With one year left for Rio Olympics 2016, expectations of a better showing than what the Indian contingent managed in London in 2012 are gradually rising.
Six medals across four sports and six disciplines were by no means bad for India in the last Olympics. Saina Nehwal emerged as an unlikely bronze winner in badminton women’s singles while supermom Mary Kom punched above her weight to win another bronze in the women’s flyweight. Sushil Kumar did India proud with silver in wrestling and Yogeshwar Dutt showed real determination to fight through the repechage rounds and add another wrestling medal. Vijay Kumar and Gagan Narang won silver and bronze in shooting respectively.
But one thing was missing in 2012: the gold medal. When Abhinav Bindra stood atop the Olympic shooting podium in 2008 and the Indian national anthem was played for the first time for an individual performer, it sent waves of pride across the country. It made Indians shun their critical attitude of the sports authorities and athletes. It made them realise we could challenge the very best.
Last year, during the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the Asian Games in Incheon, India was far from its best. However, medals across disciplines India never did well in such as rowing and judo, made the average sports fan acknowledge the gradual improvement in the Indian challenge. We were now letting go slightly of our excessive fascination with cricket. We were now winning medals by the hour.
India won 64 medals in total at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, finishing fifth and then took 57 medals in the same year at the Incheon Asian Games. This was no mean achievement for a country that primarily watches only cricket.
However, this also brings us to the question of how many medals India will be able to win in Rio 2016. While shooting and weightlifting have been India’s strong points over the years and while new talents have emerged in the sport of badminton, we are still far away realistically from an Olympic medal in athletics or aquatics. This is sad considering a total of 93 events will be held across these disciplines in Rio.
As we speak, a total of 29 athletes from India have already qualified for the Olympic Games. Sixteen of these will represent the Indian men’s hockey team, which in recent times has made a giant step in reviving the glories of the past that India has achieved in this sport. The Indian hockey team was also the first to qualify for the Olympics, when it beat Pakistan in the gold medal match of the 2014 Asia Cup. Many expectations of a medal will be resting on the young shoulders of these players.
We also have a lot to expect from shot-putter Inderjeet Singh, who qualified with a throw of 20.65 metres at the Federation Cup in May. The qualification mark for the Olympics was 20.50 m. However, soon after the tournament, it was announced that Inderjeet does not have adequate financial resources to pursue his dreams. Although he was promised aid by the government later, the incident exposed the grave reality and hardships of being an athlete in India, if you are not playing cricket.
Inderjeet has won gold this year at both the Asian Championships in Wuhan and the Asian Grand Prix in Bangkok.
In other athletics events, three Indians have qualified in the men’s 20km walk. Lalita Babar has qualified for the women’s 3000m steeplechase as well as the marathon while O.P Jaisha has taken another quota place in the women’s marathon. However, possibilities of a medal from these performers are low.
A highly encouraging sign is the successful qualification of Khushbir Kaur in the women’s 20km walk. Khushbir did India proud by winning silver at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon. It was rather sad to hear recently of her family living in a cowshed in village Rasulpur Kalan near Amritsar, unable to bear expenses for a proper house.
Although none of the Indian badminton players have officially qualified for the 2016 Olympics, it is expected that the likes of Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth and Parupalli Kashyap will fight for the medals in Rio.
All of the above players have a fair chance of winning a medal despite the Chinese domination always being hard to break through in this sport. In recent times, Indian badminton has achieved great heights with Nehwal becoming the first Indian women’s World No.1 and Srikanth beating two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan in his own homeland of China. All this could be attributed mainly to the world-class facilities provided by former All-England champion Pullela Gopichand’s academy in Hyderabad. Gopichand has been like a father figure to so many of India’s young crop of players and has been by their side all through despite age catching up.
India definitely has a chance also to win 3-4 medals in shooting. Army shooter Jitu Rai was very impressive last year when he achieved back-to-back gold medals in the 50m pistol event at both the Commonwealth and Asian Games. His performance this year has been a little down compared to last year but he is still one of India’s leading hopes for gold and was the first to qualify from the country for Rio 2016.
In the 10m air rifle event, India’s Abhinav Bindra will be an attraction from all over the world after he announced plans of retirement last year following the 2016 Rio Olympics. Bindra, as we all know, was India’s first individual gold medal winner at the Olympics in 2008.
Apurvi Chandela in the 10m air rifle event, Gagan Narang in the 50m rifle prone and Gurpreet Singh in the 10m air pistol event are the other Indians to have already secured a place in Rio from shooting. All of these contenders are definitely in line for a medal performance.
In boxing, India’s hopes were dented when Vijender Singh recently announced his decision to turn professional, making him ineligible to compete in Rio. However, in the women’s division, supermoms Mary Kom and Sarita Devi are going all in for a medal and have announced plans of retirement soon after Rio. Mary Kom won bronze for India at the London Olympics in 2012 and is determined to win gold before she finally says goodbye to the sport.
In wrestling, Yogeshwar Dutt and Sushil Kumar will be likely challengers for medals. Both the wrestlers have taken a unique place in the hearts of many Indians with their power, agility and strength making them almost unconquerable in recent times, at least in Asia.
With a few more unexpected medals in some other disciplines, India could finish with 10 medals in all at Rio. It will still be a huge achievement for the country considering how we have returned with just one medal in so many Olympic Games since the event officially began in 1900.
In the long-term vision, India’s future in Olympics is looking good overall but we still have many improvements to make. These improvements have to be made in terms of adequate training for players but also in terms of the attitude of India’s sporting committees, who have in the past only been a model of corruption.
It is a boon that we are still being allowed to compete under the tricolour after the mess that transpired between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) last year.
As for the average Indian sports fan, he is only slowly becoming ever more hopeful that the country can emerge as an Olympic superpower in the future. But we have miles and miles to go in order to achieve that dream. The truth is, we are nowhere.