On Saturday evening, Muhammad Anas qualified for the Rio Olympics after clocking a national record 45.40 seconds in his 400m race at the Polish National championships in Bydgoszcz. Anas, who qualified for his first Olympics became the 100th Indian to do so for Rio. On Sunday, Anas was joined by two other athletes – Srabani Nanda in the women’s 200m and Ankit Singh in the men’s long jump – as well as archer Atanu Das in qualifying for Rio.
With 103 athletes having qualified in all for the four year event – and more likely to add to the list before the end of the Olympic qualification period – Rio will see the biggest Indian contingent in history. The previous highest was, unsurprisingly, the 83 at the London Olympics in 2012.
While the qualification of the 16-member women’s field hockey team undoubtedly help swell the number of participants, the number of individual qualifiers too has seen an increase since 2012.
The biggest contribution has been through athletics. At London, 14 Indians had met the qualifying standards in 11 events. This time around 23 have made the mark in 16 events. Considering the women’s 4x400m relay team is likely to make the Olympics as well, (they are currently ranked 14th in the world with the top 16 qualifying), the total number of athletes who will participate at Rio will be at least 29.
Injetti Srinivas, Director General of the Sports Authority of India says he was expecting as much. Srinivas says I had commissioned a report this to make a broad assessments of India’s performance prospects. “In the report we had expected between 110 to 120 Indians to qualify for the Rio Games. If we consider the six members of the 4x400m relay team to have qualified, our total number of entries will be 109, which is close to what we had predicted. In addition we are also expecting a couple of more athletes to qualify in sports like golf, ” says Srinivas.
However whether the larger numbers of qualifiers will immediately translate into a better medal return than at London, which was India’s most successful in terms of medal count (two silver and four bronze) is uncertain. However it must be noted that in sports in which medals were won in London – shooting, wrestling, boxing and badminton –India will have more qualifiers in Rio in all but one case (boxing).
The standard of qualifiers too has improved for the most part. It is true that in athletics, many qualifiers – Anas just about equaled the Rio standard – are not realistically expected to progress beyond the early rounds. However, there are several who rank high up in the international top lists this season and if not as medal hopefuls, surely final prospects.
Sudha Singh (3000m steeplechase) and Lalita Babar (long distance runner) have exchanged national records with the latter a finalists at last years World Championships. Shotputter Inderjeet Singh and discus thrower Vikas Gowda too have similar results to show.
In addition India has qualified the maximum possible entries in two men’s road events – the 20km race walk and the men’s marathon. Indeed in the 20km racewalk event, the country faces a problem of plenty with KT Irfan, who finished tenth in London as yet uncertain of making the three member squad despite meeting the Olympic qualification standard.
There was a similar dilemma in wrestling (up four qualifiers from the four at London) as well where for the first time, India wondered which of two medal prospects (Sushil Kumar or Narsingh Yadav) could be sent for one Olympic quota.
There are positives even from sports that on first glance appear to have slipped in performance from London. Boxing has been hit hard by in house wrangling leading to the number of qualifiers falling from 8 at London to 3 at Rio. But the few who remain are are well placed on the international ranking lists. Shiva Thapa is ranked 3rd in the AIBA ranking lists, Manoj Kumar is ranked 6th while Vikas Krishan is ranked 13.
Mass participation important
There is also the belief, not incorrect, that in sports like athletics – seen as a precursor to other games – mass participation is as important as medaling. While a huge contingent is no guarantee of performance, its equally unlikely to win multiple medals with a tiny Olympic squad. Indeed, even in sports and events where winning a medal is a long shot, the mere fact that India will be breaking a new ground – sprints in athletics and gymnastics through Dipa Karmakar – or returning after a long gap – in the case of women’s field hockey (after 36 years) – is a crucially pertinent step.
“The women’s’ achievement is significant for several reasons. Mainly, it shows the way forward for a lot of young girls. This team does not know anything about Olympics because no one in 30 years has been there from India. Rio will be a very new experience for them. But importantly, they will gain experience which they can share with the future players. That’s a very big thing,” says women’s hockey coach Neil Hawgood.
Pullela Gopichand, chief coach of the badminton team, which too has boosted the number of qualifiers (from 5 in London to 7 at Rio), is optimistic of the growth in the contingent size but adds that the momentum must not be wasted at no point. “I believe the elite players received a lot of support but having done this, we need to ensure that the next level also need to be groomed,” he says.
Old & Newlympics
* India’s qualified for 13 sports disciplines at Rio, with swimming and golf still to be accounted for.
* While women’s hockey, gymnastics and 3 women wrestlers are on the upswing,, women’s boxing has fallen back with no qualification.
* Athletics is well on way to doubling its tally, while Archery is down from 6 to 4 athletes, Boxing with pro and WSB still left, is currently at 3 (8 last time), shooting up by 1 (12), Badminton by 2 (7) and wrestling by 3 (8).
* Aside of athletics and hockey, amongst those confirmed, there will be 28 first-time Olympians.
* Leander Paes will boast of the most (7th Games), followed by flag bearer Abhinav Bindra (5 times).
* Half of London medallists won’t be at Rio.
* Most heart breaking misses in qualifying have been Mary Kom, Vijay Kumar and the Sushil Kumar fiasco. Apart from that boxer Devendro Singh, the men’s archery team and a second men’s singles shuttler missed out. Sumit Sangwan and Mausam Khatri can also consider themselves unlucky.
* Dutee Chand’s qualification will rank as a historic victory for Indian sport.
* India’s amped it up in marathon and race walking.
* India’s qualified two sprinters among women for the first time.
* Two wrestlers have qualified in Greco Roman for the first time.
* A men’s skeet shooter from India will be at Olympics for the first time.
Super Sunday for Indian athletics
Long jumper Ankit Sharma became the first Indian man to qualify for the Olympics in the men’s long jump since Sanjay Kumar Rai 16 years ago (Sydney Olympics) when he set a national record of 8.19m in Almaty. Srabani Nanda in the women’s 200 metres and Mohammad Anas in the men’s 400 also booked Rio Olympic berths. Srabani, the sprinter from Orissa, won the bronze in the 200m at Almaty with a timing of 23.07 seconds to qualify for the Olympics Srabani and Dutee Chand, who qualified in the 100 metres on Saturday, have been pushing each other in the sprint events over the past two years. However, though both have run the individual 100 and 200, Chand’s pet event is the former, while the longer sprint was Nanda’s preferred race. Since PT Usha at the Moscow Games this will be the first time Indian women are participating.