For the first time in India’s Olympic history, which hasn’t been glorious in any way, Indians have serious medal prospects in more than six disciplines. And each of these men and women has achieved laurels on the world stage in recent times.
In the past, top Indian prospects have suffered Olympic breakdowns. Limba Ram in 1992, for instance. Ram, one of the most talented archers of his day and a definite medal prospect at the Barcelona Games, lost a medal by a solitary point. He was so desperate, he is believed to have gone straight to the event officials and said, “Can we have a rematch please? I will surely beat my opponent.”
Ram’s was raw talent with little finesse and no fine-tuning. Deepika Kumari, Jayanta Talukdar and others in the current Indian archery team are made of a different fibre. Winners at many world meets over the past four years, they are well-honed as international archers. So much so that when they stand at the starting line of the hallowed Lord’s turf, even the unreliable London wind won’t be able to distract them much.
The two Indian contingents that come to London with the greatest burden of expectation are the boxers and shooters. In a historic first for India, the country has as many as 11 shooters and eight boxers who have qualified for the London Olympics.
The boxers travelled to England on 13 July and camped in Bradford for a week before moving into the Olympic village in London on 20 July to start their campaign, which begins on 28 July at the Excel Arena. Leading the pack is Beijing bronze medal winner Vijender Singh. After a nerve-wracking wait for qualification, Singh is back at his best. Speaking to me from the Trinity Road Campus on Easby Road in Bradford, he sounded quietly confident. “The sport is different now, compared to Beijing,” he said, “There is a lot of hype and people are watching. It is both a good and bad thing. We have to use this opportunity to make sure we give Indian boxing a real push. A couple of medals in London, and there will be a lot more interest in boxing back home. Also, crowd support, I am told, will be there for us. We will use the crowd to push ourselves.”
Vijender isn’t the lone medal hopeful in boxing. Vikas Krishan (69 kg category), bronze medalist at the World Championship in Baku in 2011, Sumit Sangwan (81 kg), Jai Bhagwan (60 kg), Manoj Kumar (64 kg), Shiva Thapa (56 kg) and Devendro Singh (48 kg) are all expecting to shine in London. After a rigorous two-week training camp in Dublin, Ireland, in June and another week at the Bradford sports facility more recently, the boxers are all in top shape. Capable of beating the world’s best on their day, all they now need is a good draw to ease themselves into the competition.
While we can realistically expect a medal or two of the men, Mary Kom, currently training in Liverpool under the watchful eyes of her personal coach Charles Atkinson, is the centre of Indian attention. Kom has deliberately stayed away from the media glare over the past few days, while sparring with her three partners and acclimatising herself to the English weather. Backed by the enviable record of never having lost to the same boxer twice in her life, Kom, as I have gathered from a few conversations with her, is well prepared to take on two of her foremost adversaries—Ren Cancan of China and Nicola Adams of Britain.
Already a legend with five world titles to her name, it will be quite a fairytale for mother Mary if she were to a win a medal here. It would make for a perfect birthday gift for her two sons, whose birthday falls on 5 August, the day Mary first steps into the ring for the London Games.
While the boxers have been enjoying the limelight, the shooters have kept themselves away from it to the extent possible. Training in Hanover for close to a month before moving into the Olympic village a few days ago (Abhinav Bindra was the first Indian to check in—on 16 July), it is a contingent that has brought loads of experience to London.
In fact, 30 July and 2 August should be marked as make-or-break days for India’s London campaign. On 30 July, Abhinav Bindra and Gagan Narang will take aim in their favourite 10 metre air rifle event, while on 2 August, Ronjon Sodhi will compete for the double trap gold at the Royal Artillery Barracks.
