Target Tokyo: India hopeful of winning 5-10 medals at the Olympics

As the greatest festival of sport gets underway on July 23, Indian athletes hope to wipe away disappointments of the previous Olympics and raise spirits of a nation laid low by coronavirus

Target Tokyo: India hopeful of winning 5-10 medals at the Olympics

Vinesh Phogat is the top seed in the 53kg category.

Rohit Mahajan & Vinayak Padmadeo

Vinesh Phogat — a wiry 48kg bundle of muscle — lay writhing on the mat, clutching her right leg. It was the biggest bout of her life of 21 years: quarterfinals at the Rio Olympic Games, against China’s Sun Yanan. A medal beckoned. Vinesh led 1-0 when, trying to escape the grip of the Chinese girl, she twisted her leg badly at the knee. The pain was excruciating.

India will have a realistic medal prospect in javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra.

Five years of pain — that’s what Vinesh takes to the Tokyo Olympics. She’s now much more seasoned at 26, has won a bronze at the Wrestling World Championships and gold medals at the Asian Games and Asian Championships. She’s the world No. 1 in her weight class, 53kg, and the top seed for Tokyo. The world champion, Pak Yong-mi, won’t be in Tokyo because North Korea won’t send their athletes to Tokyo. This is Vinesh’s golden chance but standing in her way would be Japan’s Mayu Mukaida, who has beaten Vinesh in all of their three encounters — handing her a 7-0 thrashing at the 2019 World Championships. So, rankings and seedings apart, don’t count your gold yet.

At 38, Tokyo is Mary Kom’s final stop at an Olympics. A multiple world champion, she continues to dream of gold.
Bajrang Punia (seeded No. 2 in men's 65kg freestyle) is another hot prospect.
Amit Panghal, the 52kg pugilist, is seeded first in Tokyo and is a good bet for a medal.

Tempered hopes

Indians do tend to count their Olympics medals well before winning them. For the 2016 Rio Games, for instance, the Sports Authority of India had hopes of 10 medals from 117 athletes. Computing the data of Indian athletes, Goldman Sachs had predicted eight medals, including one gold, for India. India won just two medals, a silver by PV Sindhu in badminton and a bronze by Sakshi Malik in wrestling. Lesson: data analytics won’t win you medals.

Last month, Kiren Rijiju, then sports minister, and IOA president Narinder Batra said they expected India to win over 10 medals. Gracenote, a data analysis MNC, predicts 12 medals for India in Tokyo, including four gold. This, by the way, is the total number of India’s medals at the last 12 Olympics — overall, India have won only 28 medals from 24 Olympics. Just for perspective, Slovakia, a tiny country of some 55 lakh people, has the same number of medals from six Olympics, and Croatia (population 41 lakh) has 33 medals from seven.

What, then, is at the root of the optimism of a good haul at Tokyo? There, indeed, are some encouraging trends: India’s Tokyo contingent will have 120 athletes, the most ever; Indians have broken new ground in sports such as fencing, sailing and swimming to make it to Tokyo — in itself a triumph; at least a couple of boxers are favourites to climb the podium, and several shooters too; for the first time in living memory, in athletics India will have a realistic medal prospect in javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra; the men’s hockey team has put up excellent performances in Europe and Argentina since the Covid-enforced break ended; in men’s wrestling, Bajrang Punia (seeded No. 2 in 65kg freestyle) and Deepak Punia (No. 2 in 86kg freestyle) are hot prospects, and Sonam Malik (62kg) and Anshu Malik (57kg) among women wrestlers have an outside chance of a medal, apart from Vinesh. In archery, Deepika Kumar seems to be peaking at the right time.

Shooting fears

India felt a shooting pain in Rio as the red-hot Jitu Rai faltered with the pistol, and Abhinav Bindra finished fourth with the rifle. This time around, India’s shooting team has several of the world’s top-ranked shooters, both men and women. Expectations are high, but the team hit an unexpected roadblock at the recent World Cup in Croatia.

Used to shooting upwards of 630 points during training, Divyansh Singh Panwar, world No. 2 in 10m air rifle, shot a terrible 624.7 to finish 25th in qualification. Deepak Kumar did a shade better to finish 14th. The women shooters also faltered, with current world No. 1 Elavenil Valarivan finishing a lowly 55th with 621.2. Apurvi Chandela finished 24th. This left the coaching staff in a terrible state as they could not figure out this sudden, drastic fall in form.

