With less than ten days to go for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics to go, the fever is catching up for the greatest sporting spectacle, which is set to take place after five long years. A total of 119 athletes have qualified for the event so far, with quite a few expected to win a medal.
India is set to field its strongest ever contingent at the Olympics, with as many as 119 athletes qualifying for the mega event. Even though India pocketed just two medals in the previous edition, the hopes are much higher this time around. Disciplines like shooting, wrestling and boxing have been the nation’s forte in multi-sport events in the recent past and the case is similar for the Tokyo Olympics as well. In fact, with a 15-member contingent, shooting is supposed to be India’s duck at the Games. Besides the shooters, there are athletes that stand a chance to win a medal at the Olympics
Let us have a look at the top medal contenders for India at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics:
The Boxer from Haryana is one of the few Indian athletes to qualify for the Olympics with such a rich portfolio, which includes him being the top-ranked athlete in his category going into the event. In fact, the last few years have been exceptional from his point of view, striking off with a silver medal win at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and a gold at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games. A year later, he clinched a silver medal in the World Championships, a feat which was enough to consider him a medal prospect at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
The pugilist enrolled his name for the quadrennial event with a bronze medal finish at the Asian Olympic Qualifiers. In spite of the nagging pandemic break, Panghal’s game never dropped, as he went on to win a silver medal at the 2021 Asian Championships, a few months back, losing to 2016 Rio Olympics gold medalist Shakobidin Zoiriv. With him still peaking and few boxers in the world who can actually outclass him, the Olympics couldn’t have arrived at the better juncture. There’s no doubt he is one of India’s top medal contenders in Tokyo.
One of the youngest athletes in the Indian contingent, Saurabh Chaudhary’s meteoric rise in the past couple of years puts him in this list without any second thoughts. Even though his glorious career kick-started in 2018 with five major gold medals, his heroics at the 2018 Asian Games and followed it up with a top finish at the Youth Olympic Games, later that year. However, the year 2019 proved to be life-changing, with Saurabh claiming six gold, a bronze and a silver medal in World Cups.
Saurabh will feature in two events at the Olympics - 10m air pistol and 10m air pistol mixed team. Significantly, quite a few of his accolades have come in the mixed team event as well, along with the likes of Manu Bhaker, forming a lethal pair going into the Tokyo event. The pair has been almost unbeatable in the past couple of years.
The one-year postponement of the Tokyo Games surfaced as a blessing in disguise for the teenager as he was rewarded with valuable time to hone his skills. It was evident from the double gold medal wins at the 2021 ISSF World Cup, earlier this year. With him in red-hot form, it won’t be surprising if he lands up on the podium in Tokyo, with Saurabh heading as the second-ranked athlete in the individual category.
Appearing at the mega event for the second time, Mirabai Chanu would be more than eager to brush away the haunts of the 2016 Rio Olympics. For the records, she was disqualified five years ago, after a series of failed attempts to lift the weight. However, her resurgence, at the 2017 World Championships, with a gold medal win proved she was yet to achieve her prime. The fact was established further when the weightlifter claimed a gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Several international wins in the following couple of years would escalate her as one of the top athletes in her category.
Chanu registered a total lift of over 200kg (203kg) for the first time during the 2020 National Weightlifting Championships. Following a rehabilitation cum training tour in the USA last year, Mirabai Chanu went to the 2021 Asian Championships to secure an Olympic ticket. She not only claimed one, but also created a world record with a lift of 119kg in ‘clean and jerk.’ With North Korea withdrawing from the Olympics, she is the second-ranked athlete going into the event, only behind current world record holder Hou Zhihui, of China, making her path clear for a podium finish.
The Haryana-based wrestler also went into the 2016 Rio Olympics as a possible medal prospect, but an injury in the quarter-final halted her way to a podium finish. With fitting comebacks at the 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games respectively, Vinesh Phogat has set her eyes once again for Olympic glory, In spite of shifting her weight class to 53kg, the grappler managed to shine at the 2019 World Championships, with a bronze medal win. Most importantly, she’s always been among the top wrestlers in the world in her category.
