By Mikhil Bhat/Doha
When the four-day Asian Athletics Championships begin at the state-of-the-art Khalifa International Stadium in Doha today, one might be spoilt for choice.
The storylines, the stakes, the rewards will make for some interesting viewing.
Team Qatar, for instance, had missed out on a gold at the previous edition of the championships, which were held in the Indian city of Bhubaneswar, finishing with six silver medals and a bronze.
But with star 400m hurdler Abderrahman Samba in the ranks, hopes are high that the record is set to change. Samba went unbeaten in the discipline in six straight Diamond League meets last year, before he picked up the Asian Games gold in Jakarta.
His prep work this year has been similar, having started his season in South Africa, with a blistering personal best time of 44.60 seconds in 400m flat in Pretoria earlier this month.
“The start of the season was very good. I did exactly what I did last season, the coach and I worked in South Africa,” Samba told Gulf Times.
“We didn’t think it would be 44.60. We were looking to run fast and win, and that’s all. We are excited to see what will happen through the course of the season, and we are only hoping to be safe, and not pick up injuries in the run up to the World Championships.”
Having become only the second man behind the world record holder Kevin Young to break the 47-second barrier, having ran a 46.98 at the Paris Diamond League event last year to the American’s 46.78, the spotlight will be on the 23-year-old.
But he isn’t thinking much about the record. “I just want to run fast. If the record happens, welcome,” he said.
Two of the star Qatari athletes, World Champion and Olympic medallist high-jumper Mutaz Barshim and 400m Asian Games gold medallist Abdalelah Haroun, will be missing from the ranks.
Barshim recently hit the track, having recovered from an ankle injury he suffered last year, but has decided to skip the Asian meet in order to focus on the World Championships. Haroun suffered an injury during training in the run-up to the Asian championships.
However, Asian Games hammer throw gold medallist Ashraf Elseify will be looking to better his personal best of 78.19m, which he achieved in Doha in 2016. Sprinter Femi Ogunode, 100m silver winner in Bhubaneswar, will line up for 400m and 4x100m relay in Doha, while his brother, Tosin, will line-up in the 100m and 200m sprints, besides the relay.
Also returning for a shot at gold will be Jamal Hairane, who won silver in both 800m and 1500m last time round, and Yaser Salem Bagharab, who was runner-up in both 3000m steeplechase and 5000m.
“Our athletes are ready to make the country proud. We prepared well for this competition and we realise how great an opportunity it is to build on our success at the Asian Games and brace ourselves for the World Championships in September,” Qatar Athletics Federation president Dr Thani Abdulrahman al-Kuwari had said in the run-up to the event. After finishing second in the last edition in 2017, China would be looking to wrest back the top spot from India.
China’s ranks boast female shot-putter Gong Lijiao, a 2017 World Championships gold medallist and two-time Olympic medallist, and Li Ling, Asian Games champion in 2014 and 2018 in pole vault. Lu Huihui, a two-time world medallist in javelin throw; Chen Yang, Asian Games title holder in discus throw; and Wang Chunyu, the Asian Games reigning champion in 800m, will all feature at Khalifa International Stadium.
On the men’s side, China’s team includes the likes of Xie Wenjun, Asian Games champion in 2014 and 2018 in 100m hurdles, who will be looking to maintain his continental dominance.
For the Indians, absence of javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra will be a huge disappointment. Chopra, who had won gold at the last edition and has been knocking at the doors of the top three at the world level, is out due to injury.
India’s 19-year-old sensation Hima Das will try to build on her performance from the 2018 Asian Games where she won a gold medal in the 4x400m event. The promising sprinter is also the reigning world U20 champion in 400m.
Mohamed Anas Yahiya is another Indian athlete with potential to reach the podium. The sprinter, who specialises in 400m, claimed three silver medals in last year’s Asian Games in the individual 400m, men’s 4x400m and the mixed 4x400. In Barshim’s absence, Syria’s Majd Eddin Ghazal will fancy his chances. Ghazal, who turns 32 today, had won bronze at the last edition, which saw South Korea’s Woo Sang-hyeok win with a 2.30m effort. Ghazal’s personal best is 2.36m, which he jumped in Beijing in 2016.
In a first, a 4x400m mixed relay event will make its debut, with the final scheduled for Tuesday.
On-track performances aside, eyes will also be on the local organising committee considering the 23rd Asian Athletics Championships are also a test event for the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019, which will be held in September.
The schedule is spread over two sessions — morning and evening — with today’s opening ceremony scheduled for 3:30pm.
5:20pm Javelin Throw (Women)
5:28pm Pole Vault (Men)
5:55pm 5000m (Women)
7:28pm 400m (Women)
7:35pm Shot Put (Women)
7:45pm Discus Throw (Men)
7:50pm 3000m steeplechase (Men)
8:45pm 10000m (Men)
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