Manu Bhaker with the shooting team having several of the world’s top-ranked shooters, both men and women, India can hope for some medals. Photo: Agencies 
Saurabh Chaudhary with the shooting team having several of the world’s top-ranked shooters, both men and women, India can hope for some medals. Photo: Agencies 
Rahi Sarnobat with the shooting team having several of the world’s top-ranked shooters, both men and women, India can hope for some medals. Photo: Agencies 

The coaches eventually decided the confidence of shooting high scores routinely had put the shooters at ease. “They lost their alertness. We were all in shock. None of us saw this coming,” rifle coach Deepali Deshpande said, citing Panwar’s example of lack of diligence. “Take Divyansh. He and the others were consistently shooting high scores since we got to Croatia, and suddenly we see a big drop. Later we found he forgot to check on his butt-plate — it was slightly off angle. After this, he and others are diligently checking everything! That alertness is back and scores are up again.”

Deepali is relieved that the “dip in form and focus” occurred in Croatia — at the Olympics, it must not happen: Then it leads to a lifetime of pain.

Manpreet Singh, captain of men’s hockey team, which is on a high after a series of wins against the best.

Among the pistol shooters, only Rahi Sarnobat came up trumps at the World Cup, winning 25m pistol gold, with Manu Bhaker finishing seventh. Their qualification scores of 591 and 588, respectively, were satisfactory for the coaches as a replication of these scores at Tokyo would be good enough to reach the final. For the promising Haryana teen Manu, who won the 10m air pistol mixed team silver with Saurabh Chaudhary, it has been a change of personnel, with Ronak Pandit taking over training duties from Jaspal Rana, with whom Manu had a much-publicised falling out.

Pandit has given Manu freedom for ‘her time’, with the idea that she could give it her all in training. “Manu is a technically gifted shooter so as a coach you don’t necessarily need to change a lot. What we are working on is confidence-building and preparations for real scenarios that can affect you and your rhythm in Tokyo,” Pandit said.

Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu (49kg), the former world champion, broke the world record in the clean and jerk category in April and is on course for an Olympics medal

Scares on the mat

The wrestlers too suffered in their final push. Bajrang, the only wrestler from India to have medalled thrice at the World Championships (bronze in 2013 and 2019, silver in 2018), suffered a knee injury last month. Days later, he clarified that the scans revealed no major damage. However, the injury coming in a tournament just before the Olympics has cast a doubt over Bajrang’s chances.

The 22-year-old Deepak Punia could be the dark horse — he won silver at the 2019 World Championships and is seeded No. 2 for Tokyo behind the mighty Hassan Aliazam Yazdanicharati of Iran.

Vinesh, who had tested positive for Covid-19 last year, had her preparations severely disrupted. She took a long time to recover and had to be coaxed not to overexert herself in attempts to regain top fitness. “The first thing was the medical examinations. Are there any complications? With that in mind, we started the training plan,” Vinesh's coach Woller Akos said. “We started with low intensity training, with stabilisation exercises. We could start the full load only in November,” the Hungarian coach employed, by OGQ, added.

Now up to speed, Vinesh went on a winning spree, with three back-to-back gold medals in Kiev, Rome and Chinese Taipei. Expectations have risen manifold. To ignore the buzz, Vinesh has taken a break from social media. Akos wants his ward to treat the Olympics as just another event. “It should not be treated as a priority event. You want to be the Olympic champion. But when the competition starts you need to focus on one match at a time,” Akos said.

Unboxing medals

Mary Kom too takes much pain to Tokyo. Nine years ago, as she got off the ring after being thrashed by Nicola Adams in the semifinals, Mary mumbled: “Aaj bahut maar khaaya!” She could not qualify for Rio 2016, and at age 38, Tokyo is her final stop at an Olympics. A multiple world champion, she continues to dream of gold.

Amit Panghal, the 52kg pugilist, is seeded first in Tokyo and is a good bet for a medal, and women boxers Simranjit Kaur (60kg) and Pooja Rani (75kg) have their ability to climb the podium, too.

Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu (49kg), the former world champion, broke the world record in the clean and jerk category in April and is on course for a medal in the weightlifting hall at Tokyo. At Rio, she had failed to make a single valid lift in the clean and jerk section.

Mirabai, like Vinesh and Mary Kom, carries the pain of loss. Tokyo — the much delayed 2020 Olympics, being held minus the fans — could be their redemption.

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