Controversies have become part of Indian athletics team selection. Last year it was the composition of the women’s 4x400m relay team to the Rio Olympics that led to a row and ended up in court, with quarter-miler-cum-hurdler Anu Raghavan alleging that she was unfairly kept out of the line-up. The favourable court verdict came too late to benefit the Kerala athlete.

Things are no different this year, ahead of the World Championships in London. The rejection of three of the Asian champions at Bhubaneswar despite their legitimate rights to a World Championships slot has caused a furore. One of them, Kerala’s middle-distance runner PU Chitra went to court and got a favourable order, leaving the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) embarrassed and being accused of charges of “conspiracy” and “politics”.

PU Chitra won the gold at AAC 2017 / Image: Facebook

Chitra could not make it in the end since entry deadline was over and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rejected a request from the AFI to provide an exception. Had that been gained, it was on the cards that two other athletes who were crowned Asian champions, Ajay Kumar Saroj (1500m) and Sudha Singh (3000m steeplechase) could also have made similar demands.

The AFI could have avoided the drama and controversy had it announced months ahead of the Asian championships that winning in Bhubaneswar alone may not ensure a ticket to the London Worlds and the athletes would also be expected to return performances closer to the qualification marks set by the IAAF.

Avoidable drama

The later developments at Bhubaneswar where the AFI informed the athletes of the mandatory participation at the inter-State meet at Guntur that followed and the requirement to come closer to entry standards did not mean much since it had spurned the opportunity to advice the athletes well in advance.

The standards at the Bhubaneswar Asian meet being low in several events, especially in middle and long distance, AFI had justifiable reasons to review the performance of the champions before entering them in the World Championships. AFI chief Adille Sumariwalla said that his federation wanted to be careful after last year’s experience of a 34-member squad performing poorly at the Olympics – just one athlete, steeplechaser Lalita Babar, made the final.

AFI president Adille Sumariwalla

AFI was within its rights to prescribe stringent standards for Asian championships qualifiers for London. The problem was it didn’t fix those standards nor did it publicize the fact that winners may not be approved blindly.

When the IAAF has given an opportunity for Area champion, should AFI have intervened to block their entry? Obviously, the IAAF has kept this provision to encourage athletes from lesser-ranked nations. There can be no unanimity of views on this topic, however.

It is not India alone that has not entered some of its continental champions. Several countries have done so in various events. To give one example from the Asian Championships, Vietnam’s woman long jumper Bui Thi Thu who won the gold with 6.54m has not been entered in London. The qualification mark happened to be 6.75m. Obviously only those who have not met a particular standard expected by their federations have been excluded.

AFI has a point

World Championships is no place to provide exposure towards grooming an athlete for future in case the standards achieved in domestic meets or in a season are way below world level. Once we accept this philosophy, notwithstanding the limited opportunities that our athletes get to compete at international level, we will be able to realise the futility of entering athletes just for the sake of participation. Lesser-level meets at the regional level or in Europe could be utilized to encourage talent.

Chitra figured at 307th in this year’s women’s 1500m ranking list with her personal best of 4:17.92 (eighth in Asia) as against the qualification standard of 4:07.50 for the World Championships. Had her entry been accepted she would have figured towards the bottom among the qualifiers’ list. Her next best career timing is only 4:24.33 and she was beaten to second place (4:28.87) in the inter-state championships at Guntur, 11 days after the Bhubaneswar race, by the junior, Lili Das.

An ugly debate

Chitra’s omission created an acrimonious debate in the media and the social media, especially in Kerala. Unfortunately, and quite unnecessarily, P. T. Usha’s name was dragged into the debate since she had attended the selection committee meeting in Delhi. She was one of the Government observers (the other, Anju Bobby George could not attend) and had no role in the deliberations though, according to her she did favour the inclusion of Asian champions. Once the debate, especially in the electronic media, became vicious, according to Usha, she stated publicly that she would no longer co-operate with the TV channels. One hasn’t heard the last on this sorry episode.

In not applying its unannounced selection criteria for World Championships, across events and athletes who won at Bhubaneswar, the AFI weakened its own position, leading to a second court case over selection in successive years.

G. Lakshmanan, the double gold winner in the Asians in the distance events, though well below world standards could have passed muster had it been said the federation wanted to encourage someone who had won two events and had also won two medals in the previous edition. It could also have been explained, again in advance, that he would not be required to run the 10,000m in Guntur, for, running 15km each in two championships, separated by a week would not have been an ideal preparation for a World Championships.

But there was no justification – going by AFI polic – for the inclusion of heptathlete Swapna Barman in the squad despite her best of 5942 points that placed her last among the London qualifiers. That she was young and a prospect for Asian Games next year and needed to be encouraged, did not cut much ice with the followers of the sport. Swapna was in fact not selected initially but was brought in later.

Ajay Kumar ran a spectacular race at AAC 2017 (Image courtesy: G Rajaraman / Twitter)

Like Chitra, Ajay Kumar Saroj also brought off a “spectacular” victory in the 1500m in Bhubaneswar. Like Chitra, Ajay (3:45.85) also did not come under the Junior National record, a point that AFI stressed in arguing its case. He, however, had a personal best 3:43.27 in Delhi in May this year. Even with that timing he would have been only below 44 in the 48-man field. Ajay was 369th in the world lists this season with his 3:43.27 (15th in Asia).

Sudha Singh, the most experienced of the lot among the Asian championships qualifiers, could have been expected to sail through, but a below-par 9: 59.47 in winning the steeplechase title, put a question mark over her form. To make matters worse she skipped the Guntur meet, which was held against her exclusion.

That she found her name in the IAAF entry lists only added to the controversy but there should have been nothing to it. Entries are quite often sent well ahead of selection committee meetings and in this case, as AFI Secretary C. K. Valson explained in a report, one would have expected the former Asian Games champion and national record holder to come closer to the standards at Guntur.

History repeats itself

The AFI has a history of fixing standards of its own and eventually not following them. This time, it failed to draw up a set of standards or policy for selection to the World Championships, as several countries have done, attempted to stick to some norms which brought ridicule since they were selectively applied.

The federation should lose no time in finalizing a realistic set of standards for the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games next year. As one selection committee member observed in a chat with this correspondent, it would be better to clearly write down the timings and distances that would be required rather than mention “third place or sixth place” of last games etc. Announce the standards one year or 10 months ahead of the games, circulate and publicize them.

And then apply them strictly without bias.