Indian athletes seek to redeem pride in Olympics

London: Indian track and field athletes begin their campaign in the London Olympics Friday, seeking to redeem their reputation, which lay in tatters due to the doping scandal that marred their splendid show in the 2010 Asian Games.

Indian athletics was hit by the steroid doping scandal that involved six top quartermilers, including Asian Games double gold-medallist Ashwini Akkunji and her three 4X400m relay quartet members which won gold in the 2010 Commonwealth and Asian Games.

They were banned for one year by NADA but on appeal by the IAAF, their sanction was extended to two years by the Court of Arbitration for Sports in Switzerland, ruling them out of the Olympics.

A strong performance in the Olympics can redeem the reputation of the sport embroiled in doping for the past one and and half year sullying the image of athletics after India achieved unprecedented success in the Commonwealth and Asian Games.

All the 14 Indians in the fray, the second-highest ever number after 24 took part in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, will start as rank outsiders in the British capital with discus throwers Vikas Gowda and Krishna Poonia being the best bets for a podium finish.

Gowda became the first Indian to win a medal in the prestigious Diamond League series while also occupying the top spot in IAAF world rankings for a brief period in April.

He may well turn out to be a dark horse after his national record setting 66.28m throw in April in Oklahama, United States. His confidence has also been boosted after he won a bronze in the New York leg Diamond League Meet last month, the first Indian to bag a medal in the prestigious 14-leg series.

The US-based Indian, however, will have to do much better in London than his personal best of 66.28m to bag a medal as 16 other throwers are above him in the IAAF list with reigning world and European champion Robert Harting of Germany leading the pack at 70.66m.

Poonia is another one who can grab a medal and her confidence has been boosted after the national record effort of 64.76m in the United States in May. But She has carried injury for long after her historic gold in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. She is currently ninth in the IAAF rankings and will have to cross at least 65m to have a chance of winning a medal. Six throwers have crossed 67m so far in the season.

Shot putter Om Prakash Singh Karhana would kick off India`s campaign Friday at the showpiece Olympic Stadium and the youngster has been in high spirits after having trained at Szombathely in Hungary for two years. He is among those Indians who broke the national record in the build-up to the Games, with an effort of 20.69m in May.

He is aiming to at least qualify for the final round in his debut Olympics. "I can be the dark horse as I am hurling the shot put beyond 21m during training. My aim is to first qualify for the final round and then I can think of a medal. Who knows, it depends on the performance on that day and I can grab a medal. If not, I want to finish in top six," he said.

There will also be qualification rounds Friday in women`s triple jump and women`s discus throw in which Mayookha Johny and Krishna Poonia will compete respectively.

Mayookha will have a tough task at hand to qualify for the final round as she has touched the 14m mark only once after her 14.11m effort at the Asian Championships in Japan in July last year.

The surprise package in the London Olympics qualification process, though, are the walkers with four of them – Gurmeet Singh, Baljinder Singh and Irfan in 20km walk and Bahadur Rana in 50km walk – qualifying.

All three 20km walkers crossed `A` qualification standard of 1:22:30secs while Rana crossed `B` standard of 4:09:00 with a 4:02:13 effort, a national record, in the World Race Walking Cup in Russia in May.

The walkers though face a herculean task as the world leading times in 20km and 50km are respectively in the range of one hour 17 minutes and three hours 38 minutes.

Marathoner Ram Singh Yadav will have to cut several minutes from his personal best of 2:16:59 he clocked in Mumbai in January to cross the Olympics `B` standard of 2:18.00 to be among the top finishers in London.

The likes of Tintu Luka (800m), Seema Antil (discus throw), Renjith Maheshwary (triple jump), Mayookha Johny (triple jump), Sudha Singh (300m steeplechase) and Sahana Kumari (high jump) would at best aim to reach the final round.

Yadav, Maheshwary and Mayookha were cleared for the Olympics only after a fitness assessment as they took part in very few competitions in the run-up to the Olympics.

India have not won a single track and field medal in the Olympics and only five — Milkha Singh, S Sriram, Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, P T Usha and Anju Bobby George — have made it to the final round.

For the beleaguered officials of the country, who have to cope with the doping scandal, it would be an achievement if the athletes can produced their personal bests in London as they know that chances of winning a medal are remote.