Picture by Sports Authority of India

Tokyo 2020 goal achieved, rowing coach Ismail Baig targets Asian Games

Ismail Baig talks about Arjun Lal Jat and Arvind Singh’s Tokyo Olympics performance and why he rates them as one of the best pairs he has coached.
By Abhishek Purohit

Ismail Baig, India’s chief national rowing coach, is satisfied. More or less. Arjun Lal Jat and Arvind Singh – whom he calls one of the best pairs he’s coached in his near-three decade career – repaid his faith with the best finish for India at the Olympics, achieving 11th place in the lightweight men’s double sculls at Tokyo 2020.

“I will not say I am 100 per cent satisfied. No coach can ever be fully satisfied,” Baig tells Olympics.com. “If a coach does get satisfied, that is not a good sign.

“Maybe 90 or 95 per cent, yes. Our performance was good. We did succeed as per our target.”

At Tokyo, Ismail Baig’s target was to qualify for the ‘B’ final, which determines positions 7 to 12.

After finishing fifth out of six teams in their heat, Arjun Lal Jat and Arvind Singh came in third out of six in the repechage round, ensuring India progressed to the semi-finals and were assured of at least a ‘B’ final spot.

Restricted to training in the calm waters of the Army Rowing Node in Pune because of the pandemic, this was a creditable finish for the Indians, especially given the much rougher conditions in the Sea Forest Waterway in the Tokyo Bay.

Arjun and Arvind had made the cut for the Tokyo Olympics at the same venue back in May during the Asia and Oceania Olympic Continental Qualification Regatta. So they knew what to expect during the Summer Games in August, and they also knew they could do little to specifically prepare for the Tokyo course.

“We could not travel anywhere to train because of the pandemic. We kept training at the Army Rowing Node,” Baig says.

“We had been to Tokyo during qualification. We had seen that the conditions were choppy, whereas it was absolutely smooth where we were training. We knew that was going to impact us.

“We thought of going to Portugal or even Bhopal or Hyderabad but most of the centres were closed during lockdown. We still managed decently, I would say.”

The primary goal for Arjun and Arvind was to be faster than Hong Kong in the Olympic qualifiers. Hong Kong had taken the gold at the 2019 Asian Rowing Championships, where the Indian pair had won silver.

“Hong Kong had been beating us for many years. It was important for us to defeat Hong Kong as they had beaten us at the Asian Championships as well as at the Asian Games,” says Baig.

“We thought that unless we beat Hong Kong we would not be in a position to qualify. And then we defeated them comfortably in qualification.”

India finished second behind Japan at the qualifiers and were nearly nine seconds faster than fifth-placed Hong Kong.

Top three in Tokyo 2020 repechage

At the Tokyo Olympics, India needed a top-three finish in their repechage race to make it to the semi-finals.

“We targeted Uzbekistan (during the repechage). They were ahead of us until 1200 metres, but we kept our cool and caught up with them around 1300m. We then rowed normally to go into the semi-finals.”

Uzbekistan had finished only 1.35 seconds behind India in the qualifiers, but at Tokyo 2020, Arjun and Arvind increased that gap to 4.86 seconds.

The heat and repechage races were held on consecutive days. The semi-finals and finals were also rescheduled on consecutive days again due to bad weather in Tokyo.

The field was just too strong for India in the semis. Eventual gold and bronze medallists Ireland and Italy were in the fray. Ireland’s Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan would go on to top the semis with a time of 6:05.33s, a new world best. India put in their best showing of Tokyo 2020 with a timing of 6:24.41, and still ended up last.

“We knew the semi-final was of a very high standard for us. It was very hard for us to go through to the (‘A’) final. We still kept pushing until 1500m, we did not let go.

“We could have put up a better race in the ‘B’ final. But we decided that we should take a chance during the semi-finals too. We had already reached the ‘B’ final anyway.

“There should have been a gap between the semi-final and final races but they became back to back because of the weather. They are rowers, not machines. It was just not possible.

“We had pushed hard in repechage a day after the heats, and then semis and final was also back to back. Still we took a risk and pushed in the semi-final. We did not succeed but we tried.”

Although India clocked a decent 6:29.66s, they were more than 12 seconds behind fourth-placed Canada in the five-team ‘B’ final (Norway, who had capsized in the semis, did not compete).

Asian Games the ultimate target

Baig explains why he rates Arjun and Arvind highly. “Their performance in major competitions has stayed around what they have been achieving in training. They were timing around 6:28-6:30 in training in normal conditions. None of our earlier crew had achieved such timings in training before.”

The veteran coach has high hopes from the pair for the 2022 Asian Games. “Ultimately our target is the Asian Games. We are not at the Olympics level yet, but Asian Games are very important for us. They will have to improve a bit more though.” A coach can never be fully satisfied, of course.