Commonwealth Games 2014: Will the Indian athletics team rise to the expectations?
Reliving the 2010 Delhi Games
The Indian athletes will look to replicate their 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG) performance in Glasgow when the athletics event start from July 27 in the 20th edition of the Games. The Indians won 12 medals at Delhi which included 2 golds and 7 silver medals with the host nation bagging a clean sweep of medals at the discus throw event, where Krishna Poonia snatched gold.
The victory lap by the women's 4x400 metre relay squad after the team of Ashwini Akkunji, Mandeep Kaur and Sini Jose won gold and the consequent rendition of the national anthem by 70,000 spectators at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium are all lasting memories from that event.
Much has changed since then with the relay team facing a one year ban after being found guilty of consuming banned substances 8 months after the Games. Poonia took a foray into politics, and it is but obvious they face a stiff contest in Glasgow.
The medal prospects
After raising the bar in the last couple of years with success at several international events, the 32 member athletics team, the largest contingent being fielded by India at any sport, will need to meet the expectations of the entire nation.
The Indian contingent will be led by discus thrower Vikas Gowda who will look to better his silver medal performance at Delhi 2010 games. Having throws of 64.79 metres at the 2012 Olympics and 64.90 metres at the 2013 Asian Championships in Pune, where he won gold, makes him a strong contender. He qualified for the World Championships in Moscow only to finish seventh. He has had a good start to the season with a throw of 65.62 and is hopeful of continuing his good run. The ace thrower had to run from pillar to post to fund his training, but is confident that won't come between his dream of the gold.
Another Indian, 21 year old triple jumper Arpinder Singh, the Commonwealth and Asian leader this season is a strong contender for gold after a jump of 17.17 metres in Lucknow for the National Inter-state Athletics Championships. It was his first 17 metre plus in his career and a bronze in the Asian Championships with a score of 16.58 would have boosted his morale.
OM Prakash, the shot putter, won gold at the Asian Indoor Athletics Championship earlier this year. He is a National record holder with a throw of 20.69 and finished 5th in Delhi, but will face stiff competition from the Jamaicans.
Young javelin star Ravinder Khaira, who threw 78.02 in Lucknow to qualify for the CWG, is excited at his debut and although he admits it'll be difficult to defeat Kenya and Canada, he is hoping for a good tournament nonetheless.
In the women's section, Krishna Poonia became only the second Indian to win gold after Milkha Singh in an athletics event in Delhi with a throw of 61.51 metres. With a bronze at the Doha Games in 2006, she remains India's biggest bet. However, a groin injury in 2012 kept her out of the game and she finished 6th in the 2013 Asian Championships and hasn't touched 60 metres since then. She will face stiff competition from Seema Poonia who finished with a bronze in Delhi.
Sahana Kumari, National record holder of 1.92 metres, will be competing in the women's high jump and along with M R Poovamma will be regarded as a medal prospect.
Poovamma, is the fastest 400m runner in the country and won silver in the Asian Championships, besides clinching gold in the team event with Tintu Laka, Nirmala and Anu Jose. She has a hattrick of golds at the Asian Grand Prix and her personal best is 52.75 seconds.
She will be taking part in the 4x400 metre team relay with Laka and Ashwini Akkunji, who needs no introduction. She is making her comeback into sports after being banned for failing a dope test, and it will be a big test of character to come out with all guns blazing.
The controversies and expectations
The Indian Athletics Federation (IAF ) had initially named a 41 strong member team, but reduced it down to 32 at the last minute. Sprinter Dutee Chand was excluded after medical tests conducted by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) South Centre revealed that she was not eligible to compete in the female category due to high testosterone levels in her body.
Triple jumper Renjith Maheshwary, silver medalist at Pune and the 6 member men's 4x100 relay team got the axe after unsatisfactory performances. Harwant Kaur, the silver medalist discus thrower at Delhi failed to impress the IAF authorities as she did not participate in any major event since 2012.
However, it might be difficult to do a repeat of Delhi as many stars from Jamaica had not taken part in 2010.
The failure of India to win any medals at the World Championships last year means chief coach Bahadur Shah is cautious before making any predictions and admits that "the performance in Delhi was possible due to the crowd support. Not many are giving the athletic team a chance, but I am sure they will put their best foot forward."
Here's hoping they can ward off a stern challenge and come out trumps on the international stage.