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Preview 7 August 2002, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Big-time athletics comes to Sri Lanka – Asian Championships Preview

Bigtime athletics comes to Sri Lanka – Asian Championships Preview
From an IAAF Correspondent
7 August 2002, Colombo, Sri Lanka - China and India, the top two teams in the last edition of the continental meet, have decided to keep their best at home. Not surprisingly, one might say. But that should not completely dampen the spirits of the track and field fans in this island nation when the 14th Asian athletic championships get underway at the Sugathadasa Stadium here from August 9.

For a change, Japan has fielded a strong team and there will be the full compliment of top-notchers from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Central Asian Republics. Perhaps, enough to contribute towards some rousing action, no matter that the fizz might just be missing. Of considerable interest for the Sri Lankans, presented the opportunity to watch big-time athletics for the first time, will be the medals that their stars, Susanthika Jayasinghe, Damayanthi Darsha and Sugath Tillakeratne, will be hoping to gain from the four-day meet.

The meet should also give an opportunity to many of the younger athletes to show their wares amidst senior company, especially those who had done well in the recent World Junior Championships.

With the focus bound to shift towards the Asian Games in Busan, Korea, in a tightly-packed year for the Asian athletes, many countries including China, had switched the accent from medal-winning to deriving long-term objectives in this continental meet..

But that alone does not explain the uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm shown by the Chinese this time in anticipation of the quadrennial Asian games. Otherwise it is hard to explain the absence of their entries in the women’s middle and long distance events, once the sole Chinese domain.

It doesn’t need a crystal-gazer to suggest that the results in the National championships at Benxi in June might not have been encouraging enough for the Chinese coaches to commit their best athletes for the Asian meet in the build-up period towards the Asian Games.

Yet, given the depth in Chinese women’s middle and long distance events, the `blanks’ in the entry lists, should surely be baffling to the rest of the continent.

Without the Chinese, the rest have made quite a mark in international athletics in recent years.  Jayasinghe’s 200-metre bronze and Haadi Al-Somaily’s intermediate hurdles silver at the Sydney Olympics plus Koji Murofushi and Dai Tamesue’s feats at the Edmonton World Championships, apart from the regular quota of medals in the marathon, had given the Asians some foothold again in the international arena since the Chinese medal-drought began in the post-Stuttgart era.

Tamesue is missing from the Japanese line-up here, but Murofushi is expected to compete and so, too, are quite a number of Japanese leaders or second-ranked athletes in other events.

Murofushi is no stranger to the Asian championships, but the world’s top-ranked hammer thrower last year and the World Championships silver medallist from Edmonton, is yet to win an Asian championship title. He had finished second to Andrey Abduvaliyev in Fukuoka in 1998, but skipped the last meet in Jakarta. For a man who hurled perhaps the best series ever at Edmonton, with three throws over 82 metres and another two over 81m, it should be a cakewalk. Back home Shigenobu Murofushi’s son is some sort of a celebrity after his Edmonton feat. Just in case, you have forgotten who Shigenobu is, he won five straight Asian Games hammer golds from 1970 through to 1986.

Talking of winning streaks, Mohamed Suleiman will not be there to stretch his sequence of 1500m victories. The 33-year-old Qatari, bronze medallist at the Barcelona Olympics, who still holds the largest number of continental records, has retired. In his absence, the 1500m and for that matter the 5000m will lack much of the competitiveness he brought. In the circumstances, a younger Suleiman, Abdulrahman, silver winner at the Kingston World Junior Championships, could be  expected to give further shape to his newly-acquired credentials.

Abdulrahman might have to contend with his team-mate Jamal Yousuf Noor, a late entry, in the main since the best of the Korean middle-distance men, especially Kim Soon-Hyung, are not in the fray. Japanese Tetsuya Kobayashi will have to produce his best if he is to break into the Qatari monopoly, while the Indians, T. M. Sanjeevan and Kuldip Kumar could be aiming for the lesser medals.

The focus on the track will, however, be not on the metric mile but on the men’s 400 metres, which should produce a world-class contest. It is from the 400m upwards that the West Asians are expected to call the shots, though they do have a formidable presence in the sprints as well. Kuwait’s Fawzi Dahesh Al-Shammari, also a contender in the 200m, has been in excellent form this season, sweeping the quarter-mile golds in the inaugural Asian Grand Prix circuit through Hyderabad, Bangkok and Manila in May.

Among those beaten by Al-Shammari, who has risen from the eighth position in the last Asian meet, two years ago, to the present status of the leader, was Sri Lankan Sugath Tillakeratne. The Sri Lankan is no longer the force he was in 1998 but in his backyard, the 29-year-old should be stepping on the pedal as never before.

