There is an air of optimism about the Rio Olympics-bound Indian table tennis contingent. Not because they are suddenly going to steamroll the ‘might of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans’ among others, but they do convince us that they can ‘do much more’ than just being ‘Olympic participants’. Significantly, the Indian table tennis contingent has attained a ‘rare’ first – sending its full four-member squad for the Olympic – remember only two players are permitted to compete in the singles events at the Olympics.
In fact, this is the first time since the 1988 Seoul Olympics that the Indian table tennis contingent is fielding a full four-member squad – Kamlesh Mehta, Sujay Ghorpade, Niyati-Roy Shah and Chetan Baboor when the sport was introduced in the Olympics for the first time. Of course, it is a different matter altogether that all four failed to prospect beyond the group stage.
One would ask why expectations are high from the Indian table tennis contingent. The sport has seen the Asian nations dominate this event, especially China who always tower over this event.
Chinese domination at the Olympics
Just sample this – in seven Olympics so far, China have won the women’s singles gold medal on all seven occasions, while they have won four of the seven men’s singles gold medals. Barring the 1998 and 2004 Olympics, when a South Korean won the gold and the 1992 Olympics, when a Swedish cornered glory, it’s always China who has had the last laugh.
Given the overwhelming presence of China, Japan, Korea, Sweden, India may be a cinch but make no mistake – they look better prepared than the earlier Olympics (not to say paddlers in earlier Olympics were not well prepared). The four-member squad comprising Achantha Sharath Kamal and Mouma Das; and young talents Soumyajit Ghosh and Manika Batra are an experienced lot, and riding high after the winning Second Division of the 2016 World Table Tennis Team Championship in Kuala Lumpur.
Achantha Sharath Kamal will be playing in his third Olympics (played in 2004 and 2008) after missing the 2012 edition, while Soumyajit Ghosh will be playing in his second Olympics after turning out for the country in London. Both have reached the second round in all their Olympic appearances. Surely, they have the experience of the Olympic stage and should fancy themselves going beyond the second round, which will be a big challenge given the hugely competitive singles field.
As for the women’s singles, Mouma Das at 32, has seen it all – all ups and downs that a player can experience – she is playing in her second Olympics after last playing in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Manika Batra is an exciting young talent – the 21-year-old Delhi girl is a quarterfinalist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and had reached the third round of the 2014 Asian Games. She is capable of creating upsets in Rio. India had two different women singles representations for the 2008 and 2012 Olympics – Neha Aggarwal and Ankita Das – both had lost in the opening round. No Indian women have ever gone past the first round in Olympics.
Looking at the formidable look of the Indian table tennis contingent, it won’t be much of a surprise if our men and women paddlers achieve what none of our paddlers had attained in the earlier Olympics.