India’s lacklustre show in previous Olympic Games is expected to change with a strong contingent in place and, more importantly, a credible support system that helps the nation follow through on its ambitions
The road to a medal at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games has been getting tougher by the day. Countries that were undecided on the role of sports in national development in the past have now raced ahead leaving behind giants such as India.
Tokyo beckons the world, and there will be many surprises for sure. But what lies in wait for India as the nation of more than 1.3 billion people look forward to the spectacle in the Japanese capital from July 24 to August 9?
For the record, Indian athletes have appeared in every edition of the Summer Games since 1920, although they made their debut at the 1900 Paris Games. Next year’s showpiece will mark the return of the Olympics to Tokyo for the first time since 1964, making it the first city in Asia to host the Olympics twice.
The Games will also witness the introduction of additional disciplines including 3x3 basketball, freestyle BMX and Madison cycling. Under the new International Olympic Committee (IOC) policies that allow sports to be added to the programme to augment the permanent core Olympic events, the Tokyo Games will see karate, sport climbing, surfing and skateboarding make their Olympic debuts along with the return of baseball and softball, which were removed from the summer programme after 2008.
As far as India is concerned, in a century the country has won only 28 medals in the 24 Olympic Games so far. Of these, nine are gold, seven are silver and the remaining twelve are bronze. In 2016, India managed to add just two medals — a silver from badminton ace P.V. Sindhu and a bronze from Sakshi Malik in wrestling.
Despite the most recent debacle, things are looking up for India as the country is finally waking up to the fact that there are more sports to be pursued besides cricket.
Added to this is the inclusion and involvement in the administrative sector of former sportspersons, who want to make a difference by giving back.
For instance, Union Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju, who met up with Indian probables recently, announced that an exclusive India House will be set up in Tokyo ahead of the Games to provide hygienic food to the athletes.
A lot more medal prospects have emerged through the system in the past few years, and a few medals — whatever the colour — are looking like a certain reality.
HIMA DAS (Track)
She’s the first Indian athlete to win gold in a track event at the IAAF World U20 Championship. Hailing from Assam, Hima, nicknamed the Dhing Express, showed her worth a couple of times last year in international competitions where she won the 400m gold clocking 51.46 seconds at the IAAF World U20 Championships held in Tampere, Finland. She then went on to bag three medals at the Asian Games including a gold and two silver. As we went to press, Das was in terrific form, having claimed five golds this year at separate events in Poland and Czech Republic for the women’s 200m and 400m races.
P.V. SINDHU (Badminton)
Sindhu became a nationwide sensation when she claimed silver at Rio, at the age of 21. There is no reason that she can’t repeat the feat in Tokyo. Arguably, she is a much better player now than she was two years ago. She has been consistently finishing among the top five players in the world. So far, she has won two Super Series titles, including the BWF one, in December 2018. Perhaps, all she would require is a bit of luck in the draws.
SHIVA THAPA (Boxing)
Vijendra Singh and Mary Kom have already made India proud with their exploits on the international stage. Shiva Thapa, who is the youngest Indian boxer to qualify for the Olympics, bowed out in the first round in the last two editions, but the boxer from Assam has made his way to World No.3 in the bantamweight category rankings in the AIBA Men’s World Ranking.
SAIKHOM MIRABAI CHANU (Weightlifting)
Hailing from Manipur, Chanu came into the spotlight on bagging gold at the World Weightlifting Championships held in Anaheim in the US. At the 21st Commonwealth Games in Australia last year, she broke the Commonwealth record five times in a total of six attempts. If she continues her outstanding performance, Chanu can surely be seen as one of the medal prospects in the 48kg category.
NEERAJ CHOPRA (Javelin)
Hailing from Panipat, Haryana, 24-year-old javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra’s growth trajectory is on the up. He bagged gold at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games with his distance of 86.47 metres fetching India the first-ever gold in the javelin throw event at the Commonwealth Games. He repeated this successful show with a second gold at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games, setting a new national record of 88.06 metres in the bargain.
VINESH PHOGAT (Wrestling)
The first Indian woman wrestler to win gold at the Asian Games, Vinesh Phogat was not so well known before 2018. However, last year brought in a lot of acknowledgement for Phogat after she won gold at two major tournaments — the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia. But, with a serious knee injury keeping her out of the wrestling arena at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, Phogat will be keen to prove her worth next year.
For a small spell, it looked like hockey was dying in India. However, the past few years have given a new lease of life to Indian hockey as the team made it to the quarter-finals in Rio 2016 after a gap of 36 years. India then hosted the World Cup last year, giving home fans a glimpse of the progress the team has made over two years.
So far, 11 athletes have booked their tickets for Tokyo 2020. Making the cut are young Commonwealth champion Manu Bhaker (10m Air Pistol), Rahi Sarnobat (25m Pistol), Divyansh Singh Panwar (10m Air Rifle), Abhishek Verma (10m Air Pistol), Saurabh Chaudhary (10m Air Pistol), and 10m Air Rifle shooters Anjum Moudgil and Apurvi Chandela, men’s 20km walker Irfan Kolothum Thodi and the men’s archery team of Atanu Das, Tarundeep Rai and Pravin Jadhav. But, whether they are good enough to raise their standard and win a medal to realise a glorious Olympic dream, remains to be seen.
Steps in the right direction
One of the most important elements responsible for a change in Indian sports in recent times perhaps is the Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) founded by Indian sporting legends, Geet Sethi and Prakash Padukone.
The OGQ made its debut at the 2012 London Olympics with four medals, while adding two more at Rio 2016 to account for six out of the eight medals in the past two Olympic Games alone.
While the OGQ seeks to complement the work of the government in more ways than one, what has perhaps helped tremendously is the involvement of former Indian Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore — also a silver medalist at the 2004 Athens Games — in defining Indian sports policies and plans. Under Rathore, the government has gone on to identify 100 top athletes with the potential of winning at least 100 Olympic medals, while lending them long-term support under the Khelo India (Play India) campaign.
Rathore, a Youth and Sports Minister until earlier this year, has insisted that the Khelo India campaign has also been successful in changing the attitude of the entire country towards sports. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has also done her bit by proposing to set up a National Sports Education Board during her recent budgetary announcements.