Kolkata: A billion dreams are slowly, but surely, coming alive as the Tokyo Olympics is set to start is less than 10 days. The 126-member strong contingent, across 18 disciplines, will be India’s biggest ever at the Games and the officialdom had been saying that a ‘double-digit’ medals tally is a realistic one.
Is it so? India’s journey in the Olympics, barring it’s golden period in hockey (they still boast of eight gold medals, the highest tally for a single country despite not having won one since 1980), had been an embarrassing one - to say the least. When Leander Paes brought back a bronze in tennis from Atlanta 1996, it was 44 after years (yes, that’s right) that India had won an individual medal after wrestler K.D. Yadav’s feat in 1952. It was eventually left to Abhinav Bindra, India’s Mr Goldfinger, to shoot his way to the country’s first-ever gold medal in an individual sport in Beijing 2008.
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The next edition in London 2012 saw India finish with six medals, thanks to shooters Vijay Kumar (silver) and Gagan Narang (bronze), wrestlers Sushil Kumar (silver) & Yogeshwar Dutt (bronze), boxer M.C.Mary Kom and shuttler Saina Nehwal (bronze each) and that had been India’s best-ever campaign so far. Four years down the line, the London success seemed a mirage as one still remembers how agonising the wait for at least one piece of silverware was in Rio till virtually in the end of second week, two women athletes: PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik saved the blushes with a silver and bronze medal in badminton and wrestling, respectively. A third spunky girl, Deepa Karmakar, gave a lot of reasons to be proud about in gymnastics - a completely now territory for India - to finish in fourth position.
Looking ahead at Tokyo, what do the Indian athletes have on offer? The men’s hockey team, under Manpreet Singh, is now ranked fourth in the world - their best in a long time but does that guarantee a medal? Or will it be shooting, India’s brightest hope in the international arena for over a decade now or boxing? What about PV Sindhu, who exorcised the ghost of losing finals with a gold in the 2019 World Championships and will be the most seasoned campaigner in badminton in the absence of Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikkanth - both of whom failed to make the cut after cancellation of qualifying tournaments?
We take a look at 10 possible medal prospects in the contingent:
1. Indian men’s hockey team
The Indian men’s hockey team, currently ranked fourth in the world, have been going through a resurgence in the past couple of years. They seem to have the ammunition to end a 41-year drought for an Olympic medal, but the Indian hockey fan will be wary that they shouldn’t flatter to deceive again.
Coached by Graham Reid and led by Manpreet Singh, the team has transformed into a well-drilled unit in recent times with experienced names like Manpreet and goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh being ably supported by a host of exciting youngsters in the squad.
The ongoing pandemic meant that the team had limited opportunities to test themselves but they have tackled some of the best teams ahead of the Olympics. A tour of Europe resulted in a headline 6-1 victory over Germany on their own turf.
This was followed by a commendable six-game run against Olympic champions Argentina in Buenos Aires. Two friendly victories were picked up, alongside a draw and a narrow loss. The FIH Pro League matches saw India pick up two victories – one in a penalty shootout and the other in regulation time.
2. PV Sindhu (Badminton)
The first-ever Olympic silver medallist in badminton for India, P.V. Sindhu has come a long way since finishing second best to Carolina Marin in Rio. The current world No. 7 will have a lot of expectations on her shoulders, especially after compatriots Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth’s failure to qualify for the Olympics after cancellation of qualifying events.
The 25-year-old, a gold medallist at the last Worlds, has suffered demoralising defeats at the Swiss Open and All England Open finals in 2021. However, she will be boosted by the fact that her long-time rival Marin has pulled out of the Olympics due to a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. Can she make the most of her absence? We will have to wait and watch.
3. Vinesh Phogat (Wrestling)
Wrestling, which gave India one of their two medals thanks to Sakshi Malik five years back, will be an event that the country will be keenly following. Vinesh Phogat will be one of the eight Indian wrestlers on the flight to the Tokyo. After suffering a career-threatening injury, she became the first Indian female wrestler to win a gold at the last Asian Games.
The two-time Commonwealth Games gold medalist also claimed her first-ever Asian Wrestling Championships title in Almaty, Kazakhstan in April. She defeated Meng Hsieh 6-0 in the final to pocket her first-ever gold medal in the continental meet and only in June, the 26-year-old bagged yet another gold medal at the Poland Open to underline her abilities. Phogat has had the measure of some of her Olympics opponents and looks a decent prospect in women’s freestyle 53kg category.
4. Manu Bhaker (Shooting)
India’s dependance on shooting to rake in medals in international competitions had grown over the last two decades and the scenario is not much different this time. A lot of the buzz in Tokyo will be about Manu Bhaker, the teenage sensation being the only Indian shooter participating in three events there - being a part of the mixed team as well as the 10m and 25m individual women’s air pistol. The 10m air pistol is definitely her forte, with all her major honours coming in it.
