Pune: Nothing much to show for at the international scene for the past few years, India will seek to re-establish itself as a continental power in athletics when the 20th Asian Athletics Championships begins here on Wednesday.
With a record participation of 577 athletes from 43 countries out of 45 members in the Asian Athletics Association -- the highest ever in the history of the championships -- India is looking to regain some of the lost ground in the five-day flagship event of the AAA, to be held at the Shiv Chhatrapati Stadium at Balewadi here.
The biggest ever gathering of Asian track and field athletes include London Olympics bronze medallist high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar, former 1500m world champion and Olympic medallist Mariyam Jamal of Bahrain and India`s Sudha Singh and Vikas Gowda.
India is being represented by a record 107 athletes as it has the luxury of naming three participants in each of the 42 events (21 each for men and women). The event also assumes significance as the winners will get direct entry for the World Championships to be held in Moscow in August.
After an impressive show in 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, the country has nothing to show at the international level. Rather, it achieved the dubious distinction of being the top country in the world in doping.
But with the Asian showpiece event coming to the country for the second time after 1989 in New Delhi, the Indians are looking for rich haul of medals with an aim of finishing second or third. The country is expecting around five gold and 15 medals in total.
India, an Asian athletics power in the 1980s, has seen gradual decline and has not been able to win more than a gold medal in the last two editions in 2009 and 2011, respectively.
The country had finished second on six occasions out of the 19 editions so far with the best performance being in 1985 in Jakarta where the Indians, led by P T Usha`s five gold-medal haul, won 22 medals, including 10 gold to finish second behind China in the medal`s tally.
The next best was in 1989 in New Delhi where India won 22 medals, including eight gold medals to finish second behind China.
India`s worst performance was in 2003 in Manila, a 14th place finish with just six medals and without any gold.
Vikas Gowda (men`s discus), Sudha Singh (women`s 3000m steeplechase), M R Poovamma (women`s 400m), Kumaravel Prem Kumar (men`s long jump), Tintu Luka (women`s 800m), Renjith Maheswary (men`s triple jump) and Krishna Poonia (women`s discus) are gold medal prospects, while the likes of Mayookha Johny (women`s long jump and triple jump) and Arpinder Singh (men`s triple jump) are among other medal prospects.
Gowda is the top performer of the season among the participants with Iran`s 2012 London Olympic silver medallist Ehsan Hadadi deciding to skip the event in view of the Moscow World Championships in August.
Gowda`s 65.82m effort in April is the season`s second best among Asians after Hadadi`s 66.98m.
In women`s 3000m steeplechase, Sudha Singh is the clear favourite after her 9:45.60 effort in the National Inter-State Championships in Chennai early last month, which is a national record. In the absence of last edition winner Minori Hayakari of Japan, Sudha`s contest for gold medal is likely to be with Ruth Chebet of Bahrain. Sudha, the reigning Asian Games gold medallist, had finished second behind Hayakari in the last Asian Championships in 2011 in Kobe, Japan.
Poovamma has the season`s best (52.75secs) among the women`s 400m race participants and she can walk away with the gold as she has been in consistent form. The absence of season leader Haruka Sugiura (52.52secs) of Japan from the event has also brightened Poovamma`s winning chances though the likes of 22-year-old Chinese Zhao Yanmin (personal best of 52.62) and Chandrika Rasnayaka (personal best 52.36) are also in contention for a gold.
Long jumper Prem Kumar is another gold medal prospect for India. With his 8m effort at the National Inter-State early last month, the 20-year-old became the fourth Indian athlete to cross the 8m mark. He is just behind Konstantin Safronov of Kazakhstan, who has season`s best of 8.10m.
In men`s triple jump, a resurgent Renjith Maheswary would be hoping to be at his best and upstage Roman Valiyev of Kazakhstan who has the season leading jump of 17.10m. But the Indian, who has been accused of usually failing at the big stage, would want to prove his critics wrong in front of the home crowd.
Among other Indian gold medal prospects, Luka and Poonia have not been at their best and they need to give their 100 per cent if they want to win gold in their respective events. Luka has a personal best and national record timing of 1:59.17, which she recorded three years back but her season`s best has been a below-par 2:03.62.
The PT Usha protege will have to see off the challenge from teenage Chinese runner Chunyu Wang, who has a season`s best of 2:02.81, if she wants to win gold here.
Poonia, who has a national record of 64.76m, has not hurled the discus beyond 60m this season, her best being 59.43m in the second leg of Asian Grand Prix at Chonburi, Thailand. The Commonwealth Games gold medallist, who is carrying a groin strain, threw 57.25 in the Federation Cup in April and 55.80 in the Diamond League in Doha in May and 56.73m in National Interstate early last month.
India suffered a blow as Siddhanth Thingalaya, a medal prospect, withdrew just days before the start of the Championships. Thingalaya, who holds the national record of 13.65 secs which he set in Belgium last year, is now training under Australian Sharon Hannan, the coach of London Olympics women`s 100m hurdles winner Sally Pearson.
Meanwhile, as many as 14 defending champions will take part in the Championships with star high jumper Barshim of Qatar one of them. Another Qatari Samuel Adelebari Francis, the only sprinter from Asia who clocked sub 10 seconds, will also be in action and will be up against defending champion Su Bingtian of China. Francis, however, is not a native Asian and is Nigerian by birth.
The biennial showpiece event, meanwhile, will miss the likes of London Olympics gold medallist triple jumper Olga Rypakova of Kazakhstan, who recently gave birth to a baby boy, London silver winner discus thrower Ehsan Hadadi of Iran and reigning world champion and London silver medallist discus thrower Li Yanfeng.
China, who has ruled Asian athletics for the last 15 editions, has sent the third largest team but not without the likes of up and coming triple jumper Li Jinzhe and high jumper Wang Yu. Japan, who has sent the second biggest team, has come without the likes of world champion hammer thrower Koji Murofush and sensational teenage 100m sprinter Yoshihide Kiryu, who ran 10.01s to set new world junior record recently.
The Championships was being held in Pune after four Indian cities rejected it. It was to be held in Chennai but Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, who had already spent crores on infrastructure refurbishment for hosting the event, later decided to cancel it on the ground that she cannot allow participation of Sri Lankans in view of the anti-Sinhalese sentiments in her state.
Later, Ranchi and New Delhi were in the fray only to see their respective state governments expressing inability to host the Championships after showing initial interest.
Finally, the Maharashtra government accepted the Athletics Federation of India`s request to host the Championships in Pune.
The Championships is also being held in the backdrop of former AFI President Suresh Kalmadi, who was jailed and later released on bail for his alleged involvement in the Commonwealth Games scandal, losing the AAA presidency polls yesterday.
Kalmadi, a member of Parliament from Pune, lost 18-20 in a tight contest against powerful Qatar Athletics Federation chief Dahlan Al-Hamaad on the second and last day of the AAA Congress here.