When it was announced last March that the Tokyo Olympics would have to be postponed, all the athletes came to terms with it, with a mixture of relief & disappointment. As the deadly COVID-19 virus raged and strangled the world, there was no other choice but to put off the powerful flame which symbolizes the virtue of the modern sporting extravaganza.
Fast forward to today, we are just a mere few weeks away from the start of Tokyo Olympics. The athletes are busy adding the final touches to their preparations, in the hope of bringing home an elusive medal.
As far as India is concerned, one of the most agonizing questions they usually ask themselves every four years (Well, five this time around) is this:
Why is India not a sporting powerhouse yet, especially at the Olympics?
Having heard multiple theories of weak infrastructure, lesser financial support and so forth over the years, it is a given that India is still miles away from achieving that feat. Since 2008, there has been a renewed sense of optimism and, this year, the expectations are higher than ever.
As the countdown clock ticks away, let us see which athletes are the best bets in the strong Indian contingent, boarding for Tokyo.
#10 Deepika Kumari & Atanu Das/Tarundeep Rai/Pravin Jadhav (Archery: Mixed Recurve)
Archery has been one discipline that has generated a lot of hype in the run-up to London & Rio and, this edition remains no different. Atanu Das, Deepika Kumari, Pravin Jadhav & Tarundeep Rai will represent India in Tokyo. The team for mixed recurve will be on the grounds of the performance by these archers in the individual qualification rounds.
After two disappointing outings, the onus is on Deepika Kumari, the Golden Girl of Indian Archery. She will need to handle the nerves to near perfection this time and silence all her critics, once and for all, with a podium finish in Tokyo.
Atanu Das has finally announced his arrival with a renewed vigor to his game and mentality and will look to improve upon his ninth-place finish in Rio. Two-time Olympian Tarundeep Rai will be hanging up his bow and arrow after Tokyo & a medal this time would be a fitting end to an illustrious 24-year career. The 24-year old Pravin Jadhav, who topped the table during the selection trials in March, will be making his Olympic debut.
Being the only female archer, Deepika is assured of her participation in the event & would be hoping to pair up with Atanu Das.
What makes the duo a possible medal contender in the mixed recure is their systematic approach to their gameplay after the disappointments at Rio. They have sought help from experts in dealing with the mental side of the game. Both of them have also been working on developing the perfect mindset & handling their thought processes with purpose.
The scientific routine seems to be working well for them, as they bagged gold medals in the individual category at the World Cup Stage 1 in Guatemala in April. They topped that up with a gold in the Mixed Recurve event at the World Cup Stage 3 in Paris.
Biggest Hurdle: Team South Korea
Koreans claimed all the four gold medals in Rio & have a whopping total of 39 archery Olympics medals (23 Gold Medals).
They have a star-studded team, spearheaded by the reigning Women’s World Champion Kang Chae Young, 2012 London Men’s Individual Gold Medallist Oh Jin-hyek & the current men’s Olympic record holder Kim Woo-jin.
The South Koreans skipped all three stages of the World Cup this time due to travel restrictions and, that could cause a severe dent in their preparations for the games.
#9 Elavenil Valarivan & Divyansh Singh Panwar (Shooting: 10 m Air Rifle Mixed Team)
Shooting will be India’s biggest bet in Tokyo and like archery, the introduction of the mixed team event in shooting can be a blessing in disguise. The 10 m air rifle mixed team event will be an exciting one, with the pairing of women’s World No.1 Elavenil Valarivan & men’s World No.2 Divyansh Panwar touted as favorites to win the event.
Elavenil Valarivan & Divyansh Panwar will be heading to Tokyo on the back of their triumph at the ISSF World Cup in March. But inexperience at the highest level might count against them, with Elavenil having shown signs of ineptitude under pressure.
Biggest Hurdle: Eszter Meszaros & Istvan Peni, Hungary
Hungary's Eszter Meszaros & Istvan Peni will be one of the dark horses in Tokyo and will look to capitalize on their momentum, having won the recent ISSF World Cup in Osijek.
#8 Amit Panghal (Boxing: Men’s 52 kg)
Amit Panghal, the 25-year-old world No.1 pugilist in the Men’s 52 kg category, is widely expected to punch above his weight as he spearheads the strong Indian Boxing Contingent. He hasn’t looked back since winning the 2017 National Championship in the 48 kg category in his debut.
When AIBA scrapped 48 kg from the Olympics, Panghal shifted to the flyweight category (52 kg). He became the first Indian Male Boxer to breach the semi-final barrier and win a silver medal at the AIBA World Boxing Championships in 2019.
