When the Olympics come, the nation of one hundred and thirty crore passionate and emotional population asks — how many medals will India get this time? When India became an independent nation, our hockey team invariably got gold medals for the country. ‘Hum Hai Naa’ from the Indian hockey team meant that we were noticed in the biggest sporting competition of the globe. The combined magic of the hockey team were occasionally matched with the individual brilliance of KD Jadhav, Milkha Singh, PT Usha and others. They gave the nation the hope that we too can compete with the best. Gradually, as India started consolidating its position on the world stage and started excelling in varied fields, we hit a spell of draught in the Olympics. As the graph of Indian hockey team went into a sudden decline, the country drew a blank in terms of the medals in the Olympics. There were aberrations like Leander Paes winning the medal in tennis or Karnam Malleswari in weightlifting, but they were too few and too far in between. The rising great Indian middle class started asking why a country with a huse population can’t get a single medal. The Indian diaspora who had by then made a mark for themselves in terms of excellence in their adopted countries had far more pointed queries? If a country like Jamaica, Nigeria and others could get medals in the Olympics, what is stopping us?
The question surfaced after every four years to be brushed under the carpet in between. The beginning of the new century had a silver lining. An Army officer Colonel Rajyawardhan Singh Rathore in Athens Olympics 2004, won silver medal in double trap shooting. From here, Indian shooters romance with the podium finish started. Finally, in Beijing Olympics 2008, Abhinav Bindra became the first Indian to win individual gold medal in the history of the Olympics. Till date, he’s the only one. Apart from Abhinav Bindra, in the Beijing Olympics, wrestler Sushil Kumar and boxer Vijender Singh got medals for the country. Suddenly, the television news channels that had a huge impact then started chasing sports-stars other than the cricketers. Sushil got medal in the subsequent London 2012 Olympics, leading many to claim that he is the most successful Indian Olympian ever in individual sports.
Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu
In London 2012 Games, India had the best ever medal count in the history of the game. Four years after, in the Rio Olympics 2016, it was again the two daughters of the country PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik, won medals for the country. We were again reminded of PT Usha’s famous interview where she said, ‘whereas broadly the Indian contingent struggled to make its presence felt in the Los Angeles Olympics, the marquee foreign athletes and journalists commented that it’s one Indian daughter PT Usha who is not only competing but forcing the world to stop and take notice’.
Will Tokyo 2020, scheduled from July 23 to August 8, 2021 be a different story? Who will be the medal winners for the country?
India is sending a 126-strong Indian contingent of athletes for the Tokyo Olympics. In my conversation with the athletes — both current and former, support staff, sports administrators and journalists, the India’s medal could be a minimum of four medals and could go up to 10 medals as per the best ever scenario. If we go by the minimum benchmark, we will do better than the Rio Olympics but a notch below the London Olympics. If we touch the double digits, it will be the country’s best ever performance in the history of the games.
Shooting again is the biggest hope. But, Tokyo 2020 may herald the changing order of the Indian shooters. A new generation of shooters has arrived. Amongst the 15 shooters travelling for the Olympics, Saurabh Chaudhary is the best prospect because of his consistency. Plenty of hard work has been put in by the Indian Rifle Association for Sourav to give his best shot in the Olympics. As shooting will try to get back to its winning ways of Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012, World number two Saurabh will be its best bet. He has medaled in 10 m air pistol event in 5 World Cups. A mixed team pairing of Saurabh and Manu Bhaker can get medal for the country. Both of them are incredibly strong shooters individually. In mixed team events, normally, one is the dominant shooter and the other doing the catching up act. But here, both of them are equally dominant with no covering required for any of them. The duo won five successive gold medals before getting the silver in the last event. If anything could stop the duo from the podium finish, it will only be that it will be their first exposure in the Olympics. Apart from them, a mixed team event combination of Divyansh Parmar and Elavenil Valaverian has strong chances of getting the medal for India.
Currently ranked World Number four in the rankings, Mirabai Chanu is well placed to become the first Indian weightlifter since Karnam Malleshwari to get the medal for the Olympics. North Korea’s decision to withdraw from the games has further bolstered the chances of Mirabai. Her nearest rival of Ri Song Gum of North Korea, had pipped Chanu to take the bronze medal in the world championships. But Tokyo may be an ideal platform for her to leave the disappointments of Rio 2016 behind. Though PV Sindhu has not been as consistent in recent years, 2019 World Champion can win the two back-to-back medals for the country in the Tokyo Olympics. The shutter has got the tendency to peak at the highest stage. She is seeded sixth in the Games and has got an easy draw up to the quarter-finals. Similarly, Vinesh Phogat is the most likely medal prospect among India's women wrestlers and will be looking to make happier memories in Tokyo than her debut Olympics in Rio 2016. The first Indian female wrestler to win a gold medal in the commonwealth and Asian games will enter the 53 Kg event as the World number one and top seed.
Amongst the boxers, all eyes will be on the duo of Amit Panchal and MC Mary Kom. Panchal, in the 52 kg weight category has got a gold medal in the World Cup last year and would like to box to glory in the Tokyo Games
In men’s wrestling, Bajrang Punia is undoubtedly the most decorated wrestler in the country and he's considered top prospect in Tokyo 2021. Nicknamed the Tank by his friends and colleagues, he was supposed to be a sure shot winner in his weight category, till he suffered injury a few months back. Bajrang is recovering fast and has got enough firepower in his arsenal to be amongst the best in the games. Just before the games, Dipika Kumari has roared back in form and reclaimed her world number one ranking in archery. She grabbed multiple gold medals at the World Archery event. She had disappointing outings in Rio Olympics 2016 as she could not meet the higher expectations, but Tokyo 2021 may turn out to be the defining point in the career of the girl from Jharkhand. Deepika, along with Atanu Das, forms the power couple of Indian archery. The duo has been in the formidable form of late and could come back with the podium finish in the games. Likewise, in the Javelin, Neeraj Chopra has set a national record of 88.07 m at the Indian GP 3, and similar throws can catapult him to the podium finish.
Amongst the boxers, all eyes will be on the duo of Amit Panchal and MC Mary Kom. Panchal, in the 52 kg weight category has got a gold medal in the World Cup last year and would like to box to glory in the Tokyo Games. The living legend of Indian sports, Iron Lady, MC Mary Kom would like to make perhaps her last Olympics performance memorable. Though a fresh generation has arrived and she has lost her dominance, her experience may help her leave behind her opponents.
Lastly, will the eight-time Olympic champion Indian Men Hockey team will be able to make it back to the podium finish? The team is ranked fifth, and wins in the crucial matches may make at last a dream come true. If this happens, our overall performance in terms of the main course will have a tasty dessert of nostalgia. So, let us all cheer for these athletes and the others to give their best.