But then Tillakeratne need not be the man whom Al-Shammari should be looking out for but his neighbour, Saudi Hamdan O. Al-Bishi. The Saudi Arabian, a semifinalist at the Sydney Olympics and the sixth-place finisher at the Edmonton World Championships, has not been in the best of forms, and pulled out from the Asian GP series. He lost to Al-Shammari in the West Asian Games when the latter clocked a National record of 45.25. Since then, the 23-year-old Al-Shammari has upped it to an impressive-looking 44.93s, his winning time at the Doha Grand Prix in May. The 400m final comes off in the afternoon session of August 10.

The pure sprints will lack the punch that could have been there, what with the top Japanese, Nobuhara Asahara and Shingo Suetsugu, absent and the Chinese, Chen Haijian and Shen Yunbao not in the best of form. The 100 metres could well be a wide open dash, with two outstanding results accruing from the West Asian Games in Kuwait last April and a Central Asian speaking up from the faraway Almaty to set the stage up. Salem Mubarak Al-Yami clocked a national record of 10.13 in winning the West Asian Games gold, ahead of his Saudi Arabian team-mate and the defending Asian champion Jamal Abd. Al-Saffar.

Kazak Gennadiy Chernovol is the other man in form. He had a 10.18 in Almaty in June.

Traditionally, the Chinese and the Qataris have dominated the sprints in the Asian context till someone like Japanese Koji Ito came along. Ito has retired, if reports are to be believed. Chinese Chen Haijian and Shen Yunbao along with the Japanese, Hiroyasu Tsuchie and Yuta Kanno could make the short dash here as interesting as in the battles that Qatari Talal Mansoor waged against some spring-heeled Chinese in the early 90s.

The young brigade from West Asia, led by the latest World Junior silver-winner from Kingston, Salem Amer Al-Badri of Qatar, should dominate the 800 metres, The other Qatari in the fray, Adam Abdu Adam Ali,  beat his team-mate in Kuwait but finished fourth in Kingston. Al-Badri had a junior national record of 1:46.63 for his silver in Kingston while Ali returned a personal best 1:46.86. Both are just 17.

From the top three in Jakarta, two years ago, only the defending champion, Iranian Mehdri Jelodarzadeh, always a tough customer, is expected to figure in the 800m line-up. Koreans Kim Soon-Hyung and Lee Jae-Hoon, though they were very much part of the Asian GP circuit, are missing, but teammate Cho Jae-Deuk should be no mean a rival. The Qataris should still hold sway with India’s P. S. Primesh capable of nosing himself into the medal reckoning.

The men’s distance events, without the top Japanese, especially Toshinari Takaoka, in the line-up will suffer in quality. Add to it the retirement of Mohamed Suleiman. That leaves the stage for another veteran, Qatari Ahmed Ibrahim Warsama, as the favourite in the 10,000. He will have to tackle Saudi Alayan Sultan Al-Qahtani, who is making a significant comeback.

There could be an intriguing battle in the 5000 if the steeplechase specialists, Qatari Khamis Saief Abdullah and Saudi Saad Shaddad Al-Asmari do battle it out, provided there are no pull-outs from confirmed entry lists. Nasser Ahmed Suleiman of Qatar, and Japanese, Terukazu Ohmori and Tatsuya Murayama are the other main contenders in the 5k. Khamis and Al-Asmari should be the favourites in the steeplechase as well.

It is in the high hurdles that the Chinese are sure to reign, with 19-year-old Liu Xiang looking all set to conquer the field. He had finished on top of the continental list last year with a 13.32 and this year he has taken a giant leap by bettering countryman Li Tong’s eight-year-old Asian record of 13.25, clocking 13.12 in Lausanne on July 2. Obviously this young boy who made the semifinals in the Edmonton World championships is going to easily fit into the spot vacated by Li Tong and Chen Yanho, the best two exponents of high hurdling Asia had seen so far. The challenge for Liu Xiang should come from Japanese Masato Naito with Saudi Mubarak Ata Mubarak, the 1995 Asian champion, very much in the picture for the top honours.

The jumps might turn out to be just around the average in the men’s section. Korean Lee Jin-Taek, who won three straight titles in high jump from 1991 before losing to Chinese Zhou Zhongge in 1998, has not entered, while in the pole vault, from the top 15 in the season’s lists, only Japanese Daichi Sawano (No 3) and Uzbek Leonid Andreyev  (No 14) will be in the fray.

Long jump might witness a better fare with Hussain Taher Al-Sabee of Saudi Arabia out to defend his title and Japanese Masaki Morinaga ready to join battle. They will have a fight on their hands since World junior silver medal winner, Ibrahim Al-Waleed Abdullah should pose some threat though the Qatari’s best is only 7.99, the mark he attained in Kingston. Taher and Morinaga are both 8.20-plus jumpers.

Triple jump should be competitive though there is no one in the 17-metre range this season. Salem Mouled Al-Ahmadi was unstoppable during the Asian GP meets with a series of fine marks including a 16.92 at Bangkok that put him in the top 25 of the world by July-end. Thai Nattaporn Namkhana with a national mark of 16.66 at Bangkok, though in form, will have a tough time defending his Asian title.

