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Can India break the double-digit medal barrier in Paris Olympics this year? This question is likely to dominate Indian sport in the New Year — perhaps even overshadowing the Men in Blue’s prospects of ending more than a decade-long drought of a major ICC trophy.

Talk about India’s pursuit of major international sporting honours in 2024, and it is difficult to look beyond these two events. While the greatest show on earth is due from July 26 to August 11, the World T20 is scheduled from June 1-29 in the US and West Indies. Every time there is an ICC tournament, the Men in Blue go in as sentimental favourites and it will be no different this time around, but Paris is different as it can provide a watershed moment for the country, helping it consolidate its growing stature as a sporting superpower.

The air of expectation around the Summer Olympics is a far cry from the earlier ones which we have grown up with in the 1980s and 90s, where India’s medal hopes began and ended with the men’s hockey team. A piece of statistic will highlight the importance of India’s best-ever haul of seven medals from Tokyo 2020, which bettered their previous best of six in London 2012.

In 123 years of modern Olympics, which marked its birth in Paris in 1900, there have only been 23 individual medallists for India while the remaining 12 came from hockey. And the first 100 years produced just four of them: athlete Norman Pritchard, wrestler K.D. Yadav, tennis icon Leander Paes and weightlifter Karnam Malleswari.

PT Usha

PT Usha, President, Indian Olympic Association

This effectively means that the Indian athletes had accounted for almost 30 per cent of its individual medals from Tokyo itself, where Neeraj Chopra’s golden harvest has infused a generous dose of self belief that a track and field medal was not beyond reach after all.

Here’s a quick recap of other medallists: Mirabai Chanu, silver in 49kg weightlifting; Lovlina Borgohain, bronze in 64-69kg boxing; PV Sindhu, bronze in badminton; Ravi Dahiya, silver in 57kg wrestling; Bajrang Punia, bronze in 65kg wrestling; men’s hockey team bronze and of course Chopra winning gold in javelin at 87.58 metres.

The upward graph in performance of the Indian athletes saw an explosion at the Hangzhou Asian Games, where they finished fourth in the medals tally and crossed the century mark for the first time with a whopping 107 medals. While athletics and shooting accounted for 50 per cent of the medals, there are now world-class performers in badminton, boxing, weightlifting and wrestling, which raises realistic chances of India breaching the 10-medal mark for the first time.

Asked to assess India’s medal prospects in Paris, P.T. Usha, the athletics legend and now president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) chose to be cautiously optimistic. “I don’t want to put numbers on medals as it increases pressure on the contingent, but I feel they will win more medals in Paris than in Tokyo,” Usha tells GN Focus.

“There has been an increase of nearly 50 per cent of medals from the 2018 Asian Games and it has certainly given us reasons to believe. It’s been a result of a lot of hard work of the athletes along with the union government’s initiatives. The sports ministry has tried to provide the right ecosystem with an increase in budget, long-term development programmes, and sports academies – built in collaboration with corporate houses – and the results are showing,” says Usha, whose agonising fourth place finish in 400 metres hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics remains one of India’s biggest heartbreak stories on the track.

However, the modern Indian sportsperson is no longer content with the so-near-yet-so-far stories. They can now boast of a reigning world, Olympic and Asian champion in javelin in Chopra, an unprecedented five-time finalist in world athletics including the spunky men’s 4x 400m relay team, a world No.1 doubles pair in badminton with the men being the Thomas Cup champions, multiple world champions in shooting and a men’s hockey team ranked No. 3 in the world ahead of Germany and Australia — to name a few.

Sift Kaur Samra, Indian sport shooter

Sift Kaur Samra, Indian sport shooter

Breaking down India’s chances on increasing the medals tally in seven month’s time, Usha observes that the sportspersons – especially athletes – should be mindful about the shorter cycle of three years, instead of the usual four. ‘’I believe they have now got used to it as the gap between Rio and Tokyo were actually five years,” she says in jest, before adding on a more serious note, “There is no denying that there is an increased risk of injuries for the athletes due to a shorter time cycle. Athletes also normally wait for the fourth year for peaking on their preparations, but now their coaching teams need to reinvent the wheel.”

Speaking at a recent interview, Chopra admitted that it had been a roller coaster ride for him and that the goal would be to improve his throw and take it past the 90-metre mark in Paris.

