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Fabulous 5 India's Tokyo hopes ride on

By Dhruv Munjal
July 16, 2021 07:09 IST
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This time, India may win as many as 17 medals at the Games.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Khelo India Games/Twitter

Photograph: Kind courtesy Tokyo 2020's/Twitter

India could bag only two medals in Rio in 2016, down from an impressive haul of six in London four years earlier.

This time, analysts predict India may win as many as 17 medals.

Dhruv Munjal picks five of the brightest prospects heading to Tokyo.

Neeraj Chopra

 

IMAGE: Neeraj Chopra. Photograph: Kind Courtesy Neeraj Chopra/Instagram

An Olympic medal hopeful from India in track and field is an oddity.

No Indian track athlete has ever been able to reach the Olympic podium.

That is the woeful record Neeraj Chopra will overturn if he wins a medal in the javelin.

Tall and burly, Chopra's progression from world junior champion to Olympic contender has been rapid.

He has set several national records since arriving on the scene five years ago, the latest being a throw of 88.07m in Patiala earlier this year -- the third-best showing by anybody in the javelin in 2021 so far.

That Chopra was able to achieve this despite sitting out the whole of last year is proof of his ability.

The route to the podium, though, is unlikely to be straightforward.

It's worth mentioning that 11 of the competitors in the fray have superior personal bests than the 23 year old from Haryana.

Which means that if everyone throws at their best, Chopra's chances would be bleak.

However, given that the athletes have seen little competition in the last year -- mostly due to Covid restrictions -- there is bound to be some rust.

Chopra, who has been consistently throwing over 86 metres in recent events, can take advantage of that.

 

Saurabh Chaudhary

IMAGE: Saurabh Chaudhary. Photograph: PTI Photo

Shooting is the only discipline where India has won an individual Olympic gold: Abhinav Bindra at Beijing 2008.

So it seems only right that the country's brightest prospect once again comes from shooting.

Chaudhary, 19, has made a habit of striking big at major tournaments in recent years.

Since 2019, he has won medals -- including two gold -- in the four World Cups he has participated in.

Ranked two in the world in the 10m air pistol, Chaudhary shot 589 at the European Championship -- where the Indians were playing as guest competitors -- in Croatia last month.

The score was better than Oleh Omelchuk's, who topped the main qualification event with 586.

The biggest thing going for the Meerut boy is his consistency -- as a senior, he has made the final of every competition he has taken part in.

Chaudhary and teammate Manu Bhaker will also start as favourites in the mixed event. And while he is used to high-pressure environments, the Olympics come with a unique kind of tension. He must hold his nerve.

 

Mirabai Chanu

IMAGE: Mirabai Chanu. Photograph: SAI Media/Twitter

For a country that has traditionally done well in weightlifting in continental tourneys, it's a surprise that Mirabai Chanu is the only one from the discipline to have qualified for Tokyo.

A former world champion in the 48kg, the 26-year-old Manipuri lifter also won medals at the Asian Championships and Commonwealth Games.

Her impressive total of 201kg -- snatch and the clean and the jerk combined -- at the 2019 World Championships helped her finish fourth in a supremely difficult field.

And with each country permitted just the one competitor in every category -- which means that only one among China's powerful duo of Jiang Huihua and Hou Zhihui will take part -- Chanu's hopes of a medal have been bolstered quite a bit.

But stage fright will be a likely decider. In Rio five years ago as well, Chanu was fancied to end up with a medal but failed to register even a single lift in the clean and jerk. She will really need to step up.

 

Bajrang Punia

IMAGE: Bajrang Punia. Photograph: Kind courtesy Bajrang Punia/Instagram

In a sport long identified with the likes of Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt -- the duo have three Olympic medals between them -- Bajrang Punia has spent a major part of his career lurking in the shadows.

That perhaps explains why, in spite of three World Championship medals, Tokyo will be his first Olympic outing.

Punia, 27, has been hyped up for some years and now finally seems to be delivering on that promise.

A slow starter who likes to wear opponents down, Punia is seeded second in the 65kg category for Tokyo.

Having spent much of last year competing in minor tournaments in the US, he is currently training in Russia, getting some invaluable match practice in.

Despite his seeding, the problem for Punia will be the ultra-competitive field -- multiple former world champions will be in action -- he'll have to take on. Expect a difficult draw for the man from Jhajjar.

 

Men's hockey team

IMAGE: Ten debutants in Indian men's hockey squad for the Tokyo Olympics.  

Over the last decade or so, some of us have made peace with the possibility that India may never win an Olympic medal in hockey again.

While meek surrenders in big games have been a reason for this scepticism, it might be time to show some optimism again.

India, ranked five in the world, have been playing some wonderful hockey of late, brilliantly combining speed and technique in a style expertly implemented by head coach Graham Reid.

Two victories against defending champions Argentina in April are bound to fill the side with confidence.

Add to that the formidable results against Australia, Belgium and The Netherlands in the last year, and you get a group of players that looks ready to end the country's 41-year medal drought.

But they mustn't be looking beyond the group stage for now.

In a pool that also includes Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Japan, qualifying for the next stage might be a tricky affair.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

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