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Saraswati on test track
- Usha says the sprint may be a race too far for India

Busan: A day before the commencement of the showpiece of any multi-discipline event, this is not what the venue should look like. Not a soul on the track, a handful of officials and mediapersons huddled together under colourful umbrellas and a scent of dampness pervading the air.

A visit to the swanky new Asian Games Main Stadium around 2 pm confirmed the gloom that had enveloped Busan from early morning. A nagging drizzle, with intermittent sharp spells, just refused to let up, dampening spirits and preventing any proper workout. Those who did turn up, including the Indians, had to make do with light stretching and stuff.

Isn’t this a big setback for those who are in action Monday, P.T. Usha was asked. “Athletes have to be prepared for all conditions, there’s no room for any complaint,” snapped the Payyoli Express. “I have run in worse weather, we have no option.”

The Indians are very much in the thick of action on Day One with nine of the 54-strong squad in the fray. Not all, of course, are serious medal contenders.

K.M. Beenamol, expected to match Jyotirmoyee Sikdar’s two-gold feat in Bangkok, should sail through to the 800m finals. Saraswati Saha, who has emerged as the dark horse among Indian medal hopes, should clear her 100m first round and her favourite 200m, both scheduled Tuesday. In both finals, she will come up against the redoubtable Susanthika Jayasinghe.

“Susanthika is a fine sprinter and I can’t look beyond her for gold. Saraswati would have done well if she got a medal or two,” said Usha, not convinced of the Bandel girl’s recent record-breaking exploits in 200m.

She would rather bet on two golds in the 800 (Beenamol) and 4x400 women’s relay. “The starts will be important as the announcements will be in local language. I remember doing my homework in Korean before the Seoul Asian Games (1986) and Olympics (1988),” said Usha who is here as the Samsung-sponsored team cheerleader.

There are a host of other medal-aspiring athletes, mostly female. Anju Bobby George, who has come here directly from Moscow where she has been training for some months, will be tested Monday itself. She will have to repeat her best of 6.74 metres to beat back the challenge of a pair of Japanese girls.

J.J. Shobha, who bagged the heptathlon silver in a depleted field at the recent Colombo ATF meet, thinks she needs to tally 6100 to ensure a medal. Soma Biswas, whose best is 6186, is confident of matching her personal best here if conditions are favourable.

Sunita Rani will be fancying her chances in 1500 and 5000m. So will Neelam J. Singh in javelin and Gurmeet Kaur in discus.

Among the men, there’s not much to write about. The throwers — Shakti Singh, Bahadur Singh Sagoo and Anil Kumar — look the brightest prospects for a medal of any hue.

All said and done, it’s up to the women to carry India’s flag — a tradition that started since the early eighties. As Usha observed, the facilities and the training that this present lot has been getting is no joke.

“They are training abroad, have so many foreign coaches... If we had got this kind of help during my time, we would have been world-class athletes,” she quipped.

It’s time the Beenamols showed they can take on the best in Asia (read: Chinese and Japanese) and repay the federation’s faith in them.

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