Over 11,000 athletes who have gathered in Tokyo for the Olympics have endorsed it as has the 120-strong Indian contingent, which, much like in the past, is licking its lips in anticipation. After months of training despite pain, isolation, self-doubt and a sense of hopelessness, the next two weeks present the best opportunity for the country’s athletes to prove that the raging virus can penetrate walls, invade training centres but can never destroy their dreams.
It’s mind over matter then for the athletes. It could be more than that for the country’s shooters, who find themselves with the responsibility of inspiring a new generation of stars not just content with an Olympian tag.
Two medal events – men’s 10m air pistol and women’s 10m air rifle – on Saturday at the Asaka shooting range will provide the foretaste of things to come.
Will Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, who broke the glass ceiling with a double trap silver in Athens 2004, an event that is not in Tokyo, and the 2008 Beijing gold medallist Abhinav Bindra, continue to inspire the shooters or will India’s fearless young crop look inward for the spark?
Either way, the shooters will galvanise an equally determined set of wrestlers, boxers, shuttlers and archers on whom India’s medal hopes rest. For the others in the 127-member contingent, Tokyo, which is hosting the Olympics after 57 years, is the best opportunity to showcase their growing clout in the world of sports.
The band of shooting stars has made quite an impression in the World Cups over the last Olympic cycle and the likes of Saurabh Chaudhary, Manu Bhaker and Elavenil Valarivan are set to add a new golden chapter. It’s looking increasingly unlikely that Bindra will remain alone in the gold club when the flame burns out at the Olympic stadium in Tokyo.
Like the others, the road to Tokyo for the country’s shooters was one of uncertainty and hardships after the Games were postponed by a year. Quite a few of them battled back bravely after being down with Covid-19 for weeks.
The shooters travelled to Croatia to continue their training even as the country was devastated by the second wave early this year. But the combined efforts of all the stakeholders ensured that India put together the largest ever shooting contingent (15) for the Olympics.
Their medal haul will be difficult to predict but it will be better than what they managed at the 2012 Games unless the virus spoils their best-laid plans.
FIGHTS ON THE RING & MAT
Boxing and wrestling – two sports with mass appeal in rural India thanks to the flourishing akhadas and dangals – will be in focus when the boxers led by Amit Panghal and the wrestlers comprising Vinesh Phogat get into competition mode.
Athletes in these two disciplines were among the luckiest, gaining enough training and competitive exposure overseas. Restrictions were not much of a hindrance as they made good use of the opportunities. Foreign expertise combined with some flourishing natural talent also got them to the top of the world rankings – Panghal and Phogat bringing much cheer to their camps. There are others too to watch out for – veteran boxer MC Mary Kom, who wants to bow out on a high and wrestler Bajrang Punia in the men’s 65kg freestyle.
Archers (Atanu Das, Deepika Kumar) and weightlifters (Mirabai Chanu & Co) head into the Games high on octane. Atanu and Deepika have formed a formidable mixed pair but what goes against archers is their habit of choking on the big stage.
Deepika won a hat-trick of gold medals at the Archery World Cup in Paris last month but could not help the women’s team qualify. Chanu (49kg) has a technical glitch to overcome in snatch, one that has undermined her run in clean and jerk. A medal will indeed be a fortune cookie for both champions.
SINDHU & NEERAJ
World champion and Rio silver medallist PV Sindhu shoulders the expectations of the whole nation in badminton. It’s has been all practice and little matchplay for the 26-year-old Hyderabadi, quite like her opponents. Spain’s Carolina Marin is not in the fray but there are others capable of spoiling Sindhu’s plans.
The lanky shuttler has been the focus of the rival think-tank but if Sindhu can keep her composure, fight her way back from difficult situations and stay focused then another climb to the podium, if not a gold, is surely on the cards.
Former world junior champion Neeraj Chopra’s case is slightly different. The Haryana youngster bore the brunt of lockdowns in national camps and struggled to train and compete abroad. The javelin thrower is not heading into the Games in the best of form but even if a podium eludes him, the tough competition will prepare him for future battles. Neeraj goes in with an outside chance to better the efforts of legends Milkha Singh and PT Usha but for that he would need a career-best throw. Discus thrower Kamalpreet Kaur and shot putter Tajinderpal Singh Toor are also primed to excel in the elite field.
India won their seventh hockey gold in Tokyo in 1964 but there will be nothing to gain from nostalgia when Manpreet Singh and his boys begin their campaign against New Zealand on Saturday. India would rather aim at improving the eighth position they achieved in Rio 2016 rather than make an attempt at medal predictions as they figure in a tough group which also comprises Olympic champions Argentina, Australia, Spain and Japan.
A top-four finish is essential to make the quarterfinals, a tough task as even in normal times, hockey teams the world over tend to conceal their plans and tactics during the Olympic year. With hardly any competition, it would be a cloak-and dagger game all through.