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Selection controversy of P U Chitra, Sudha Singh; it’s a curious case of AFI

The Athletics World Championships starts in London from 4th August 2017. While it will be the last World Championship for greats like Usain Bolt and Mo Farah, a host of young starts like Wayde van Niekerk,  Nafissatou Thiam,  Kendra Harrison , Evan Jager will be there to show their mettle. India will be represented by 26 athletes, 14 male athletes participating in 8 disciplines whereas 12 female athletes participating in 6 events. But for the last few days, the selection of Indian athletes reached an utter mess with the qualifying and disqualifying of Sudha Singh and P U Chitra by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI).     

AFI’s selection procedure has always been bizzare. Last year, ahead of Rio Olympics, AFI made a chaos in composing the 4x400m women’s relay team. Hurdler Anu Raghavan alleged that she was unfairly kept out of the team and approached the judiciary. The decision of the court went in Anu’s favour but it was too late for the hurdler to participate in the Olympics. This year too it was no different. When everything was going on fine with the athletes, AFI suddenly excluded 1500 m female runner P U Chitra, 1500m male runner Ajay Kumar Saroj and steeplechaser Sudha Singh from the list of participants.

A spot at the World Championships can be earned either by making the qualification mark set by the International Association of Athletics Federation or by finishing first in the event at a continental tournament, like the Asian Championships. Sudha, Ajoy, Chitra and most other members of the Indian contingent booked their berth by winning gold at Asian Athletics Championship in Bhubaneshwar in July. But the rejection of three athletes despite their legitimate right to take part in the global event has caused a massive controversy.  

 AFI President Adille Sumariwalla cited, “Their performances were far below World Championships entry standards and are even worse than the junior national record. World Championships is not an exposure tour or a minor competition. The best of the world compete there and we cannot send athletes who are not up to certain standards.” It is obviously true that while players can qualify for the tournament themselves, the final decision still stands with the AFI. The Federation had justifiable reasons to review the performance of the champions before entering them in the World Championships. But the controversy could have been avoided if it had informed the athletes earlier that winning in the Asian Championships in Bhubaneswar might not ensure their place in World Championships.

Steeplechaser Sudha Singh clocked 9 minute 59.47 seconds to win the gold in Bhubaneswar, while the qualification time for the World Championships was set at 9:42.00. 1500m male runner Ajay Kumar Saroj’s winning time in Bhubaneswar was 3:45.85, while his personal best is 3:43.27. The qualification mark for London is a long way off at 3:36.00. In the women’s 1500m event as well, P U Chitra won with a time of 4:17.92. The qualification mark is 4:07.50. “The AFI has decided to send athletes only if their performance is near the qualification mark of the event. Chitra’s performance is nowhere near the qualification mark,” said PT Usha, the coach of the contingent.

If that is the case then question arises about the inclusion of heptathlete Swapna Barman in the squad. Swapna’s best is 5942 points that places her last among the London qualifiers. AFI clarified her case by stating that she is young and a prospect for Asian Games next year. So it is necessary to give her a global exposure.

Exclusion of P U Chitra from the team provoked Pinarayi Vijayan, the Chief Minister of her state Kerala, to speak out in support. Chitra went to court and got a favourable order, leaving AFI embarrassed and being accused of charges of conspiracy and politics. AFI officials said that they tried their best with IAAF to get an entry for Chitra. But as the deadline crossed, nothing much had happened. The AFI president, being a member of the international council also approached half-heartedly for Chitra’s entry. But the drama continued as on 29th July, Sudha Singh was suddenly included in the list of participants issued by AFFI. It could have happened that the same officials might have quietly forwarded the entry of the steeplechaser. However, AFI realized its mistake and avoided any further hullabaloo by quietly removing Sudha Singh’s name from the list. Deputy national coach Radhakrishnan Nair had confirmed from London that Sudha will not take part in the prestigious championships, without explaining how her name was included at the first place.

It is all set now that India has 25 participants in the World Championships including Dutee Chand who received a wild-card entry by AFFI. The athletes have reached London and ready to put their best in the World Championships.

About Poulomi Kundu

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