Mission Tokyo, where do we stand?

The Tokyo Olympic Games scheduled for 2020 were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic PHOTO:Getty

With just 45 days left to go for the Tokyo Olympics, the Patriot takes a look at the Indian contingent and its prospects for the Games 

As a nation, we are more emotional and concerned about what’s happening to the suspended Indian Premier League than about our preparedness for theTokyo Games-bound athletes. With less than 45 days to go for the Tokyo Olympics, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) has reported that already 100 athletes (56 men and 44 women) have qualified and it expects another 25 to 30 athletes to be added to the list. 

Is that all for us to know?

Or, are we also concerned whether they are in their best shape to give their best in Japan?

Indian athletes who have qualified for the Games have been selected for different disciplines, like, Badminton, Boxing, Hockey, weight-lifting, Wrestling, Sailing, Athletics, Archery, Equestrian, Fencing, Rowing, Shooting and Table Tennis. And India stands a good chance to make itself count in sports like Badminton, Athletics, Wrestling, Weight-lifting, Archery and Shooting, provided our athletes hit the top form at the right time.

In nutshell, never before in the Indian Olympic history have we had so many medal contenders within our ranks. Just like how the 2010 Commonwealth Games proved to be a turning point for our sporting world, Tokyo could replicate the same, come July and August.

As per a top Olympic analyst company, India could equal its combined tally of the last 12 Games to win 17 medals, including four gold medals. The projection was made when there were 100-days-to-go for the postponed Tokyo Games, which are scheduled to be held from July 23 to August 8. As per the statistical data, India can win eight medals in shooting, four in boxing, three in wrestling and one each in archery and weightlifting. The total tally is projected to be four gold, five silver and eight bronze medals.

 

Wrestling, the way

Indian wrestler Bajrang Punia (in blue) during the Senior Asian Wrestling Championship, at IGI Stadium in 2020 in New Delhi PHOTO:Getty

Wrestler Bajrang Punia has everything needed to win a medal in the 65kg weight category at the highest level. Punia is amongst the most decorated wrestlers in India with three Worlds medals, including two at the last two World Championships, to his name. However, this will be his first Olympics in Tokyo. 

Bajrang has competed in nine international tournaments since the start of 2019, medalling every time. His gold medal at the 2019 Asian Championships made him one of the favourites to finish at the podium. The Indian stayed busy through the coronavirus pandemic, competing in minor tournaments in the US. He has shown little signs of rust in 2021, winning the Matteo Pellicone tournament in Italy last month.

Vinesh Phogat too has won medals in all 10 tournaments she has competed in the last two years, and winning a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships was her best show of career so far. Though she picked a serious knee injury in the Rio Games, she has shown no signs of nervousness ever since returning from injury and her gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games was one such instance. 

Phogat has beaten many of the top contenders who will be competing in Tokyo, including Sofia Mattson, Maria Prevolaraki and two-time world champion Vanessa Kaladzinskaya. If there is one wrestler who has beaten Phogat thrice in a row, it is Japan’s Mayu Mukaida.  And with North Korea withdrawing from the Games, who knows that the absence of world champion Pak Yong-Mi could well prove to be a lucky one for Indian.

 

Javelin, throw in a right direction

Neeraj Chopra in men’s javelin throw during the IAAF World U20 Championships in 2016 PHOTO:Getty

The 23-year-old former Junior World Champion Neeraj Chopra is India’s biggest medal prospect at the Games, despite the history that our country has never won an Olympic medal in Javelin throw. In fact, when he broke the Junior World Record with a throw of 86.48m in 2016, that was better than the distance thrown to win the bronze medal a month later at the Rio Olympics.

Neeraj further proved his supremacy in the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games and even established a new National Record with a throw of 88.06m at the 2018 Asiad in Jakarta. However, he has not participated at any major international competitions in two years due to a travel ban.

Neeraj, who is now reaching Paris for a much-needed exposure trip before the Games, feels he is inching closer to the magical 90m mark ahead of the showpiece event.

Since returning from injury, Chopra has been incredibly consistent, regularly throwing the javelin beyond the 86m mark. 

But that doesn’t ensure him a medal at the Games. Going by records, 11 of the athletes who have qualified for Tokyo have a better personal best than Neeraj. However, with the cancellation of tournaments owing to the pandemic, there is all likelihood that most of these throwers would be rusty and a good throw in Tokyo could well change all the predictions.

 

Weighing the expectations

Chanu Saikhom Mirabai of India competes during the Weightlifting Women’s 48kg Final on day one of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games PHOTO:Getty

Mirabai Chanu is well-placed to become the first Indian weightlifter since Karnam Malleswari in 2000 to win an Olympic medal. Chanu, a former World Champion and currently the No. 4 in world rankings, got a boost with the pull out of North Korea, whose weightlifter was ranked one place higher than her.

