Two months to go, calls to cancel the Tokyo Olympics have grown in Japan and outside as Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc.
Amidst such uncertainty, thousands of athletes will enter the final phase of preparations. They have toiled hard for years to be primed for the defining moment of their sporting lives. Yet they can’t but wish away the looming fear: what if the Olympics are not held? It would be a first since World War 2.
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The pandemic has stretched this Olympics cycle to five years and struck a hammer blow to the Games’ scale and grandeur. There will be no international spectators and numerous restrictions. But with an estimated expenditure of $25 billion, this will be the most expensive summer Games. Costs will escalate as thousands of athletes, officials and volunteers will be tested daily in Tokyo’s bid to shape the biggest bio-secure bubble.
After being grounded for five months last year due to lockdowns, Indian athletes are looking forward to the Games. Among them are C A Bhavani Devi (fencing), Fouaad Mirza (equestrianism) and Nethra Kumanan (sailing). The three will be India’s first representatives in those events in the Olympics. The rowers are the only Indians to have already got an experience of competing in Tokyo; Arjun Lal Jat and Arvind Singh sealing the Olympic spot in the men’s lightweight double sculls event in that test event.
India’s campaign will be spread over 15 disciplines with around 106 athletes. Among notable absentees due to badminton tournaments being cancelled are Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth, who were just outside the world ranking of direct qualification.
From Rio to Tokyo
Five years ago, India had returned with two medals — PV Sindhu (silver) and Sakshi Malik (bronze) — and plenty of heartburn from the Rio Olympics. The big misses were shooting, boxing and men’s freestyle wrestling: three disciplines that accounted for nine of the 10 medals India won in Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012).
Cut to 2021 and shooting (15), boxing (9) and wrestling (8) will send their biggest contingents ever. Many among them are medal contenders. For the first time in years, India can hope to add to Abhinav Bindra’s solitary gold. It can be anyone on their day—Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, Saurabh Chaudhary, Manu Bhakar, Divyansh Panwar.
What has changed between Rio and Tokyo? India’s performance on the world stage is the short answer. With sound financial backing of the sports ministry, India had its best-ever haul at the 2018 Asian Games (16-23-31) and has continued to produce good individual performances in major international meets.
Shooting has unearthed trigger-happy 20-year-olds who dominated the 2019 World Cup cycle with a staggering 30 medals including 21 gold. Powerhouses China and the US were left in second and third spots. At the ISSF World Cup in New Delhi in March, the shooters, after a full year without competition, won medals in seven of the 10 events they will be competing in the Olympics.
For three successive years from 2017, Sindhu played the world championship final winning it in 2019. Her form may have dipped but knowing her penchant for the big stage, the 25-year-old can never be counted out from a podium finish.
Stretchered off in Rio, Vinesh Phogat has made a near-miraculous recovery from a knee injury to come back stronger. She won gold at the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and bronze at 2019 world championships. Punia has improved with every tournament and medals in the last two world championships make him a genuine podium hope for Tokyo. There is also a younger bunch coming through – Deepak Punia (silver) and Ravi Dahiya (bronze) made it the most successful Worlds for Indian wrestling in 2019.
Mirabai Chanu won the 48kg gold at the 2017 world weightlifting championships in Anaheim. She has since moved to 49kg for Tokyo. Last month she set a world record in (119kg) in clean and jerk (overall lift: 205kg) at the Asian championships.
Five men and four women boxers will be in the ring in Tokyo. With a robust system in place, boxers have beaten Olympics and world medallists over the past three years. Amit Panghal tops the charts. A lot will be riding on Panghal (52kg), who won gold at the Asian Games and silver at the world championships – a first for India. Manish Kaushik (63kg) also returned with a bronze from the Worlds. Among the women, six-time world champion Mary Kom is still going strong, a testament to which is a flyweight bronze at the 2019 Worlds. Pooja Rani, Lovlina Borgohain and Simranjeet Kaur are climbing the rungs with a fearless attitude.
Despite not being able to compete internationally, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra remains India’s best hope for a first athletics medal. In the domestic events, he competed in February, Chopra’s best was 88.07m in GP3(national record) in Patiala. It was the world’s third-best throw this season.
Lockdown and after
Many of India’s Olympic hopes contracted Covid-19 last year and the hard lockdown from March 2020 too affected preparations. It was not until July-August that athletes began planning their next move. And it was not until October, when international travel eased and sports resumed, that they started to venture out. For the next six months — until the current second wave halted their preparation again– a steady stream of athletes in almost all disciplines went out for exposure and competitions (see graphics).
Among those who haven’t left India are the hockey and boxing teams. Having secured tickets to Tokyo in November 2019, the men’s and women’s hockey teams have endured a year-and-a-half of biding their time at the SAI centre in the outskirts of Bengaluru.
The fourth-ranked men’s team won a couple of Pro League matches against Olympic champions Argentina last month after a Europe tour, their first in over a year, where they were undefeated against Germany and Britain. But with international borders closing again, Pro League assignments this month were postponed. Little game time against quality opposition remains a roadblock to medal hopes. Key members of the support staff, like Australian analytical coach Chris Ciriello, quitting during the pandemic hasn’t helped either.
The women, not part of the Pro League, had two exposure tours this year, to Argentina and Germany, where they lost all four matches. The world No. 9 team resumed training only last week in Bengaluru after some of its players and support staff tested positive for Covid-19.
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