'A national travesty': The farce behind India's swimming duck
Eight national records. Finals in 10 out of 17 events. Zero medals.
But wait. There's more to India's swimming story at this Asian Games than what meets the eye.
Turns out, the Indian swimmers' entry timings were not sent to the Asian Games organizers in time for the competition. The Result? They were placed in the slowest heats.
When not seeded alongside swimmers of similar strength, pacing and timing can suffer. It can be the difference between one medal and zero. And that is exactly what happened. National coach Nihar Ameen can barely hide his anguish.
"It's a national travesty. That's what it is. Our swimmers were forced to swim alongside the slowest and they had no one to pace against. It severely affected our chances," he says.
Take the 50m breaststroke event, for instance. India's Sandeep Sejwal topped his heat with a timing of 27.95. The swimmer who finished second in his heat, Tajikistan's Ramziyor Khorkashov, clocked 35.21 - that's an astounding, mind-boggling 7.26 seconds apart in a sport where margins are hairs-breadth and are talked of in milliseconds and nanoseconds.
It's also a pointer to the grave disservice that being placed in the wrong heats can do to a swimmer. Sandeep eventually finished seventh in the final, clocking 27.98.
So just who is to blame for this mess? Who is accountable for all potential medals lost despite such superlative performances from Indian swimmers?
Not surprisingly, there is an administrative goof-up at the root of it.
Ameen vouches that the Swimming Federation of India (SFI) had sent the timings of the swimmers to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) well in advance.
"I am absolutely certain that the Swimming Federation of India (SFI) had forwarded the entry timings but not quite certain about what happened after that," he says.
Neither the SFI nor IOA were available for comment. This, after an Indian official holds posts in all the bodies involved with the Asian Games swimming event. VD Nanavati, the current SFI CEO (after more than 25 years holding SFI posts in an honorary capacity) is also a vice president both in the IOA and the ASF (Asia Swimming Federation), as well as a member of the technical swimming committee of FINA, the world body for watersport.
When contacted, Nanavati refused to answer any questions on the faux-pas. His brief reply was that he was out of the country and would 'call tomorrow', before hanging up the phone.
Reliving the horror they were met with on the eve of competition, coach Pradeep Kumar says that they only realized something was amiss once they received the psych sheets (rankings by seeding times of all swimmers entered in each race of the event) at the managers meeting.
"We were shocked to see that our swimmers weren't on the list. We rushed to the organizers requesting if changes could be made. But it was too close to the competition, everything was up on the website and the heat sheets were printed so they said it was too last-minute to change anything.
"When our swimmers heard this they were absolutely demotivated, but they had no choice. Once the events began, they perhaps just got used to it. Had this not happened, we would have at least made two more finals and won two medals."
Speaking to ESPN, Sajan Prakash, who broke the national record in the 200m butterfly in Singapore earlier this year, says that wrong heats can often take a huge toll on results. "We wouldn't know how fast the faster swimmers whom we could meet in the finals are going. It can definitely make a difference to the overall result."
For Nisha Millet, who became the first Indian female swimmer to qualify for an Olympics in 2000, it's a feeling of déjà vu.
"I was the only Indian swimmer to qualify that year. There were grand press conferences held by the federation to tell people about it. Once I reached the Games in Sydney I was aghast to learn that instead of 2.06, my entry timing had been forwarded by the federation to organizers as 2.16. This despite my timings being sent to SFI at least three months prior to the Games," she recalls.
"I was placed in the slowest heat and it absolutely wrecked my mind and preparation. I topped the heat, the second-placed swimmer was around eight seconds slower but I couldn't qualify for the final. It's what happens when you're in the slowest heat. You can miss a final, and also a medal because you just don't know what pace works. Who would've thought 18 years after what happened to me, the same mistakes would again be haunting our swimmers today?"
Srihari Nataraj, 17, who has broken three national records in as many events at this Games, calls this another learning experience.
"It's something (entry timings not being sent) I didn't have any control over so I tried just to focus on what best I could do with whatever I'm given. Of course, our performances would be a lot different had we been in faster heats," he says.
Their events over, campaign wrapped up and bags packed to head out of Jakarta, a missed opportunity at medals still rankles.
Ameen is particularly distraught. "It's an absolute tragedy. But it's too late now for anything. The horse has left the stable and we have zero medals."