Owing to the Covid situation, Chanu also had negligible exposure trips in 2020. However, her results in 2019 where she lifted 192kg at the Egats Cup, 199kg at the Asian Championships, 191kg at the Senior Commonwealth Championships, 201kg at the World Championships and 194kg at the Qatar Cup, Chanu is well-placed to contest for at least a silver medal. And who knows if top-ranked China decides to skip the lightest women’s division just like they did at the 2016 Rio, Chanu might even have the top podium finish.

 

Shooting, the rest

Saurabh Chaudhary in action during the 10-meter Air Pistol Mens final of ISSF World Cup, at Dr Karni Singh Shooting Ranges PHOTO:Getty

With a strong team of 15 shooters reaching Tokyo, no less than eight medals are expected from them. The best prospect of an individual medal will be Saurabh Chaudhary in the men’s 10m pistol event. Though Saurabh has not been ranked at the top in his career, his consistency over the past two years makes him amongst the top bet for India in Tokyo. In a nutshell, Saurabh has made the final of every tournament he has qualified for since competing as a senior in 2018, which is a record in itself. He has participated in four World Cups since 2019, winning 2 golds (New Delhi 2019, Munich 2019) one silver (New Delhi 2021) and one bronze (Rio de Janeiro 2019). 

He also won a silver at the 2019 Asian championships.

His pairing with another young women shooter, Manu Bhaker, give India the best chance to win a gold in the mixed team event. The two have dominated competitions over the 2019 World Cup cycle and continued on that note at the 2021 New Delhi World Cup also.

Elavenil Valarivan is another favourite to win a medal in the mixed team rifle event with Divyansh Panwar. That’s the reason she has been included in the Tokyo contingent despite not securing an Olympic quota. Valarivan and Panwar have only paired once — in the New Delhi World Cup, where they won gold. Panwar, though, has had plenty of success over the past couple of years, winning two gold medals in 2019 when he was partnering Anjum Moudgil.  He also won a World Cup bronze partnering Moudgil the same year.

Yashaswini Deswal and Abhishek Verma are the other medal contenders despite being overshadowed over the past couple of years by Saurabh and Manu Bhaker.

 

Shuttling the dream

Pusarla V. Sindhu of India competes in the Women’s Singles round robin match of the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals, January 29, 2021 in Nonthaburi, Thailand PHOTO:Getty

Silver medallist in the Rio Games, PV Sindhu will be hoping to improve upon her previous performance in Tokyo. And what a better chance than this where Spanish champion Crolina Marin withdrew due to knee injury. Though Sindhu had an indifferent 2019 year when she was crowned World Champion. But in 2021, she has found her touch back by reaching the final of the Swiss Open and beating former World No 1 Akane Yamaguchi to reach the semi-finals at the All-England Championships.

Sindhu’s biggest nemesis would be Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, who holds a 11-5 career record against the Indian opponent. Even though the 26-year-old Taiwanese shuttler holds the world record for being world No 1 for the most number of weeks, 148 weeks between 2017 and 2019, she always came up short at the Olympics and World Championships.

In the men’s doubles badminton, the pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty have also raised the expectations by winning the Thailand Open Super 500 and became the first Indian men’s doubles pair to win a Super 500 title after they beat the then reigning world champions Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen. 

The duo then made the final of the French Open Super 750 event and broke into the top 10 in the world — also the first Indian men’s doubles pair ever to do so. Chirag and Satwiksairaj had climbed several places to a career-best ranking of world No 7 in 2019. With a little bit of luck, Satwik and Chirag are capable of creating a history in Tokyo. 

 

Archery, a long wait

Indian Archery Player Deepika Kumari busy in practicing at JRD TATA sports complex at Tata Nagar PHOTO:Getty

Indian archers have long been waiting for their deserving medal at the Olympics since the 2004 Athens Games. Deepika Kumari failed to fulfil her dreams in London 2012 and Rio 2016. Four years down the line, this Ranchi girl has developed as an archer, having worked on various mental aspects. The results are there to see. Deepika’s gold medal in the recently concluded World Cup Stage I in Guatemala City is one such indication of her preparedness for the top flight now. She is also a favourite to strike the target in the mixed team event with her husband Atanu Das. 

 

Nostalgic hockey

Varun Kumar (C) of India and his teammates celebrate after winning the Men’s Final match against New Zealand on day four of the Hockey Tokyo 2020 Test Event at Oi Hockey Stadium on August 21, 2019 in Tokyo PHOTO:Getty

Despite India’s strong history in the Olympics, no podium finish has been witnessed since our last gold in 1980 Moscow. However, India has enjoyed a fair bit of success over the past couple of years, the most crucial of which were two wins over world No 4 the Netherlands, and drew 1-1 against No 1 Belgium and No 2 Australia. India have recently beaten defending Olympic champions Argentina twice in the same tournament.

With India currently standing at No 5 rankings, one could expect them to advance out of their group that comprises Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Spain. 

With the exception of Spain, who India have not faced over the last two years, India have beaten every other team at least once since 2019. On the other hand, Indian women’s hockey team have for the first time qualified for the Games. 

 

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Chander Shekhar Luthra
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