A Herculean task ahead of Indian athletes

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{image-olympic kidlan stadium_14082008.jpg news.oneindia.in}Beijing, Aug 14: Spearheaded by jumper Anju George and thrower Vikas Gowda, the 17-member Indian athletic squad faces a Herculean task as they start their campaign in the Olympic Track and field events starting here from tomorrow.

Apart from Anju and Vikas Gowda, the focus of attention will be women's 4x400m relay team touted as a medal hope. Once again, India will be looking forward to Anju George to bail it out in athletics. She had recorded an opening jump of 6.83 metres in Athens, but could not go beyond that, finishing sixth. That mark has remained the national record. That was easily the best year for the jumper.

The Indian hasn't had a great season after that, though she won the silver at the World Athletics Final in 2005. Subsequent years proved rather ordinary, with just a ninth place in the World Championships last year in Osaka.

This year the Chennai based Custom officer has not gone past 6.55 metres, a mark she recorded at three different meets. Both Anju and husband-coach Bobby George are, however, confident.

A place in the final is not being viewed as a tough task and Anju hopes that she would make this the ''most memorable moment'' of her career.

This is easier said than done. The season's list is headed by Portuguese Naide Gomes (7.12) with Brazilian Maurren Higa Maggi (6.99) and American Britney Reese (6.95) following the Russians, defending champion Tatyana Lebedeva (6.88) and Athens bronze medal winner Tatyana Kotova (6.86) should still be strong contenders for medals.

Anju will probably need more than 6.60 metres to qualify, though women's long jumping standards this year have remained rather low, giving some hope to the Indian star. A medal from her will be a big surprise.

Besides Anju, the only other real contender for a place in the final should be US-based Karnataka discus thrower Vikas Gowda.

The 25-year-old North Carolina (US)-based star has a season best of 64.83 at Salinas, California, where winds help the throwers, but more importantly, he also had a fourth-place finish with 63.84 in the Reebok Grand Prix in New York.

In 2004 Athens Olympics Gowda had missed a place in the final quite narrowly and it will be an achievement for this former NCAA champion to make it this time to give shape to his potential that has been talked about for the past six years.

Renjith Maheswary, in men's triple jump, had hit a 'low' towards the end of last season and he has not come out of that spell this season.

The Kerala jumper has been boasting of keeping his 'best' for the Olympics, but then it is to be seen what his best would eventually turn out to be. He had set a national record of 17.04 in Guwahati last year, but his best this season is only 16.53 metres.

The long distance hope, Preeja Sreedharan will figure on the opening day. Her qualification, with a National record of 32:04.41 in England in itself was a surprise. A top 20 finish in a field of 32 will be a good effort by this 26-year-old Kerala woman.

The other long distance star in the squad is Surendra Kumar Singh, who had created a sensation this year by bettering Hari Chand's 32-year-old National record in the 10,000 metres.

He bettered that further while qualifying for the Olympics, timing 28:02.89 in Vigo, Spain. Like Preeja, he will also have a tough task in placing high, but one point that might go in favour of the Indians would be the heat and humidity levels in Beijing, something that they are used to back home.

There are expectations in the Indian camp of women discus throwers Krishna Poonia and Harwant Kaur making it into the final and the heptathletes, three of them in fact, J J Shobha, Susmita Singha Roy and Pramila Aiyappa, ending with a decent placing.

Shobha had finished 11th four years ago.

The discus throwers have shown a deterioration in performance as they neared the Olympics, while the last-minute qualification of Pramila and Susmita, at Bangalore, had come as some sort of surprise.

Many have been talking about the women's 4x400 relay for the past several months and the hope expressed by Sports Minister M S Gill that he would be very happy to see the team get a medal or even make the final should have given a big boost to the team.

It is surprising that so much attention is on the relay team which had to struggle to qualify is being considered as medal prospect.

The relay squad with unbelievable performance of 3:28.29 in the second leg of the Asian Grand Prix circuit in Korat, Thailand, eventually it managed to get in as the 15th best team in the world out of 16 that qualified.

Last time in Athens, the team had clocked a sensational 3:26.89, still a national record, in the heats before finishing seventh in the final.

This time, if the team makes the final that would be considered some sort of an achievement despite the fact that two Kaurs, Mandeep and Manjeet have clocked below 53 seconds, with the former clocking a personal best 51.74 seconds at Madurai, but the others are not really in the same class.

Manjeet had suffered an injury at Madurai during the inter-State championships, but is reported to be fit. Manjeet, Mandeep Kaur and Chitra Soman should form the first three, but the fourth could still be a toss-up.

Sathi Geetha, who trained separately from the main Indian team which was in Malaysia in the final preparation stage, at Hyderabad, could be the number one choice, but M R Poovamma, who disappointed in the recent World Junior Championships could also be a contender.

It is debatable whether Manjeet Kaur would be finally confirmed for the individual 400 metres. If past practice of Indian teams is anything to go by, Manjeet may find herself out of the one-lap event.


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