THE expectations from the 655-strong Indian contingent by the sports administrators, including Sports Minister Anurag Thakur, are high: ‘Ab ki baar, 100 paar.’ India’s biggest medal haul in the Asian Games is 70, including 16 gold, at the last edition in Indonesia in 2018.
While shooting, which will have team medals up for grabs, and athletics will push India’s standing on the medals’ tally, there are a few disciplines where India is waiting to win its first ever gold.
Indians have never won an Asiad medal in at least 10 events: Fencing, modern pentathlon, sports climbing, soft tennis, jiu-jitsu, e-sports, cricket, handball, rugby and basketball.
Hopes are pinned on Mirabai Chanu to end the gold drought in weightlifting, and though not outright contenders, Tejaswin Shankar and Harshveer Sekhon represent the willingness of Indian athletes to embrace change and dream big.
THE HOST CITY
- The host city of the 2023 Asian Games, Hangzhou, is the capital of Zhejiang province in China. Scheduled for 2022, the Games were postponed due to Covid-19.
- Located on the banks of the Qiantang river, Hangzhou is around 100 miles from Shanghai.
- Time difference: Hangzhou is 2 hours and 30 minutes ahead of India.
- Athletes will compete for 481 gold medals in 40 events, including swimming, archery, athletics, badminton, baseball and softball, at the Hangzhou Asian Games.
- The Asian Games opening ceremony will be held on September 23 in Olympic Sports Center Stadium.
- Thirty existing facilities and 14 newly constructed venues will be used. Most venues are within Hangzhou and its districts.
- Hangzhou will become the third Chinese city to host the Asian Games after Beijing in 1990 and Guangzhou in 2010.
A record number of athletes will take part in the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou. More than 12,500 athletes from 45 countries have sent their entries for the Games to be held from September 23 until October 8. The previous record was 11,300 athletes in the last edition at Jakarta and Palembang in 2018. The number puts a shadow on Olympic participation as 11,420 athletes took part at the Tokyo Olympics. E-sports and breakdance will make their debut while cricket and chess will return to the Games.
Hangzhou 2022 was postponed to 2023 because of the pandemic. The Asian Games will also serve as a qualifying event for the 2024 Olympic Games to be held in Paris. A total of 74 quotas from nine different sports disciplines will be distributed at the Asian Games in China. The maximum quota that is up for grabs is from the sport of boxing, where 34 boxers have the chance to qualify. It is followed by 10 in modern pentathlon, six each in archery and sailing and two each in tennis and water polo.
High jumper goes for a medal leap in decathlon
TEJASWIN SHANKAR has just finished training in one of his three “Achilles’ heel” events, the discus throw, which is part of 10 disciplines that he will have to master in the decathlon competition at the Asian Games. The Delhi boy, who studied in the Capital’s Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, has been working on the throw events — discus, javelin and pole vault — at his old stomping grounds, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
The ‘former’ high jumper is the reigning national record holder in high jump and won a bronze medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, a first for an Indian in that discipline. It has been a year since he took up decathlon. Tejaswin now wants to iron out a few deficiencies in his new discipline. Haryana’s Anuj, a national-level pole vaulter, has been helping Tejaswin, while his coach Rajiv Sejwal is there for other events. Then, there is the reigning Olympic and World Champion, Neeraj Chopra, who has also chipped in with some advice.
Neeraj has recommended the super-elite NXS 800g Nordic javelin which he thinks may help Tejaswin. “We have not talked about the technique much, but he has recommended this Nordic javelin to aid my throw. So, if I register a personal best, you can write that I used Neeraj’s javelin. Let us see whether it works or not. If it does not, you can blame Neeraj Chopra,” Tejaswin jokes. On a serious note, he skipped the World Athletics Championships, held in Budapest, last month to work on his weak points.
“Anyone who has been following me for the last three-four months would know that discus, pole vault and javelin are my Achilles’ heel. Therefore, it is not a surprise that I am working hard in these disciplines. I have had some good training sessions for the pole vault and I do think I am ready to register my personal best in pole vault and discus,” he says.
Tejaswin came within a whisker of breaking the national record in decathlon set by Bharatinder Singh in 2011 when he clinched the silver at the 2023 Jim Click Shootout competition in Arizona by accumulating 7,648 points. The athlete knows that for him to be in the mix for a medal placing, he has to work harder. He says his biggest competition will come from China’s Qihao Sun and Japan’s Yuma Maruyama, who incidentally won the gold medal at the Asian Athletics Championships. “I had a decent outing at the Asian Championships but I am aware of the competition. There are a few athletes who did not participate in the Asian Championships but will be competing in Hangzhou. Qihao Sun dropped out on day two in Bangkok; then there is Japan’s Maruyama. Currently, I am ranked fourth or fifth. I know it is not going to be easy but I am happy and excited about this chance as this would be my first Asian Games,” he says.
