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‘I plan to compete in Europe’

Calcutta: The Asian Games champion Saraswati Saha is feeling the pinch of a new challenge in the emerging push to strike a balance between promise and pressure.

Still living in the halo of her golden performance in Busan, the Bengal girl is aiming higher — an intrusion into the world of Marion Jones and Zhana Pintusevich-Block.

“I really want to challenge the world’s best (in 200m) in the Olympics… though the road ahead is harder and more challenging,” Saraswati said.

“I want to compete in European circuits and world Grand Prix meets. And for that I desperately need sponsors,” she said. “I want to clock something like 22.4-5,” said Sarwswati, the only Indian woman to run 200m in less than 23 seconds.

“See, taking part in one or two Asian GPs does not offer much of a help when you are prepared to face challenges from world class performers. You need more international exposure. You must brush shoulders with Jones and others to know where you stand,” Saraswati said during a chat with The Telegraph.

There is a wide gap between the lip and the cup, though. “Competing in international meets involves huge money and I hope some sponsors will come forward. I’m also looking forward to how the Amateur Athletics Federation of India (AAFI) takes up the issue,” said Saraswati of this looming uncertainty over her career.

But one thing is certain. There will be no 100m and an immediate switch to 400m.

“I’ll stop running 100m, because that’s not my forte. And there’ll be greater push for 400. I hope to start it in national meets and gradually try it out at upper levels of competition,” remarked Saraswati, who has recently got a promotion from employers Eastern Railway.

Both her coach (Sunirmal Ghosh) and husband-cum-mentor Amit Saha (another national-level sprinter) have been insisting on her turning to 400. “Saraswati does not act upon quick reflex. She has a natural speed and gains momentum as the race progresses. That’s why, a switch to 400 is a better option,” analysed Ghosh.

He even pointed out that a shaky start had cost Saraswati 100m gold in Busan.

Beyond all this, one also gets a glimpse of what life will look like for Saraswati after athletics. She has decided to turn back the clock to step up a future where more Saraswatis from Bengal can hope to make the cut, nationally and internationally.

Laudable move

In an unprecedented move on Wednesday, the Asian Games 200m gold medallist inaugurated the Saraswati Athlete Search Foundation (SASF), which aims to provide financial aid to poor and budding athletes.

“I’ve felt the need of setting up such a foundation from my own experience. When I started I did not have money to buy a good track-suit, let alone other facilities. Even today, there are so many talented athletes here.

“But after raising initial hopes, they slip into oblivion without adequate financial help. This is an attempt, in my own small way, to check this trend,” said an emotional Saraswati.

“All the money I’ll get through felicitation and other sources, will be donated to SASF for this cause,” she added.

If this is her payback gesture to Bengal, she has also put to rest speculation over switching to other states (like Andhra Pradesh and Kerala) for the lure of money. “I’ve got enough from this state and I’ve no intention to leave it for the sake of money,” she said.

Initially, a committee, involving her coach and husband, has been set up to look after the SASF affairs and if an immediate support from the state government comes through, a training camp for budding athletes will be built in the Hooghly district, Amit said.

Saraswati will take over as its chairman after the 2004 Olympics in Athens. “I’m planning to quit the track after the Olympics and get involved into the project entirely,” she said.

The SASF office is currently housed at Subhasnagar of Bandel in Hooghly.

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