There has been much speculation about the preparedness of Indian shooters, with some saying that they have lately not been in winning form. Many contestants have appeared off-colour in the past few months. Experts like Morad Ali Khan and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, however, believe that the shooters will peak at the right time. “It depends on how the shooters are feeling mentally. No one except the shooter, his or her coach and trainer, knows what is going on in his or her mind,” says Olympic silver medalist Rathore, who believes India will fare better than before in this discipline. It is reasonable to expect a strong Indian media turnout at the Royal Artillery Barracks all through the shooting competition.
The first week of the Games will also see all of India’s controversial tennis stars in action. Indian players, it must be conceded, do not have much of a chance in a really tough field that includes the world’s best who play doubles and mixed doubles. However, the fact that tennis is a three-set affair at the Olympics makes it a gamble of sorts. If Rohan Bopanna’s serve works, he and the skilled Mahesh Bhupathi are well capable of surprising a few top teams. And in mixed doubles, Indian players need two victories to get a crack at a bronze medal in a draw of 16 top teams.
Mahesh Bhupathi, the first of the Indian players to reach London on 21 July (after playing a tournament in Hamburg) to get valuable match practice, was realistic about his chances: “We have to be solid and play our A game. If we do that, we have a chance.” Sania Mirza, who has been practising on the Wimbledon grass courts for the past three days since coming to London from San Diego on 23 July, concurred: “I don’t want to put pressure on myself by saying we have a chance. All I know is we will give it more than our hundred per cent.”
Interestingly, Sania and Mahesh have both decided to stay with their families close to Wimbledon, away from the Games village, in an attempt to avoid the long commute to the venue. They aren’t the only ones doing so. The legendary Roger Federer is doing the same; he said the frenzy of the Games village in Beijing had upset his Olympic preparations last time round.
The other two disciplines in which Indians have a good chance of bringing back medals are badminton and wrestling. In Saina Nehwal, India has an athlete capable of giving the allconquering Chinese a run for their money. In Indonesia a month earlier, we saw Saina beat two of the three Chinese contestants she will face in London. If Saina can keep her composure and cope with the pressure of expectations, there is no reason why she can’t go one up on her performance in Beijing, where she lost her quarterfinal to the Indonesian Maria Kristin Yulianti. The only concern is her record in mega events. Except in the Commonwealth Games, where she won India’s last and 38th gold medal—the one that gave India its first ever second-rank in the overall tally, displacing England—Saina has failed to perform to potential while playing for the country.
Finally, we have Sushil Kumar in 66 kg freestyle wrestling, one of the few events for which tickets are still available. A man who had been written off after losing his first bout in Beijing, Sushil silently made it back into the competition through the ‘repechage route’. By the rules, a wrestler who loses an early bout is allowed back into the arena if the contestant he lost to goes on to reach the final; since Sushil had lost to the eventual finalist in 2008, he got another chance to compete.
The two others who have sneaked their way into our list of medal prospects are Krishna Poonia and Vikas Gowda, both of whom are discus throwers. Poonia, on her day, has what it takes to give us a real surprise with a 65 metre discus throw, which should be good enough for a podium finish. Gowda could come good too.
As these Indians set about scripting history, the huge expat Indian population in London can be relied upon to back them all the way. So much so that the Chairman of the 2012 London Organizing Committee, Lord Sebastian Coe, told me when I met him at the Oxford leg of the Olympic torch relay, “I must tell you that 6 per cent of London’s population is Indian and that the Indian athletes will feel that they are performing in front of a home crowd. I am looking forward to seeing them in action in London. I have heard it is a very strong contingent and I wish them well.”
On the last occasion the Games were held in London, Indian sport witnessed one of its most poignant nationalist moments ever. The Indian hockey team had beaten the English 4-0 in the final to win gold in 1948 and recorded one of its most memorable moments. A newly independent India had made a statement to the world that summer.
Although nobody expects Sardar, Sandeep and the rest of the Indian hockey team under Michael Nobbs to achieve a podium finish, there is little doubt that every Indian feat in London will be lauded, discussed and memorialised. Let’s just hope they are aplenty.