Despite belying their expectations after turning up with a lot of promise in Tokyo, the shooters’ group is expected to be a game changer after returning with 22 medals in Hangzhou, including seven golds. Sift Kaur Samra, a twin-gold medallist in 10m air pistol and 50m rifle 3P (three positions), and a world record holder in the latter, wants to build on what had been an extraordinary year for her.

“The past year has been great for me and for the upcoming Games in Paris, I am preparing hard. However, I don’t want to overthink about it as it will take the focus off my preparations,” Samra, who was one of the earliest shooters to qualify for Paris, tells GN Focus.

One of Samra’s high points during the Hangzhou campaign was her win over world champion Zhang Qiongyue. “I am proud of being able to beat her on Chinese soil. It should definitely be a confidence-booster for me,” she adds.

A ticklish question, however, is whether the recent impasse over wrestling will leave any impact on its medal chances. Tokyo had produced two medals on the mat in Ravi Dahiya and Bajrang Punia but till date, only one wrestler in the 19-year-old Antim Panghal has earned a quota for India when she emerged as a bronze medallist in the 53-kg category in the World Championships last September.

However, as per the qualifying norms laid down by the IOA-appointed adhoc committee, Panghal will have to take on a challenger in June to seal her berth – which will be identified by May 31. There are two upcoming events, the Asian Olympic qualifier in Kyrgyzstan in April, and the World Olympic Qualifiers in May, from where India can earn as many as 17 quota places. However, all of them will have to contend with a challenger like Antim Panghal to earn the final ticket to Paris.

“Wrestling has traditionally been a medal winner for us – be it in Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, Worlds and even Olympics. However, the preparation leading to the Olympics this time had been far from ideal for reasons known to all. The next few months will determine whether we can field a full strength squad,” says Anita Sheoran, a 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallist who lost the elections for Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) presidency against Sanjay Singh in December.

There is still a lot of slip between the cup and the lip as the final Indian contingent will take shape through the slew of trials and exposure trips coming up over the next few months. It may not be easy to carry the expectations of a billion people — but there will be no dearth of prayers to egg them on. ●

Meet the Indian medal hopefuls for Paris Olympics

Neeraj Chopra: The reigning Olympic and world champion in javelin, Neeraj Chopra is in line to be the first-ever Indian athlete to retain his medal at the Paris Olympics. Ever since his historic effort in Tokyo in 2021, the Olympics hero shrugged off a few niggles to hold his standing as one of the premier javelin throwers in the world.
Speaking about his chances of retaining the gold, P.T. Usha, President of Indian Olympic Association, says: “I have seen his growth from junior to senior level, all thanks to talent and dedication. I am hopeful of his chances but it depends on his form, fitness and the level of competition.”

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty: The Number one doubles pair in badminton, compared to the likes of Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi in tennis, had been in unstoppable form throughout 2023 and capped it with a first-ever gold medal for India at the Asian Games. Though they are yet to qualify for Paris, the Sat-Chi combination looks like one of the strong medal prospects.

Antim Panghal: The 19-year-old prodigious talent is touted as the next big thing among women wrestlers. Named as the Best Young Wrestler by United World Wrestling (UWW) for 2023, she qualified for Paris by claiming a bronze at the World Championships and will have the spotlight trained on her.

Nikhat Zareen: The feisty boxer (pictured left) from Hyderabad became the toast of the nation when she won a World Championship gold in 2022 and followed it up with another triumph at the Commonwealth Games the same year. Maintaining an unbeaten run for two years, Zareen locked a berth for Paris when she marched into the semifinals at Asiad.

Indian shooting team: The young crop of shooters, who hit the bulls’ eye to claim 22 medals in Hangzhou, can be the real game changers. The likes of Sift Kaur Samra, Manu Bhaker, Tilottama Sen, Mehuli Ghosh, Esha Singh and Aishwary Tomar along with Rudranksh Patil, Akhil Sheoran and Sarabjot Singh are capable of packing a punch.

Men’s hockey team: The men’s hockey team swept their way to Asian Games gold in style. Still very much a core of the team which ended India’s medal drought of 41 years in Tokyo, Harmanpreet Singh & Co will be the ones to watch out for.
— G.B.