, the triple jump, the discus throw, the shotput*, the javelin and the 20km walk.

A Dharun, who holds the 400m hurdles record, has been sidelined in 2021 due to injury.

The 5000m Indian national record was set in 1992 by Bahadur Prasad Singh. The discus throw record is held by Vikas Gowda and the triple jump record is held by Renjith Maheshwary. Bahadur Prasad Singh, Vikas and Renjith are all past Olympians and are no longer active professional athletes.

Indian athletes at the Tokyo Olympics

At the Tokyo Olympics, India has male athletes representing it in the 3000m steeplechase, long jump, shot put and the 20km racewalk. There's no surprise there.

In women's events, the current Indian national records are better than the Olympic standards in the discus throw*, the 3000m steeplechase, the long jump and the 20km walk.

Of these, the athlete with the discus throw record - Kamalpreet Kaur - and the 20km racewalkers - Bhawna Jat and Priyanka Goswami - are all Tokyo bound.

Lalita Babar, who holds the steeplechase record, is yet to return to full-time competition. She may choose to switch completely to half marathons and full marathons where she has had success. Anju Bobby George, a former Olympian, holds the long jump record.

Tokyo Olympics - events with no qualifying standards

Indian athletes have already qualified for the mixed 4*400m relay event at the Tokyo Olympics and the men's team may still qualify for the 4*400m relay event (the women’s 4*400m relay team is in contention too, they are at the 16th spot/ranking).

The relay events don't have qualifying standards and places are assigned based on finishes in the World Championships or overall rankings. However, the medal chances of both teams at the Tokyo Olympics remain slim, barring exceptional mishaps.

That brings us back to our medal chances. We don't have a pool of athletes, all of whom, meet or beat the qualifying standards for the Tokyo Olympics. In fact, the medal chances of Indian athletes in Athletics events, even at future Olympic events (incl. 2024 Paris) itself are slim.

Until we have a pool of athletes who beat current Olympic standards, that is unlikely to change.

There are some quota places for athletes, who don't directly qualify by meeting or beating the standards, even at the Tokyo Olympics. But while those athletes may well make the trip, they are unlikely to win medals if they aren't already performing at the highest level.

This is why some countries have made the controversial decision to cull support to sports where they have athletes meeting but not beating the Olympic standards.

One or two exceptional athletes might get through sheer talent and hard work, but having a pool of athletes requires institutional and systemic support. India's support at the national level for shooting and at the state level for boxing and wrestling is welcome.

That needs to be replicated in athletics to see a significant improvement in national performances and at the Olympics.

Athletics events at Olympic events - where should India focus in the future?

Overall, India's medal tally at athletics events at the Tokyo Olympics will likely be between zero to two, at best. So what should India focus on?

For this, Avinash Sable - who's Tokyo bound in the steeplechase - offers a lot of hope and some ideas. His half marathon record of 1:00:30 is world class and he could be a contender in international events at the marathon.

Given that the Olympics and World Championships restrict the number of athletes from a particular country in any event to 3, this kind of athletic potential offers medal hopes. Avinash Sable is still young enough to manage another Olympics at least and he could go for the marathon in his next one.

By then, given the availability of top-level distance running events in India, there could be a full team of world class Indian long distance runners.

The governing bodies, including the Indian Olympic Association, could offer attractive incentives for athletes to beat Olympic standards, starting right after the Tokyo Olympics. Far too often, there is recognition for top level athletes after they have already shown that they are world class.

Shivanath Singh's national marathon record is in its fifth decade. The national record for the 10,000m is around 13 years old and the 5,000m record is almost 30 years old. These records can be broken by talented athletes with support and access to modern training methods and technology.

Once there are multiple athletes all beyond the Olympic standard who can push each other to perform better, India can aspire to Olympic medals in athletics.

Until then, we will have to do with some exceptional athletes with breakthrough performances in the absence of any coherent approach to medals at the Tokyo Olympics or beyond.

*Tajinder Pal Singh Toor's and Kamalpreet Kaur's recent national records are yet to be ratified and included in the AFI's list of records.

Edited by Rohit Mishra
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