Bhaker is a nine-time gold medallist in ISSF World Cups, along with two more gold medals in the Asian Shooting Championships and a 2018 Commonwealth Games gold - and all has come when she is just 19-years-old. She also claimed a gold medal at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Anything close to that in her maiden Olympics in Tokyo would etch her name forever into the history books.
5.Saurabh Chaudhary (Shooting)
The current world No. 2 in the 10m men’s air pistol, Saurabh Chaudhary has been hailed as a prodigious talent in recent years. He is 12 years younger to fellow countryman and world No. 1 Abhishek Verma - and this clearly shows the progress he has made despite his young age.
Eight gold medals at ISSF World Cups, coupled with gold medals in the 2018 Youth Olympic Games and the 2018 Asian Games clearly proves his mettle. A gold in the ISSF World Cup in New Delhi earlier in 2021 will firmly put him among the medal prospects.
The only Indian shooter to win gold medals in ISSF World Cup, ISSF World Championship, Youth Olympic Games, Asian Games and Asian Air Gun Championship – Chaudhary will be hoping to now add the biggest prize of them all in Tokyo.
6. Mirabai Chanu (Weightlifter)
Chanu, ranked No.2 in the world in 49 kg category, will be the country’s sole participant in weightlifting and is expected to be one of the brightest sparks for India in Tokyo. The weightlifter’s major breakthrough came in the 2014 Commonwealth Games where she won a silver medal.
The 26-year-old went an extra mile by clinching the gold medal in the next edition of the Commonwealth Games and the World Championships prior to that. Chanu’s impressive performance continued after a bronze finish in the Asian Weightlifting Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Participating in her first international competition in more than a year due to the pandemic, she created a new national record and more importantly, broke the clean-and-jerk world record.
7. Neeraj Chopra (Javelin)
India may not have had much to write home about in athletics in the Olympics arena, but javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra is considered to be one of the hottest medal prospects in the country right now. The long-haired Chopra shot to fame after clinching gold medals at the 2018 Asian Games and the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Since then, the javelin thrower has grown in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years.
The Indian athlete had clinched his Olympics quota at an event in Potchefstroom, South Africa in January 2020. The 23-year-old recently came up with the best effort of 83.18m to win the javelin event at the Meeting Cidade de Lisboa in Portugal.
The reigning Asian and Commonwealth Games champion is in a confident mood ahead of his maiden Olympics appearance and despite a recent injury, will be hoping that he can do wonders on the track and end the country’s long wait for an Olympic medal in track & field.
8. Amit Panghal (Boxing)
The 25-year-old boxer is one of India’s biggest medal prospects in the ring. Only last May at the Asian Boxing Championship in Dubai, the pocket-sized Panghal lived up to his reputation as he defeated Enkhmandakh Kharkhuu of Mongolia 3-2 in the quarter finals. This was followed by a commanding display against Kazakhstan’s Saken Bibossinov to reach the final.
Panghal’s opponent in the summit clash was his nemesis, the reigning Olympic and world champion Shakhobidin Zoirov of Uzbekistan. The Indian would go on to suffer a heartbreaking 2-3 split decision loss when it seemed he had done enough to clinch victory. The Indian boxing contingent lodged an official protest against the verdict, but it was shot down. This was Panghal’s third successive loss to Zoirov, but the defeat had given the Indian boxer another opportunity to work on his flaws.
9. Bajrang Punia (Wrestling)
The 27-year-old, a product of Haryana’s Jhajjar disrict, will take part in men’s freestyle 65kg category and is one of India’s brightest medal hopes. Punia has made rapid strides in recent years ever since he has won gold medals at the 2018 Asian Games as well as in two Asian Championships. Earlier this year, he had claimed the silver in the Asian Wrestling Championships at Almaty, Kazakhstan.
India’s chances of a medal or two is a realistic one and Punia will be one of the most eye-catching grapplers in Tokyo. He has already received the prestigious Padma Shri and Arjuna awards, and will be joining the rest of the squad directly from Makhachkala, Russia where he had been gearing up for the biggest tournament in his career.
10. Deepika Kumari (Archery)
Talk of archery, and the unassuming Deepika Kumari continues to be the face of Indian archery 11 years on from her double Commonwealth Games triumph in New Delhi. She had equalled the women’s recurve world record in 2016 and has been impressive ever since. The current world No. 1 rewrote the history books by becoming the first Indian to win three individual women’s recurve gold medals at the Archery World Cup in Guatemala City in April.
Deepika had earlier recorded victories in the individual women’s recurve event at Antalya, Turkey in 2012 and Salt Lake City, United States in 2018. The 27-year-old defeated Mackenzie Brown in a shoot-off in the final. However, in Rio 2016, she had suffered a disappointing last 16 exit. The Ranchi girl is a completely different prospect now and it will be now or never as she aims to capture India’s first-ever Olympic medal in archery.