Every four years, the biggest question in every Indian sports follower’s mind is this - the number of medals India can get this time. 2008 was three, 2012 was six, how many will we get in 2016.
Although we have the second-largest population in the world, our place in the Olympic medal tally has been closer to the bottom. After KD Jadhav’s bronze in wrestling in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and the men’s hockey team’s exploits till 1980, we had a barren run in the quadrennial event for the next three editions.
Leander Paes ended it in Atlanta in 1996 with a bronze medal in tennis to reinvigorate the country’s hopes. Four years later, weightlifter Karnam Malleswari brought back another bronze, while Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore shot down the clay targets one after another to change it into a silver at the birthplace of Olympics.
Then came the 2008 Beijing Games, where everything changed in Indian sport for the better. A spectacled man from Chandigarh earned India its first-ever solo Olympic gold medal to inspire a generation of athletes. Sushil Kumar and Vijender Singh also wrote their name in history with bronze medals to help India return with its best-ever medal tally. The country doubled its tally four years later at London with Vijay Kumar and Sushil Kumar securing silver medals and Gagan Narang, Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom, and Yogeshwar Dutt winning bronze.
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For Rio, India is sending its largest-ever contingent to the Olympics – 120 athletes in 15 disciplines – and securing the best-ever medal tally is well within our reach.
The Ministry of Youth and Sports Affairs had formulated the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) back in May last year and had identified sportspersons in various disciplines as medal prospects in order to give them financial assistance. According to the Ministry, “Archery, Athletics, Badminton, Boxing, Hockey, Shooting, Tennis, and Wrestling are the focused disciplines as far as India’s chances of winning medals at Rio Olympics are concerned”.
But, will we be able to improve on our medal tally at Rio?
In 2012, the team of three male and three female archers went to the Games expecting to return with at least one medal. Deepika Kumari was ranked World No.1 at that time, and India expected a big performance from the archer, who was 18 years old back then, while the men’s archery team went to the Olympics as No.2 in the world rankings. But, a flop-show ensued, and no one went beyond the pre-quarter-final stage.
At Rio, the Indian archery team will only have four archers after the men’s archery team failed to qualify for the Games. Archery will once again be one of the disciplines that India will target for a medal. Deepika Kumari is four years older and is ranked World No. 12 currently. The archer from Jharkhand had equalled the world record score in
Although Deepika Kamari is a strong contender, India’s biggest chance for a medal is in the women’s team event. The team comprising Deepika Kumari, Bombayla Devi, and Laxmirani Majhi are currently ranked No.4 in the World and had won the silver medal at the Archery World Cup Stage 1 in Shanghai in May. The consistent performance from the trio and India’s decision to send the archers four weeks early to get acclimatised to the conditions will also boost their chances. After the disappointment of 2012, the archers will be looking to return with at least one medal from Rio.
2012 Olympic bronze medallist Saina Nehwal will be India’s biggest medal hope once again in badminton. The 26-year-old struggled with injuries at the start of the year, but her title triumph in the Australian Open Super Series in June has reignited hopes of another Olympic medal. The World No.5 will have to be at her best to earn India a medal, but at this point of time, Saina seems the only strong contender for India in badminton.
India will be sending its biggest-ever badminton contingent with seven shuttlers making it Rio. Although Kidambi Srikanth and PV Sindhu are dark horses for a medal, it will be a big surprise if anyone other than Saina Nehwal wins a medal in badminton.
After sending a strong eight-member contingent to the London Olympics, only three Indian boxers – Shiva Thapa, Vikas Krishan, and Manoj Kumar - have managed to make the cut for Rio. The lack of a boxing federation in the country has hit India’s plans for the quadrennial event and with no exposure trips, Indian boxers have gone a step back from their heroics in London 2012.
The 2008 and 2012 Olympics saw India returning with a bronze medal in boxing, and the strong contender to repeat the feat at Rio is Shiva Thapa. The 22-year-old, who became the youngest-ever Indian boxer to participate in the Olympics four years ago, will be leading the contingent this time after securing a bronze medal in the 2015 World Championships. The bantamweight boxer, who is currently ranked No.3 in the AIBA rankings, had also finished second in the Asia Oceania Olympic qualifiers in Qian’an, China, back in April to qualify for the Olympics.
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Shooting has given India a medal ever since Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s silver at the 2004 Athens Games. Abhinav Bindra bettered it in Beijing before Vijay Kumar and Gagan Narang added two more
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Although Abhinav Bindra and Gagan Narang are still the biggest names in the sport, Jitu Rai is India’s strongest bet in shooting for a medal at Rio. Two years ago, very few would have known the name of Jitu Rai, but ever since his silver medal-winning performance at the 2014 ISSF World Cup in Munich, the 25-year-old has been a constant presence among medals for India. Rai, who will participate both in the 10m air pistol and 50m pistol event, has won golds at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and 2014 Asian Games. Jitu Rai is currently World No.2 in 50m pistol event and World No.3 in 10m air pistol event, and it will be a big surprise if he returns from Rio without a medal around his neck.
Apart from Rai, the usual suspects Bindra and Narang will also be in line to grab another Olympic medal, while the other shooters can also spring a surprise. After all, every single Indian shooter in the contingent has managed to enter the final of at least one World event over the last two years.
Two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar will not be at Rio, but the wrestler who pipped Sushil for the ticket to Rio will be India’s strongest contender in wrestling. Narsingh Pancham Yadav will be competing in his second Olympics at Rio, but unlike London 2012, he is arriving at the 2016 Olympics as a strong prospect for a medal. A World championship bronze in September 2015 changed his status in Indian wrestling, and if his recent success at the Spanish GP is anything to go by, the 27-year-old grappler is likely to continue India's Olympic medal-winning tradition in wrestling.
Although 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt is in the fray, the 33-year-old’s fitness will determine his performance at Rio.
These five disciplines are likely to bring India’s medals, but to hit double digits, India will also need a few surprises. Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna in tennis mixed doubles, Dipa Karmakar in gymnastics, Sushila Chanu in weightlifting, men’s hockey team and track-and-field athletes also need to deliver on the big stage to push India’s medal tally into double figures. Also, do not forget the golfers. With so many top professionals opting to skip the Rio Games due to Zika virus concerns, golfer Anirban Lahiri also has a chance to win a medal.
All 120 athletes who have made the cut for Rio are capable of winning a medal for us, but how many will do it remains a big question. However, one thing is sure - every Indian sports fan will be burning the midnight oil to support our Indian contingent all through the Games.
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