The Indian sporting landscape is no stranger to controversies when it comes to the buildup to the Olympic Games. The Tokyo Olympics haven't been an exception either.
A couple of weeks before the Games, postponed by a year because of the COVID pandemic, were scheduled to begin with a grand opening ceremony in Tokyo, the Athletics Federation of India took a strong stand against three athletes who were supposed to be competing at the Olympics. Included among them was 22-year-old long jumper Murli Sreeshankar.
Citing fitness issues and lack of form, the AFI wanted to pull Sreeshankar out of the Olympics despite the fact that he had breached the qualification mark with a national record-setting jump of 8.26m in the Federation Cup in Patiala earlier this year.
With a wonderful high, came a spectacular fall
The 22-year-old booked his passage to Japan with a spectacular jump of 8.26m on 16 March 2021. "It's been a long wait after 2018, 2019 was a rough year and 2020 was the COVID year. For a long time, a lot of people had been saying 8.20 was my peak and I took it personally. There was a point to prove and I am glad I did it," said an ecstatic Sreeshankar.
"When I did 8.20 my calibre was 8-8.10m at best. But I believe my ability at the moment is 8.40m. I am slowly getting into the rhythm and having all jumps over 8m today is a great sign because the competition out there is very tough. One occasional jump of 8.26 will not be enough to sustain, I need to stay in the 8.20-plus mark consistently," he further explained.
However, things took a turn for the worse pretty soon. Having secured his ticket to Tokyo, Sreeshankar hadn't jumped at all. Therefore, the Athletics Federation urged him to participate in a fitness trial. What happened next was both shocking as well as disappointing.
Not only did he not come even close to the 8m mark, but his performance was worse than those recorded in the Junior Nationals. The best distance he could manage during the long jump fitness trials? A disastrous 7.48m.
"Everyone who did not participate in the Nationals was asked to give a fitness trial. Sreeshankar's qualification was 8.26m and we were expecting him to come up with at least more than 7.95m. But he jumped 7.48. His second best was 7.33. These efforts are worse than the ones recorded in Junior Nationals. We were shocked and disappointed," a source revealed to Times of India.
"It's baffling to see his performance. His best is over two feet shorter than the Olympic qualification mark. When he was asked about it, he did not have an answer for the dip."
AFI unwilling to let Sreeshankar participate in the Games, Selection Committee intervenes
As a result, the AFI wanted to pull out M Sreeshankar from the athletics squad set to travel to Tokyo for the Olympics. He wasn't the only one on the list as race walkers Bhawana Jat and KT Irfan also received similar chidings after underperforming.
On the day the opening ceremony was held in Tokyo, 6654 km away the AFI Selection Committee sat for an emergency meeting and arrived at a 'unanimous decision' to not withdraw the names of Sreeshankar and KT Irfan from the Tokyo Olympics. Despite the strong opinion of members of the federation, the selection committee argued that the trials were held to assess fitness, and not form.
AFI President Adille Sumariwalla further added that the coaches of both athletes (in Sreeshankar's case, his father S Murali) assured that their performance will not falter at the Games. Adding fuel to fire, the President went on to add that bad performances will have consequences.
"If athletes do not perform well in the Olympics, we will take action against them," said Sumariwalla without mincing words.
Ahead of the Olympics, Sreeshankar found fellow Keralite and renowned former India athlete Anju Bobby George by his corner. Anju, the only Indian to have won an athletics medal at the World Championship, urged the 22-year-old on.
"Even if you're anxious during the event, pretend that your confidence is up and everything is okay with you. In fact, all athletes will pretend. There may be jumpers who have done 8.50m or 8.60m. So you will have to pretend you're a good jumper too. Your performance will all depend on how you behave that day," she said.
An ominous prediction comes true
On the biggest stage of the global sporting arena, with the eyes of millions glued to him, Sreeshankar faltered. As he had done during the fitness trials, the Indian long jumper was nowhere close to the 8.00m mark during the Heats, let alone the qualification mark of 8.15.
He finished 13th in his group of 15 competitors and 25th overall across the two groups with a best jump of 7.69 which arrived on his very first attempt. Sreeshankar failed to seize the moment and better his performance in the remaining two attempts and as a result, has crashed out of the event.
In fact, M Sreeshankar's performance during the Olympic heats was his worst result this year. Just a month before the Games, he had recorded a jump of 7.74 at the Indian Grand Prix 4 in Patiala. When you delve into the details, his Olympic jump of 7.69 is just slightly above his average results this year which is quite shocking and reinforces the initial AFI sentiment. The above 8.20 jump that took him to Tokyo was an outlier and lends more merit to the Federation's stand.
Disappointment of not meeting his own personal standards will be on Sreeshankar's mind for sure. But on returning back home, the youngster will probably also have to deal with the ire of the Athletics Federation of India who had threatened to take action in case of a bad performance. Mindful of India's global representation on the biggest of stages, the AFI wanted to thwart incompetence among athletes with a strict warning. Only time will tell whether it'll lives up to those words
It remains to be seen how the events unfold once the dust is settled and what the future beckons for the young 22-year-old M Sreeshankar who had to deal with his dreams being crushed in his very first Olympics appearance. Fortunately or unfortunately, for him, the focus will now switch towards several other competing Indian athletes with one week remaining in the Tokyo Olympics.