The absence of Indian athletics’ two biggest stars, Neeraj Chopra and Hima Das, due to injuries coupled with doping and age fraud controversies summed up the year 2019 for Indian athletics.
India’s promising show at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games in 2018 had raised hopes that the country’s athletes will continue to build on that success.
But Chopra could not defend his Asian Championships gold or participate in the World Championships due to an elbow injury that kept him out for almost the entire year while a back problem kept Das away from major competitions after showing some promise at the start of the year.
Amid these disappointments, Dutee Chand scripted history by becoming the first Indian woman athlete to clinch a gold medal at the World University Games, winning the 100m event.
India also booked 2020 Olympic Games berths in mixed 4x400m relay and men’s 3000m steeplechase event through Avinash Sable.
Das managed to create some social media interest when she returned from injury to win six below-par events in Europe as part of her training program. However, the buzz was unnecessarily overplayed and she was later dropped from the World Championships squad as well due to fitness concerns.
In the World Championships held in Doha in September-October, the 27-member Indian team performed better than the low expectations but did not win any medals.
The Indians entered the finals in three events – mixed 4x400m relay, men’s 3000m steeplechase and women’s javelin throw – as against one in the last edition in 2017.
Out of the three finals, 3000m steeplechaser Sable and the mixed 4x400m relay team booked Tokyo Olympics quotas while javelin thrower Annu Rani finished a creditable eighth.
Annu became the first Indian woman to qualify for javelin throw finals while Avinash broke his own national record twice in three days.
Rampant age fudging
But more than the performances on the field, the off field issues dominated the discussion around Indian athletics in 2019.
As usual, doping controversies hurt athletics with the biggest offender being Gomathi Marimuthu, who was stripped of her gold she won in the Asian Championships after testing positive for steroids.
Sanjivani Jadhav, who also won a bronze during the Asian Championships, was suspended provisionally after failing a dope test as her sample was found to contain a banned masking agent. Shot-putter Manpreet Kaur was banned for four years by the National Anti-Doping Agency for flunking four dope tests in 2017.
Athletics took the third spot behind bodybuilding and weightlifting in returning positive dope tests, which stood at nearly 20 this year.
Rampant age-fudging also continued to hurt the sport at the junior level as 51 youngsters were found over-aged while another 169 fled to avoid verification tests during the National Inter-District Junior Meet, which was touted as one of the biggest talent hunt programmes in the world.
More than 100 athletes were found to be over-aged in meets in 2018 and nearly 100 were again caught for age-fudging during the National Junior Championships at Guntur, Andhra Pradesh this year. Another 50 were found to be over-age during the National Youth Championships in Raipur.
The problem for Indian athletics is as much off the field as it is on the tracks around the world. The promise of 2019 has dampened down quickly but with Chopra and Das hopefully regaining their fitness, perhaps 2020 will bring more cheer.
(With PTI inputs)