Athletes going to Rio with big hopes (Column: Just Sport)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has time for the country's sport. Apart from tweeting congratulatory messages whenever an Indian performed creditably at the international level, he made it a point to spend time with the Rio-bound athletes and was there on Sunday morning to flag off a Run for Rio race to wish the athletes.
Modi has even given a clarion call to all the 600 districts in the country to prepare at least one athlete for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics where he wants to see double the number of the 119 going to the Rio Games. It's all so inspiring to see a Prime Minister taking so much interest.
Ideally, this is the time for all the athletes to reach the Brazilian capital or the venues around the city getting excited about their events. The largest-ever Indian contingent means it will be easier to spot an Indian athlete or an official around the Games Village or the competition venues unlike in the past when hardly 50-odd used to be there at the Games. In fact, more officials and political hangers-on in the form of teams from states used to visit the Games venues.
Just when the athletes started leaving for Rio, they were stunned by a bombshell -- two athletes testing positive for banned drugs, one of these a wrestler who had to fight his way through law courts to make it to the Games. Of all people, Narsingh Yadav was in the spotlight for over a month for all the wrong reasons except that he earned the 74kg freestyle spot at Rio. He was challenged by two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar for a trial which was unacceptable to the Wrestling Federation of India.
Just when he got a favourable verdict from the court, he failed a dope test and another battle began for him. He is convinced that his food supplements and his drinks were spiked. The National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) is in no mood to spare him, but its anti-doping disciplinary panel will announce on Monday whether Yadav gets reprieved.
The 15-member disciplinary panel is obviously divided and could not come to a consensus to announce its decision on Saturday, as promised and expected. The five legal brains -- and as many from medical and sports fields. The hearings are complicated with every expert providing his or her inputs.
The other athlete caught in the doping web is shotputter Inderjeet Singh and he, too -- like Narsingh -- smells a rat. If the wrestler termes it a conspiracy, the shotputter sees it as sabotage. Inderjeet's 'B' sample will be tested if he so desires, but the results are rarely different from the 'A' sample.
The NADA chief said more test results are awaited, hinting that the last of the doping cases has not been heard.
Be that as it may, how did the contingent got so big from 83 in London? The Indians will be figuring in two more disciplines than the 13 in London -- including the 16-member women's hockey contingent which is going to the Olympics after 36 years.
Then, the 36-member athletics contingent -- 19 men and 17 women -- is 22 more than the strength at London four years ago. Add three Indian golfers, with the discipline returning to the Games after 112 years -- and there is a marvellous woman gymnast promising a medal.
One has to concede that the Sports Ministry and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) have spared no effort in coordinating with the national sports federations in preparing the athletes. For once, money was not in short supply.
Six months ago, SAI Director General Injeti Srinivas was confident that there could be a double-digit medal success at Rio, including the yellow metal which will push the country significantly up in the medal standings. At London, their position suffered despite winning six medals because there was no gold in the tally.
Three of the London medal winners -- silver-medallists shooter Vijay Kumar and wrestler Sushil Kumar, and bronze medallist and newly-nominated Rajya Sabha MP Mary Kom -- will not be there at Rio. The other medal winners, all bronze, Badminton star Saina Nehwal, shooter Gagan Narang and wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt are going with huge hopes of back-to-back medals.
The perennial hope of a medal from the men's hockey team lives on. This time, expectations soared after the team finished on the podium at the Champions Trophy with a silver medal after three decades. In the aftermath, there was a dip in the performance, particularly in Spain.
The format is such this time that chances of making the knockout round are bright with four of the six teams in each group advancing to the next stage.
That leaves India a chance of even making the semi-finals with a favourable knockout draw if they can beat Argentina, Canada and Ireland in their own group.
Hope springs eternal!
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist and the views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)