With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics just around the corner, India hopes to emerge as a more competitive and versatile nation. Over the years the Indian Olympic team has garnered 28 medals, a number that is tied with American swimmer Michael Phelps.
While prospects may seem disappointing, India has in recent years consistently finished in the top 70, winning six medals in London and two in Rio. With a stellar new lineup of athletes, 121 Indians will compete across 18 sporting categories.
Here are a few of the athletes to watch out for, some of who may bring home gold.
The Indian hockey team has by far been the most successful Olympic venture, with the men’s team winning eight gold medals over the past century. Led by forward Manpreet Singh, the Olympic-bound roster is comprised of 16 athletes. The squad has witnessed a slight resurgence in recent years, coming third in the 2018 Asian Games and coming first place in the 2018-19 Men’s Hockey Series.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, scrimmages and tours have been restricted but Singh is confident in the squad and believes a podium finish is possible. “Our team went to Germany and England, and in [the] Pro League, we picked up [a] win over Argentina. Our performances are still quite good this year. And we are working on it [so] that when we travel for the Olympics, our performances remain at par with that,” he said in a recent interview.
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Singh’s leadership extends beyond the field, and many hope that his captaincy can be the catalyst of a much-needed resurgence in the sport. Singh has been appointed India’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremony, an achievement that he will share with legendary boxer MC Mary Kom.
While hockey has historically been India’s strong suit, badminton player PV Sindhu has made quite the name for herself. Currently ranked seventh in the world in women’s badminton, she reached a career-high ranking of world number two in 2017. In the past four years, Sindhu has won medals at the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the Badminton World Championships. While her trajectory is set for success, she may face a challenge in her long-time rival Carolina Marin who defeated her in the finals in Rio. Regardless, Sindhu has performed exceptionally consistently, hence, it is extremely likely that she will make it very far in the bracket and possibly contend for a medal finish.
When it comes to weightlifting, Saikhom Mirabai Chanu has quickly become one of the most prolific weightlifters in her category. She has won gold in the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games and finished on the podium at the Asian Championships. While her debut in Rio did not go as expected, Chanu’s much-awaited return is sure to be nothing short of a spectacle.
Looking at Tokyo, Chanu is determined to win gold; in her own words, she will not settle for silver. Her first international competition in 2021 saw her breaking the world record with a jerk lift of 119 kg. With North Korea out, her main competitor lies in Chinese weightlifter Hou Zhihui, who outranked Chanu in the qualifiers leading up to the Olympics. While the road ahead is challenging, great things can be expected from Chanu.
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In terms of archery, the Indian team is comprised of Atanu Das and Deepika Kumari, who is currently ranked 17th in the world. Das will be competing in the men’s individual recurve and the mixed team recurve. Having made his international debut in 2008 he’s won gold in the world cup for both events and competes in the mixed team recurve alongside his wife and world number one: Kumar. She has a slight edge over Das and has won gold medals in the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Archery Championship in individual and mixed team recurve. Having placed eighth in the 2012 London Olympics, she hopes to win gold in both her events this year, improving her Olympic record. This dynamic duo definitely has raised India’s expectations and is likely to snag gold in at least one of their events.
Akin to archery, India has a strong shooting lineup as well. Saurabh Chaudhary will be competing in the 10-meter air pistol and mixed team 10-meter air pistol. Throughout his career, he has won a stunning 14 gold medals, six silver medals and three bronze medals finishing number one in the Youth Olympic Games and the 2018 Asian Games. He’s an ISSF world champion and is the only Indian to win gold in the ISSF World Championship, ISSF World Cup, Youth Olympic Games, Asian Games, and Asian Air Gun Championship. In his mixed team event, Chaudhary will be competing alongside Manu Bhaker. Bhaker has won 14 gold and four silver medals and became the youngest Indian at age 16 to win gold in the ISSF world cup. Bhaker has also won gold in the Commonwealth Games, Youth Olympics, and Asian Shooting Games. She competes in the same events and is likely to win gold alongside Chaudhary.
Athletics has always been a focal point for development in India yet Indian athletes have struggled to excel in most events. Neeraj Chopra on the other hand has done astoundingly well in the javelin throw and hopes to make his mark this year. His qualification for the Tokyo Olympics saw him break the national record with a throw of 88.07 meters. He’s won gold in the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, Asian Championships, South Asian Games and World Junior Championships. Coming from the Indian military he is sure to be someone to look out for, being one of the few Indians competing in a track and field event.
While medals attract the spectacle, a few notable athletes are breaking barriers for India and challenging the perspectives of 1.3 billion people. Maana Patel became the first female swimmer to qualify for the Olympic Games and only the third Indian. She competes in backstroke events and is focused on winning gold in regional events after the Olympics. “It’s a new era for Indian swimming… I think Indian swimming is going to make waves in the immediate future,” stated Patel in a recent interview.
Staying on the water, Arvind Singh and Arjun Jat are India’s latest mavericks joining a select few duo of athletes to row for India. However, a major challenge they will face in Tokyo will be the environment as it happens to differ greatly from that of Pune, hence, they can anticipate a plethora of obstacles ahead. Their coach Ismail Baig explained: “Yes, the rough waters of the course, which is very close to the sea, are a major challenge for Indian rowers as we have been training on flat waters in Pune. All we are hoping is for the weather and conditions to be similar at least to that prevalent during the Olympic qualifiers. But again, given the chemistry both Arjun and Arvind have been showing is something which might just see them pull off something special”.
Needless to say, this year is historical in all forms, and every Indian can expect great things from the athletes across the wide spectrum of events they will be competing in. It is without a doubt that the 121 athletes will make India proud.