She would be heading to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics as the highest-ranked wrestler in the women’s 53kg category, making her an instant contender.However, with her recent form, which includes gold medals in each of her last three tournaments - in Kiev, Rome and Asian Championships, makes her claim stronger. Lastly, the withdrawal of North Korea from the Olympics, would clear her path, as world champion Pak Yong Mi won’t be present. All the factors indicate why Vinesh Phogat is one of India’s brightest hopes.
Trumping veteran Anjum Moudgil to claim the lone spot for the women’s 10m air rifle event was enough to indicate that big results were expected from the 21-year old. Her consistency at the highest level was evident from three gold medal wins in 2019, that include the ISSF World Cup and the Asian Airgun Championships. It was without saying that she had also been exceptional at the junior level, with four World Cup gold medals under her belt.
Valarivan is currently the top-ranked shooter in the women’s 10m air rifle event going into the Olympics. Even though she will team up in the mixed team event alongside Divyansh Singh Panwar, the Tamil Nadu-based athlete is only expected to be a title contender in the individual event. The 2021 ISSF World Cup results might not reflect a fair picture of what the shooter is capable of, but with the consistency shown, it does not take away the fact that she can pull-off a medal win in Tokyo.
It is a bold statement to consider a track and field athlete as a possible medal contender, but Neeraj Chopra is himself responsible for hiking our expectations. The javelin thrower sprung into the limelight with the gold medal win at the 2016 Junior U20 World Championships, in Poland. However, he was not the one to sit on his laurels, rather bettered his record along the way. With a throw of a whopping 86.47m, Chopra claimed the top podium finish at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and followed up with a national record of 88.06 to earn top honours at the 2018 Asian Games.
However, his build-up to the Olympics was marked by an elbow injury, which sidelined him for a year. But, the postponement gave him ample time to recover and get back in shape for the mega-event. In fact, he’s been part of only a few international tournaments in the past two years, which includes the Indian GP, where Neeraj branched his own national record to register 88.07m. With him getting closer to the 90m mark and not many athletes around the world hitting the target regularly, the Indian is best placed to break India’s 121-year medal drought in athletics.
The wrestler, who will fly to Tokyo as the second-seeded wrestler in the competition, is on the back of some top-rated performances in recent times. Since changing his weight category from 60kg to 65kg, there has been a vast improvement in his game, which best describes the gold medal wins at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games later on, in the same year. However, it was the bronze medal finish at the 2019 World Championships that earned him a ticket to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
It has been a rollercoaster ride for the grappler since the Games were postponed, with the pandemic restrictions making it even harder. The period of total isolation saw the wrestler without any sparring partners, while the akhara’s also went into strike. As the situation eased, he crawled back into the groove as the event approached. Stepping into the mat after a one-year hiatus, Bajrang stormed to a top-place finish at the Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series, earlier this year. With not many matching his level of skills at the moment, the wrestler is undoubtedly a medal prospect.
The Indian archer made her Olympic debut at the 2012 London Games and was a medal contender even back then, but she crashed out owing to fever and high winds. The story was pretty similar at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she was eliminated in the round of 16. As stated, she has been an underachiever for quite some time, but she never let the psychological pressure mount on her. That said, she’s been in tremendous form off-late, in the build-up to the Tokyo Olympics.
At the World Cup Stage 3, in Paris, last month, she claimed a perfect three gold medals - in the women’s individual, women’s team and mixed team events. Deepika will also feature in the mixed team event alongside Atanu Das. With both of them boasting of a rich trophy cabinet, individually and team-wise, it’s high time India overcomes it’s medal jinx in Archery at the quadrennial event. Deepika Kumari is currently the top-ranked women’s archer, while Atanu is at the 9th position. In the mixed team category, India is placed at the seventh spot.