India’s top athletes to strive for Asian Games selection at Nationals

Bhubaneswar: Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra is expectedly not competing but all the other top athletes of the country, led by long jumper Murali Sreeshankar, will look to seal Asian Games berths when the National Inter-State Championship begins here Thursday.

Chopra is recovering from an injury but he would have got exemption even if he was fit since he was to train to be ready for top-level global events in the run-up to the World Championships in August in Budapest.

Avinash Sable, who ended Kenya’s dominance in 3000m steeplechase in the Commonwealth Games by winning a silver in the Birmingham CWG, was also exempted from taking part in the National Inter-State Championship, which is the final selection event for the upcoming Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.

The AFI had early this year made it clear that participation in the National Inter-State Championship will be mandatory for athletes who want to be considered for the Asian Games (September 23 to October 8).

In the absence of Chopra and Sable, long jumper Sreeshankar will be the star attraction in the championship after his maiden third place finish at the Paris Diamond League last week with a 8.09m effort.

He will renew is rivalry with Jeswin Aldrin who had snatched his national record with a 8.42m jump earlier in the year. Aldrin, though, struggled after that with two sub-8m jumps and one just above that mark.

Hima Das absent, Tejaswin Shankar in new event: Other top draws among men will be sprinter Amlan Borgohain (200m), decathlete Tejaswin Shankar (not in high jump where he won bronze in 2022 CWG), shot putter Tajinderpal Singh Toor, triple jumpers Praveen Chitravel and Eldose Paul, among others.

Among women, the likes of sprinter Hima Das (recovering from an injury) and Dutee Chand (serving suspension for dope flunk) will be missing.

That leaves the likes of hurdler Jyothi Yarraji (100m and 100m hurdles), long distance runner Parul Chaudhary (5000m and 3000 steeplechase), long jumper Shaili Singh, javelin thrower Annu Rani as the top stars.

The first day will see just four finals — men’s and women’s 20km race walk and men’s and women’s 10000m race — because evening session can’t be held due to the Intercontinental Cup football tournament that is being held at the Kalinga Stadium simultaneously till Sunday.

Veteran Sandeep Kumar will be eying for a strong show in the men’s 20km race walk in the absence of national record holder Akshdeep Singh.

In the women’s 20km race walk, the fight is likely to be between experienced campaigners Priyanka Goswami and Bhawna Jat Goswami, who has already qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics and Budapest World Championships.

Bhawna has been the better one of the two for some time and it is unlikely to be different in this championship also.

Sanjivani Jadhav will be the favourite in the women’s 10000m race. She had finished second at the Portland Track Festival in the USA earlier this month with her personal best time of 32:46.88.

Many athletes would also be looking to qualify for the World Championships in Hungary (August 19-27) from this event.

This championship was, in fact, to be held exactly a month later, according to the earlier AFI calendar, but had to be advanced.

This time, the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) has asked the member countries to send their respective teams for the Asian Games 75 days in advance, that is by July 15. The athletics events of the Hangzhou Asian Games begin on September 29.

Men’s Triple Jump, Women’s 400m are events to watch: With national record holder Praveen Chitravel, Birmingham CWG gold and silver medallists Eldhose Paul and Abdulla Aboobacker in the fray, the men’s triple jump event will see a tough contest.

Add to that World U-20 Championships silver medallist Selva Prabhu Thiruman and Karthik Unnikrsihnan, another athlete in the 17m-club, the contest could be the toughest in the whole championship.

Chitravel is the defending champion. He had produced a 17.37m jump in an event in Cuba last month. Paul is, however, struggling after his CWG triumph. He had mediocre jumps of 16.61m and 16.27m in two domestic events earlier this year before another disappointing 15.84m effort at the Doha Diamond League on May 5.

The 18-year-old Thiruman recently won gold in an event in Greece with a junior national record jump of 16.78m.

The men’s javelin throw is one event in which youngsters have been inspired by Chopra’s exploits at the global stage.

There are currently at least eight active Indian javelin throwers, including Chopra, who have hurled the spear more than 80m, perhaps the most in the world.

Out of those from the 80m club, six are competing in the championship, including veteran Shivpal Singh, who has returned to competition after serving a reduced one-year suspension for a doping offence.

The other five are DP Manu, Kishore Kumar Jena, Vikrant Malik, Rohit Yadav and Sachin Yadav. The women’s 400m race is full of promising youngsters like Asian U-20 champion Rezoana Mallick Heena, Federation Cup winner Priya Mohan, last year’s U-20 Worlds bronze medallist Rupal Chaudhary. They are up against more experienced campaigners like Aishwarya Mishra and Anjali Devi.

Mishra initially won the 400m race in the Federation Cup last month but was later disqualified for lane infringement, leading to Priya winning the quarter-mile event.

Himanshi Malik, who recently ran 52.75sec while winning the Haryana state championships title in Karnal is also in the fray.

Nirmala Sheoran, who has served a four-year ban after failing a dope test in 2018, is also in the fray.

In the women’s long jump, 19-year-old Shaili Singh, who recorded the second longest distance of 6.76m in a domestic event earlier this year, got a confidence-boosting bronze in a world class field at the Seiko Golden Grand Prix in Japan.

She will have competition against the likes of Ancy Sojan (PB: 6.56m), Nayana James (PB: 6.55m), Neena Vrakil (6.66m).