The throws, in the absence of the top Indians could once again be a toss-up between the Chinese and the West and Central Asians except in hammer where, as stated earlier, Koji Murofushi should rule. Qatari Saad Bilal Mubarak (shot put) has the chance to regain his spot at the centre of the podium in the absence of Indians Bahadur Singh and Shakti Singh while another Qatari, Rasheed Al-Dosari could benefit from the absence of Chinese Li Shaojie and Indian Anil Kumar in discus. China does have a prodigiously  talented youngster in discus in Nuermaimaiti, who could pose some threat to Al-Dosari. Chinese Li Rongxiang has the credentials to nail the javelin, though on recent form Uzbek Sergey Voynov has the better chance.

The most exciting Chinese talent since last year, decathlete Qi Haifeng will be making his entrance in the senior Asian meet. From the top of the heap last year at an incredible 8021, the 19-year-old Chinese has moved to 8030 for an Asian junior and National record this June. If China is building up for the future there are no better examples than Qi Haifeng and hurdler Liu Xiang.

Top Indian women absent:

Without the best from India, the women’s contests are bound to pale in front of the men’s. Still, there could be some interesting duels especially in the sprints and jumps. Prominent among those missing from the Indian team will be both the medallists at the Manchester Commonwealth Games, Anju Bobby George (bronze in long jump) and Neelam Jaswant Singh (silver in discus and the  current leader in the Asian lists), K. M. Beenamol (400m semifinalist at the Sydney Olympics and current Asian topper) and Sunita Rani , current continental leader in the 1500 metres.

With or without the Indian sprinters, Rachita Mistry and Saraswati Saha, Sri Lankan Susanthika Jayasinghe would have been expected to run away with the sprint double, her challenge in the longer dash likely to be provided by team-mate Damayanthi Darsha

>>NB. there is still some doubt over Darsha's fitness following a hamstring injury and she might still only compete at the relay events.

Once she grabbed an impossible-looking bronze in the 200m at the Sydney Olympics two years ago, Susanthika became a living legend in her country and should lead the Sri Lankan assault on the medals. Last time Sri Lanka had ended up with four gold medals, two of them provided by Darsha and one each coming from the men’s 4x400m and women’s 4x100m relays. Susanthika stayed away.

Darsha, recovering from a hamstring injury (see above note), should continue her hold on the 400 metres if not run her team-mate close in the 200 metres. When it comes to the Asian championships and the Asian Games, there is no better competitor than Darsha. In both the sprints, the Sri Lankans will have to contend with the Uzbeks, Lyubov Perepelova and Guzel Khubbieva, both of whom, while being not in the same league as Jayasinghe, are strong contenders. Perepelova will in fact be defending her 100m crown.

The Chinese sabbatical should mean a more open field in the races upwards of 400 metres, with the Kazak and Kyrgysztan women capable of cashing in against the second-rung Japanese, at least in the middle distance events.

Japanese Yvonne Kanazawa should start the favourite in the high hurdles unless the Chinese field their top woman, Feng Yun, while defending champion Song Yinglan of China could be threatened in the 400m hurdles by the experienced Natalya Torshina of Kazakhstan. Indian Sahebani Oram should be hoping to get into the medals bracket.

Bobby Aloysius of India, disappointed that she couldn’t get the bronze at Manchester, losing to Canadian Nicole Forrester on a countback, has the unenviable task of defending her high jump title against two strong Japanese rivals: Yoko Ota and Miki Imai; and the Kazaks: the younger Marina Korzhova and the more experienced Svetlana  Zalevskaya. All of them are 1.94m-plus jumpers while Aloysius reached a National mark of 1.90m in Bangalore only this June.

With Asian record holder Gao Shuying in the fray, one need not look out too far to spot the favourite in pole vault. The same should be true for Kazakhstan’s Yelena Kashcheyeva in long jump. Yelena Parfenova of Kazakshtan should battle it out with Uzbek Mariya Sokova and Chinese Wu Lingmei in the triple jump contest.

The throws might not measure up to expectations since the leaders are missing from the field. The Chinese who managed just the hammer gold last time instead of a sweep of the titles as they normally do, should make up for some of the disappointment this time.

Svetlana Kazanina of Kazakhstan and Wang Hailan of China were No. 2 and No 3 in last year’s Asian heptathlon rankings. Both are in the fray here, as are India’s Soma Biswas and J. J. Shobha, the latter having come into the 5800-range this season from her 5250-bracket the previous year. Biswas who led the 2000 charts with 6186, has a best of 5851 against the 5897 that Kazanina has this year.

From next year, the Asian championships will go back to its earlier cycle of coming in between the Olympic Games and the Asian Games. The experiment with the new cycle has obviously failed since in the Asian Games year or the Olympic year, not many top athletes are eager to make it to the continental championships.