Shooters hold India's best hopes in Tokyo

WebdeskJul 21, 2021, 01:07 PM IST

Shooters hold India's best hopes in Tokyo

                                                                                                                   Ravi Kant Singh 
The Tokyo Games, about to get underway after a year's delay, will undoubtedly have the entire world watching in anticipation of the sporting performances and how the organisers handle such a massive gathering of sports people in such uncertain times.
The Indian journey at the Olympic Games, since its 1928 debut, has been a somewhat mixed bag.
Medals have been tough to come by, even though the domination in men's field hockey is the stuff of legends indeed - eight gold medals plus a silver and to bronzes in all. The 1980 gold in Moscow, overshadowed by the vast majority of western nations staying away in protest against the erstwhile Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was the last time the Indian men's hockey team appeared on the podium. The nadir was 2008 when the team failed to qualify for the Beijing Games.
And it was in Beijing, and individual sports started slowly but surely taking over - Abhinav Bindra's gold in men's 10 metres air rifle remains the country only top finish in any competition.
Individual triumphs appeared rather tricky, with wrestler KD Jadhav's bronze being the only medal till the tide turned in 1996 when Leander Paes claimed the men's singles bronze at Atlanta when tennis allowed the entry of professionals into the Olympic fray.
Karnam Malleswari (2000) boasts weightlifting's sole medal and the first podium finish by an Indian woman.
Col Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, who has represented Jaipur Rural since 2014 in Parliament and a former minister to boot, began the shooting success story at Athens (2004) with a silver medal in men's double trap.
And then came Beijing, where a pall of gloom hung over the small Indian contingent, travelling to the quadrennial sports jamboree without the men's hockey team.
But soon, all was forgotten as young shuttler Saina Nehwal came with one win of a medal in women's singles before Bindra shot gold to send the success-starved Indians into a frenzy of celebration.
That was not all.
Sushil Kumar (wrestling) and Vijender Singh (boxing) claimed bronze medals, and suddenly, the Indian performance in the Chinese capital was anything but dismal.
And raising the bar further four years later, London (2012) proved to be India's best-ever medal haul with two silver and four bronze medals.
Shooters were at the fore yet again with Vijay Kumar (men's 25m rapid fire pistol silver) and Gagan Narang (men's 10m air rifle bronze), but wrestling was not be left behind as Sushil (silver) and Yogeshwar Dutt (bronze) added two more from the mat. Saina Nehwal landed the women's singles badminton bronze while MC Mary Kom won her first Olympic medal, a bronze, to complete the tally.
But a slump in Rio de Janeiro (2016) when only PV Sindhu (badminton women's singles silver) and Sakshi Malik (women's wrestling bronze) kept India from returning empty-handed from the Brazilian capital.
On to Tokyo, India won its last REAL gold medal in men's hockey in 1964 with a full array of nations taking part; it became a milestone of sorts when both the men's and women's hockey teams qualified for the Olympics. This is only the second time the Indian women figure in the Olympic hockey competition, the previous one being 1980 Moscow, where they finished fourth.
As always, medal hopes run high each time the hockey teams take to the turf, but due more to the sentimental history rather than any real chance. Barring Moscow, the Indian men's team has not made it to the final four grades even since the game replaced the natural playing surface with artificial turf in 1976 (Montreal). 
Number four ranking for the Indian men going into the Tokyo Games certainly gives more than a natural tinge to the medal-winning chances of the team led by Manpreet Singh. Power-houses Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands complete the top four, but one can never ignore former champions Germany or even Spain and England, let alone Pakistan and South Korea.
Rani Rampal-led women's side placed 10th in the current FIH rankings and would be certainly hoping to crash the party for over one of their opponents since they hardly carry any burden of expectations.
Shooting does not enjoy any such luxury. Their performances at several world-level competitions only add realism to their medal chances, especially since the shooting contingent is all of 15 strong.
The 10m air pistol seems the country's best medal bet with men's competition featuring the duo of Saurabh Chaudhary and Abhishek Verma along with Manu Bhaker and Yashashwini Deswal in the women's event. With success galore in Europe both before and during the Covid-19 pandemic that almost life come to a screeching halt worldwide, the 10m range also features the men's and women's air rifle competitions could focus on Indian sports lovers once the Tokyo Games get underway on July 23.
Boxing too has plenty to offer with veterans Vikas Krishan and Mary Kom in the fray. This is the third, and most likely the final, Olympic appearance for both, and neither would want to return home empty-handed. Six-time world champion Mary Kom, a member of the Rajya Sabha, has a bronze from London, but at 38 years, her age maybe her most formidable opponent.
But age hardly holds a challenge for Amit Panghal, who has shown a lot of promise as one of the first of the nine Indian boxers (five men and four women) to book his berth for Tokyo. Uncertainty over the Olympic qualification programme, which was run by the International Olympic Committee itself, rather than the international amateur boxing association AIBA, over fundamental differences about the adjudication of bouts, denied other Indian boxers an opportunity to book their passage to the Japanese capital.
Several qualifying events were either cancelled or denied the status due to travel and other health restrictions that were necessarily imposed because of the pandemic. Finally, in its wisdom, IOC gave away the vacant spots as quotas where India was not eligible as it already had fair participation.
Wrestlers Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat hold firm medal hopes, as does Sonam Malik, who denied Rio bronze medal winner Sakshi Malik a second Olympic appearance. In all, the wrestling squad features four women and three men as the sport was yet another victim of the pandemic, and several qualification events had to be scrapped.
The Indian participation in Tokyo also boasts of several firsts! Maana Patel (100 meters back-stroke) became the first Indian female swimmer to qualify for the Games. The same goes for Nethra Kumaran (laser radial) in sailing, where the country has never fielded more than two participants in any Olympics before Tokyo. Not to be left behind, Bhavani Devi captured a spot in the women's fencing where she will figure in the sabre competition. 
 Pranati Nayak becomes only the second Indian woman gymnast to qualify for the Olympic Games, following in the footsteps of Dipa Karmakar but would certainly hope to go one better and land a medal as well.
Cancellations because of the pandemic hit India's badminton contingent as only PV Sindhu (women's singles), and B Sai Praneeth (men's singles) could make the grade. Others could not improve their World Badminton Federation rankings by the cutoff date for Tokyo. Men's doubles will figure the young, exciting pair of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy to cap off the medal prospects in the racquet sport.
For the first time in the recorded history of the Olympics, both ancient and modern, there will be no spectators because of the pandemic restrictions. But over seven billion are expected to tune in at home to catch the action from the Games!
(The writer is a senior sports analyst) 


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