The 5’2 Panghal’s game against aggressive compatriots has been about taking his time, controlling the distance and waiting for the perfect opening to counter-attack. He has been working on his power game and footwork since his defeat in the 2019 World Championship final. He will most likely be more aggressive and offensive this time, especially against heavyweights like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Biggest Hurdle: Shakhobidin Zoirov, Uzbekistan
Zoirov is the reigning World & Olympic Champion and has recorded two straight wins against Panghal, making the rivalry one to watch out for in Tokyo. After his success at Rio, Zoirov spent some time in professional boxing, which has sharpened his game, making him more formidable with his quick and crisp combinations and well-timed clinches.
#7 Men’s Hockey Team
Could this be the year when India finally puts an end to the 41-year medal drought in hockey? Going into the tournament on the back of some strong performances, the Men in Blue are definitely in the mix for a podium finish.
Ranked No.4 in the Latest FIH Rankings, the team under the leadership of halfback Manpreet Singh have defeated every team (except Spain, whom they have not faced) at least once since 2019. After the arrival of coach Graham Reid, the team has shown immense resilience, winning 27 out of 37 international matches while conceding defeat in only 5 outings.
Having a healthy mix of youth and experience, the squad has a solid defensive unit with the former skipper, PR Sreejesh, guarding the goal line. The lack of seasoned professionals in the attacking lineup may be a concerning point for Reid, with all five forwards making their Olympic debuts.
The team will be competing in Pool A, alongside Argentina, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Spain.
Biggest Hurdle: Belgium
Belgium will be hoping to go one further than their silver medal performance in Rio. They are coming into the tournament as the reigning European and World Champions and, they also emerged victorious in the recently concluded FIH Pro League.
The Red Devils are more determined than ever under the leadership of coach Shane Mcleod. Their attacking lineup, led by Florent Van Aubel and Cedric Charlier, will arguably be the strongest in Tokyo. Dragflicker Alexander Hendrickx is also in red hot form after emerging as the top scorer in the FIH Pro League.
#6 PV Sindhu (Badminton: Women’s Singles)
This inclusion might sound surprising to many, but if there is anyone who has mastered the science of giving it your absolute best when it matters the most, look no further than PV Sindhu.
As the reigning world champion, she is one of the favorites in Tokyo and will look to bring home the gold medal this time around. She has not had a very consistent run in the past few years and has a rather disappointing record of 10-6 in 2021.
Prior to Rio, Sindhu had participated in 13 tournaments while the match preparations, this time, were limited due to multiple event cancelations. She has utilized this time to work more on her defensive strategy with coach Park Tae Sang. With the withdrawal of the defending champion Carolina Marin, the field has been blown wide open.
Biggest Hurdle: Tai Tzu Ting, Chinese Taipei
Tai & Marin were very dominant during the beginning of this year, with Marin having the upper hand of winning 2 out of the three matches played this year. With the Spaniard out of the title race, all eyes will be on the 27-year-old World No.1 shuttler from Chinese Taipei, who has already defeated Sindhu once this year, during the BWF World Tour Finals, in January.
#5 Mirabai Chanu (Weightlifting: Women’s 49 kg)
As Mirabai Chanu heads to Tokyo, as India’s lone entry in Weightlifting, sports enthusiasts are confident that she can etch her name into the history books. She will hope to end the 21-year medal drought and thereby become the proud successor to Karnam Malleshwari, the 2000 Sydney Games bronze medallist.
After a disappointing debut at Rio, where Chanu failed to hoist the weight up in the clean & jerk segment, she has emerged as one of the brightest medal prospects in Tokyo.
Among the two highly ranked Chinese lifters, only one would board for Tokyo since a country can send only one lifter per category. Chanu's chances have increased even further with the withdrawal of North Korea from the games.
Chanu recently set a world record of 119 kg in the clean & jerk segment during the Tashkent Asian Championships in April and will be heading into the games with that much-needed confidence.
Biggest Hurdle: Hou Zhihui, China
While Chanu set the clean & jerk world record in Tashkent, Hou Zhihui, the current World Champion, shattered the world record in snatch & on the total in the same event, 8 kg clear of Chanu’s lift of 205 kg. If Chanu can improve her performance in the snatch, we could be in for a nail biting showdown in Tokyo.
#4 Bajrang Punia (Wrestling: Men’s Freestyle 65 kg)
Bajrang Punia is one of the finest wrestlers in the freestyle category and is a three-time world championship medallist and the reigning Asian Games Champion. Having participated in nine international events since the beginning of 2019, he has returned home with a medal every single time.
Bajrang has to ensure that he doesn’t concede too many points early in the game as he usually does while also managing the pressure of competing in his debut Olympics.
