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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Tokyo Olympics: After tests, a reality check

With big guns taking field on Day 1, Indian athletes need to hit the ground running.

Written by Mihir Vasavda |
Updated: July 24, 2021 7:53:58 am
Mery Kom Hmangte and Manpreet Singh, of India, carry their country's flag during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics (Source: AP)

It’s time. Tokyo 2020 is underway. Seven months into 2021. In the middle of a pandemic. In empty stadiums. But in essence, it’ll still be about being the best at what you do. Even in this new, vastly different world, that bit will remain unchanged.

Getting to the Olympics is no mean feat even during normal times. These are, for most sports, the pinnacle of competition. It has a very high bar for qualification, leading to years of struggles and sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears for all those who dare. When they reach there, the ones who have worn India colours at the Olympics in the past, rave about their experience in one voice. It is, for most, the best moments of their careers; lives, too, perhaps.

For India’s Tokyo Olympians, who will start competing for medals starting Saturday, the Games will still remain an emotional rollercoaster that every Olympics are, even though Tokyo might be unlike any before. They might, in fact, feel more strongly about it given just how tough it has been to get this far.

A total of 125 Indian athletes are in Tokyo. It’s just three more than the contingent that travelled to Rio, which was at the time the largest India had sent for the Games. And although the number is more or less the same this time, which might point at stagnation in some events and underperformance in a few, the fact that it has been matched despite the challenges of the past year-and-a-half is a remarkable feat in itself.

Toughest path ever

Before the pandemic, it would have been tough to imagine that qualifying for the Tokyo Games would be tougher than scaling Mt Fuji, which provides a stunning backdrop to this breath-taking city. But the difficulty has been constantly ratcheted up in the build-up to the Olympics, almost as if this was a topsy-turvy season of Takeshi’s Castle.

When the Olympics were postponed in March last year – the moment when the might of the pandemic was felt by many – 74 Indian athletes had qualified. For the rest, the pandemic has been a major headache, to put it rather mildly.

Many of them had to seek exemptions to travel internationally just to take part in qualifying tournaments. Tournaments were cancelled, which directly impacted their chances of making the cut – Kidambi Srikanth is one of the players who got this raw deal.

For those who did travel, erratic and unusually long flights, innumerable quarantines, lonely bio-bubbles and irritating Covid-19 tests – imagine someone shoving a stick up your nose every day – have all been disruptive experiences.

Even the athletes who did not leave Indian shores struggled. Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, who can land India a medal on the first day of competition, has gone almost two years without meeting her family.

The hockey teams were locked inside the Sports Authority of India (SAI) campus in Bengaluru and when they got short breaks to go home, some of them got infected by the virus – last year, it was men’s captain Manpreet Singh and his teammates; this year, it was women’s skipper Rani Rampal and a few others from her team.

Others have had to relocate without any notice, keeping their bags packed so they could fly out the moment there was a chance to dodge border closures and lockdown rules – Chanu moved to the USA within a day, shooters hopped on to a chartered flight to Croatia so they could avoid training during Delhi’s insufferable summer and wrestlers Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat moved to Russia and Hungary respectively.

“Homesickness, mental challenges, lack of competition… you name a challenge and we’ve faced it all,” says weightlifting coach Vijay Sharma. “Many people kept asking me why we are doing it? But only a person truly obsessed with her goal will endure all this.” Truly.

Positive outlook

Historically, India has been reeling at the Olympics but here, in sunny and sultry Tokyo, it is easier to feel sanguine.

Maybe it is because of the new frontiers the athletes have conquered – Bhavani Devi, for instance, becoming the first from the country to qualify in fencing, one of Olympics’ most competitive sports; or Fouaad Mirza, breaking through in equestrian, a sport of the royalty; or sailor Nethra Kumanan, who marked another first by an Indian woman; and lest we forget Srihari Nataraj and Sajan Prakash, who by achieving the ‘A’ standard in qualifying have raised the bar for Indian swimming.

Or maybe it is because this time, Indian athletes genuinely feel they have a chance to make history. Gracenote, a statistics company that provides data and analysis for most major sports, has predicted that India will win 19 medals.

That might be a stretch – India, even if we are generous, has 20 genuine medal contenders but even if the country’s athletes win half of the projected medals, these will go down as the watershed Games in Indian sport.

The tone for India’s Olympics will be set on the first day itself.

It might give us a peek into whether the athletes will be able to cope with the pressure or if, as has been the story in the past, crumble.

The shooters, who have dominated nearly every competition in the last two or three years, are suddenly feeling the jitters as the Chinese and Koreans begin to appear in their rear-view mirror. Archer Deepika Kumar will have another chance to show she has what it takes to succeed under pressure.

And weightlifter Chanu’s strategic battle with her Chinese rival Jiang Huihua has already commenced – Huihua going for a cautious 205kg, less than what she is capable of, while Chanu throws the gauntlet with an ambitious first target of 210.

Olympics have always been about such fine margins. And Tokyo, where just turning up has proven the biggest challenge, will be no different. The Games, which were so close to being cancelled, will, at last, go on.

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