India eyes ‘historic’ Games as it sends largest-ever delegation to Tokyo 2020

With expectations higher than ever before, former Olympians and analysts tell Shweta Sharma in Delhi how India is hoping to make dreams of a double-digit medal haul into reality

Friday 23 July 2021 16:00
<p>PV Sindu was first Indian shutter win silver medal at 2016 Rio Olympics</p>

PV Sindu was first Indian shutter win silver medal at 2016 Rio Olympics

After a long wait and a global pandemic, India is finally excited to see the start of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, a Games that sees the country hopeful of its first ever double-digit medals haul. Despite its vast size and 1.4 billion population, India has underperformed at the modern Olympics, its best summer Games being London 2012 and a tally of just six medals.

Tokyo is welcoming India’s largest-ever delegation of 127 athletes, competing across 18 sporting events for 85 medals. Sports commentators, analysts and former athletes here say these Games could be a “historic moment” for a country boasting just the right mix of veterans and rising stars.

Double Olympian Aparna Popat, who was India’s national badminton champion for nine consecutive years and a Commonwealth Games silver medalist, tells The Independent that while the Tokyo Games are being played in exceptional circumstances due to the Covid situation, players will still want to make the most of it.

After all the uncertainty, Popat says the athletes will now “probably be feeling extremely grateful” that the event is going ahead at all.

“They are finally getting this chance and now they would really want to make the most of it. So they’re raring to go, and really raring to grab this opportunity because it’s been such a terrible time for them and for everyone. I hope they channel all that energy into competing and winning,” she says.

Neeraj Chopra of India celebrates victory after winning the Men’s Javelin Throw on day nine of the Asian Games in 2018

Popat says a lot has changed since her experience at the Olympics in the early 2000s, when Indian teams “were not sensitised or prepared beforehand for the protocols, playing conditions and the environment at this biggest sporting event”. “You’re constantly on your guard once you get there because the protocols at an Olympics are completely different, and you are constantly worrying and then you’re not completely focused on your match,” she says.

Since then there has been a “paradigm shift” in the entire sports ecosystem in India, including greater support from government and other institutions, designed to put players in the best possible position to perform on the biggest stage.

India has bagged a total of 28 medals in its entire modern Olympic history since British-Indian athlete Norman Pritchard clinched two silvers in the country’s debut at Paris 1900. By comparison, China with its comparable population took home 71 medals from Rio 2016 alone, including 26 golds.

This time, however, a double-digit medal haul has been predicted by a number of medal forecast websites, with Gracenote expecting India to take home what would be an impressive 19 in total.

Sports commentator and archer Pankaj Athawale says a record medal haul would only be “logical” given current player rankings and the fact a number of athletes are coming of age at the right time.

“Athletic events can be a kind of a surprise package for India apart from the conventional sports where the country fares well, such as archery, shooting, boxing, wrestling and weightlifting,” Athawale says. “From the point of view of preparations and the overall chances that we have, [this should be] a much better Games than the earlier Olympics that we have competed in.

“I think this can be a very historic moment for India at the Olympics. I really can’t say how many medals, but at least a double-digit [tally] is now quite logically possible.”

There are several top stars upon whom India’s medal hopes are most keenly pinned, including its only weightlifter Chanu Saikhom Mirabai, vying for the Women’s 49kg category. She is a former world champion and currently the fourth-ranked weightlifter in her category. She has the added motivated of seeking redemption after her previous dismissal in Rio, where she failed to record a single legal lift in three attempts.

Gold medalist Chanu Saikhom Mirabai of India competes during the Weightlifting Women’s 48kg Final at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games

Taking inspiration from her past failure, she has since broken the world record for the clean and jerk in the women’s 49kg category.

There is also hope for the prospects of sprinter Dutee Chand, who is the current national champion in the women’s 100 metres. She is the first track and field athlete from the country to make it to the Olympics for the second straight Games in an individual event.

Athawale says India has a staggering nine boxers going to the Olympics, and the veteran Mary Kom – already a six-time world champion and Olympic bronze medallist – has a great chance to win another medal. She is one of country’s two flag-bearers in Friday’s opening ceremony, alongside men’s hockey captain Manpreet Singh.

“These along with javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra and sprinter Muhammed Anas will form the foundation where we have at least six or eight medals, because all of them are doing pretty well. And then the icing on the cake might just come in from athletics, archery, golf and probably badminton and hockey,” he says.

PS Sreejeet, a broadcaster and sports commentator, says he has complete faith in badminton star PV Sindhu, who is arguably India’s biggest name at this Games and took silver at the Rio Olympics, as well as shooting where he thinks India can get two medals.

Shooting is an important event for India historically, and young guns Saurabh Chaudhary and Manu Bhaker (both aged 19) are a mean package in the 10m Air Pistol Mixed Team event. They have competed together six times in World Cups, finishing on the podium each time.

“In hockey, we have a good chance to be in top four, for javelin throw I have full faith in Neeraj Chopra and I have a gut feeling that in shotput we have an outside chance,” adds Sreejeet.

Despite the best efforts of India’s sports ministry, the last 18 months have brought huge disruption to the training schedule for every athlete. There remains uncertainty over the prospect of Covid outbreaks in Tokyo itself and there is more pressure this year than ever on the Indian delegation to succeed.

But with all the hype around bagging metals, Athawale says the athletes themselves cannot afford to be weighed down. As for the 1.4 billion-strong public at home? They should focus on supporting the delegation as a whole, and cheering on “very good performances, rather than expecting medals from everyone”.

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