Bajrang has been learning English & Russian as per his mentor Yogeshwar Dutt’s advice to understand what the rival coaches & wrestlers are planning during the bout. He has also been attending training camps in the USA, Russia and Georgia, to get more exposure to their style of play.
Biggest Hurdle: Gadzhimurad Rashidov, Russia & Takuto Otoguro, Japan
Though Bajrang remains the favorite on paper, he could face tough challenges from the World Champions, Rashidov & Otoguro.
Rashidov, the current world champion, has been at the top of his game by winning gold in four of his last five tournaments.
Otuguro is the 2018 world champion and will be looking to capitalize on home advantage as well, and has been undefeated in his last three tournaments. More significantly, Bajrang has never won against Otoguro, with all three of those encounters being in the finals of a tournament.
#3 Vinesh Phogat (Wrestling: Women’s Freestyle 53 kg)
Competing in the Women’s Freestyle 53 kg category, Phogat is a tournament favorite and has finished on the podium in her last ten tournaments. Her best achievement to date has been a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships in Kazakhstan.
2016 Rio would have been a happy hunting ground for Phogat if not for a severe knee injury that forced her to forfeit her quarterfinal match against China’s Sun Yanan. The absence of world champion Pak Yong-Mi of North Korea from the games has weakened the draw, making it more favorable to Phogat.
Biggest Hurdle: Jacarra Winchester, USA
The 53 kg category has many talented and proven wrestlers like Belarus’s Vanessa Kaladzinskaya and Japan’s Mayu Mukaida. But the dark horse in the 53 kg division would be the reigning world champion in the 55 kg category, USA’s Jacarra Winchester. With 55 kg not being an Olympic weight class, Winchester has shifted to the 53 kg division and, the California-based wrestler would be more of a mystery to her compatriots.
#2 Neeraj Chopra (Athletics: Men’s Javelin Throw)
Athletics has been an area where Indians haven’t been very optimistic since Anju Bobby George’s valiant efforts in 2004 Athens. But the emergence of Neeraj Chopra in Men’s Javelin has breathed renewed hope into the Indian camp.
The 23-year-old world junior record holder has been troubled by an injury to his right elbow, ruling him out of the competitive arena in 2019. He qualified for the Tokyo Olympics with a decent throw of 87.86 m at the ACNE League meeting in South Africa in January 2020.
Neeraj's personal best of 88.06 m would have fetched him a podium in the previous three Olympics, but that cannot be taken as the correct indicator of the competition’s standards. 11 of the Tokyo-bound athletes have a better personal best than the Indian.
The lack of preparation by the athletes would make them rusty, heading to the Tokyo Olympics and, as long as Neeraj keeps sweating it out to breach that elusive 90 m mark, India could be on course for their first medal in Athletics since Norman Pritchard.
Biggest Hurdle: Johannes Vetter, Germany
Vetter can be considered the successor of legendary Jan Zelezny. Being one of the best Javelin throwers of the modern day, he has a personal best of 97.76 m, i.e. close to 10 m more than Neeraj’s personal best. He will be heading to Tokyo with the much-needed momentum of winning the Kuartane Games in Finland, with a throw of 93.59 m, where Neeraj clinched a bronze medal with a throw of 86.79 m.
Apart from Vetter, Neeraj would be facing stiff competition from Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad & Tobago, Anderson Peters of Granada, Estonia’s Magnus Kirt & Germany’s Andreas Hofmann.
#1 Manu Bhaker & Saurabh Chaudhary (Shooting: 10 m Air Pistol Mixed Team)
Expect nothing short of fireworks when two of the most promising & best pistol shooters in the world join forces at the grandest stage of them all.
The 19-year-olds are undoubtedly tournament favorites in the highly competitive individual 10 m air pistol event. But their medal chances have increased multi-fold in the mixed team event, where they have an almost near perfect record. Having been paired together six times, they tasted their only defeat at the Osijek World Cup this month, where they had to settle for a silver.
While Chaudhary & Bhaker have been very consistent over the past two years, the only thing that could work against them is their inexperience; anything less than a podium finish from them would be a big disappointment for the Indian Shooting Contingent.
Like the 10 m Air Rifle event, there’s a possible chance of a dream Indian 1-2, with Abhishek Verma and Yashaswini Deswal, the current world No.1 in the individual category; also vying for the honors at Tokyo.
Biggest Hurdle: Vitalina Batsarashkina and Artem Chernousov, Russia
Bhaker & Chaudhary were defeated by the Russian pair of Batsarashkina & Chernousov in the Osijek World Cup, after edging them out in the final two series, winning 16-12, in a closely contested encounter. The pair of Rio 2016 silver medallist Batsarashkina & World Champion Chernousov is also on a hot streak after winning the mixed event in the European Championships a month back.