Harshveer and wheels of change
LUDHIANA’S Harshveer Singh Sekhon was feeling out of place at the Asian Games sending-off ceremony held in New Delhi earlier this month. The 25-year-old cyclist, who will represent India in the Madison, had an air about himself, even when he was generally ignored by mediapersons, who were crowding around the known stars, including hockey icons Savita Punia, PR Sreejesh, shot-putter Tajinder Singh Toor and a few others. Sekhon was not bothered about the lack of interest in him. “They are big stars so it is normal for the media people to go after them,” says the cyclist.
The confidence also comes from the fact that he has fought many odds to reach where he is now. Bullied in school for being overweight, he took to roller skating to lose weight and went on to win many medals, including the silver in the Asian Roller Skating Championship at China in 2014.
Sekhon represented India at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games, where he was placed 11th. However, by then, he had realised that there was no career or money in that sport, as athletes had to spend from their own pockets to take part in the nationals and international tournaments.
“The shoe-frame of the skates would cost Rs 50,000 and then there was the travelling that we had to do on our own. I had decided to quit the sport in 2017 as money was tight,” adds Sekhon, explaining his predicament. This despite the fact that his father, Baljeet Singh Sekhon, has a construction business. “Sometimes an investment pays, but what happens if you make a wrong call? That is how business works,” he says.
A chance meeting with Gurbaz Singh in 2017 saw him tilting towards cycling. Gurbaz even lent his old track bike to his new recruit. “It was never going to be hard for Harshveer to adapt to a new sport as one has to have strength in the legs for both the sports. He won a bronze medal in his very first outing in the All-India Inter University tournament in 2017. He has never looked back since,” adds Gurbaz.
His results in the domestic circuit earned him a call for the national trials in 2019 and since then, Harshveer has been part of the national squad. His discipline, the Madison, is a relay race of two riders. The first tags his teammate to take over in the 160-lap race in the velodrome. Points are awarded in intermediate sprints and teams can gain points by lapping the field at the same time, but they can also lose points if lapped.
“I cannot say that we will win a medal but since the timings among most teams are almost identical, you never know, we might be in the fight for the medal,” says Sekhon, who will be teaming up with Vishvajeet for the Madison race.
Mirabai eyes ending long wait for lifters on podium
MIRABAI CHANU, the Tokyo Olympics silver medallist, is currently wrapped under cotton wool by the Indian Weightlifting Federation (IWLF). The coaches, including chief coach Vijay Sharma, have been asked to not talk about how much she is lifting during the training sessions in Patiala.
There are a few reasons behind it. Firstly, Mira’s workload has to be managed as the contingent heads to Hangzhou in its quest to win an elusive medal at the Asian Games. Karnam Malleswari was the last Indian to win a medal — a silver at the 1998 edition in the 63-kg category.
The 29-year-old has only recovered from a thigh injury that kept her out of the Commonwealth Championships held in Noida in July this year. She went on a rehabilitation programme under Dr Aaron Horschig, a renowned strength and conditioning expert. However, the most important aspect of this secrecy about Mirabai’s training is the fact that the coaches do not want to give out any cues to the opponents.
At the Asian Championships held in Jinju, South Korea, in May, the former world champion in the 49-kg category finished sixth with a combined lift of 194 kg in snatch and clean & jerk. She could have pushed harder, but she was asked to go slow. Similarly, at the World Championships currently underway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Mira appeared for the mandatory weigh-in but registered a DNS (did not start). The Worlds is part of a set of compulsory tournaments that an athlete has to participate in to be eligible for the Olympics.
“I cannot tell you how much she is lifting in training. We are doing this to keep her numbers away from the media so that nothing in terms of her lifts and condition gets leaked to our competitors,” Sharma explains. “This is not a sudden decision. She did not push herself at the Asian Championships and only appeared for the weigh-in, gave her sample and we flew back to Patiala.”
Mira’s top opponent would be China’s Jiang Huihua, who became the World Champion in Riyadh with a combined lift of 215 kg. Another Chinese lifter, Hou Zhihui, won the silver at the same event. If China enters two lifters, Mira would be in a mix with other lifters, including Thailand’s Surodchana Khambao, for a fight to reach the podium position.
Coach Sharma, however, is not worried. “We have trained hard and we know her capability. I will not say which medal, but we will be there for sure. Actually. I am sure we will end the wait for a medal,” he signs off.
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