Despite a record number of athletes appearing for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics from India, the main area of focus is restricted to a few athletes, especially the medal contenders. However, there are many athletes who are capable of going the extra mile at the Games. Do you know who they are?
Remember Sakshi Malik? Yes, the 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medallist. She was a no-one going into the event, as the spotlight was entirely on the medal contenders. However, Sakshi's stellar showing came out of the syllabus, with her hogging the limelight. The build-up has been similar this time around, with the elite bunch drawing the most attention. Yet, there are quite a few other athletes that possess the capabilities of breaking the shackles and making a name for themselves.
Let us now have a loot at India's dark horses at the Olympics:
Pooja Rani has been around the circuit for a long time, but unfortunately she missed out on the Olympics a couple of times. Most significantly, her 2016 Rio Olympics qualification was denied after a second-round exit at the World Championships. However, she was an established pugilist by then, having stormed into the scene with a national youth boxing championship silver medal in 2009. But, reaching that level was a different story altogether, with Pooja receiving backlashes from her family for taking up the sport and occasionally hiding injuries to keep her training sessions incognito.
The years 2010 and 2011 saw her climb up the hierarchy and eventually claim a national title in 2012. Her most notable achievement remains the 2014 Asian Games bronze medal win. Pooja’s career met an unexpected road bump in 2016, when she was left with burns while bursting crackers in Diwali, while a dislocated shoulder piled on the misery. But that could not fade away the raging fire inside, as Pooja Rani made a fitting comeback with a gold medal win at the 2019 Asian Championships.
A year later, she qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, by reaching the semi-finals of the 2020 Asian Olympic Qualifiers. A year without proper practice did not have much effect on the pugilist, as her Olympic preparations were unharmed. Even at the 2021 Asian Championships in Dubai, the Bhiwani-based boxer retained the gold medal after defeating Mavluda Movlonova of Uzbekistan, thus establishing herself as one of the wrestlers to watch out for in Tokyo.
For an athlete who started throwing sugarcane as a replacement for javelin, Annu Rani’s story was more than glorious. That was in spite of the fact her family of farmers had several restrictions regarding her involvement in sports. Constant support from her brother helped Annu progress in her career, while family acceptance had to wait until she registered a new national record with a throw of 58.83m at the Inter-State Senior Athletics Championships in the year 2014.
That feat in 2014 rewarded her doubly, as she also qualified for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Even though she hardly made the headlines at the CWG, the javelin thrower managed to claim a bronze medal at the Incheon Asian Games, later that year. With the build-up, Annu was regarded as a frontrunner to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, but she flattered to deceive in the end, renewing her wait for an extra four years.
The 2018 Asian Games hardly helped her career, which was dwindling by then. However, entry into the World Athletics Championships by virtue of a silver medal at the Asian Championship earlier that year put her career back on track. Consistent performances were finally rewarded when she registered a national record of 63.24m in her last competition ahead of the Games, and she also qualified for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics by virtue of her World Rankings. With her going into the mega-event in red-hot form, Annu Rani is expected to put up a fighting effort in Tokyo.
While the majority of the Indian shooting contingent is filled with young exciting talents, with them also shouldering the burden of collecting medals, we tend to forget that there are quite a few veterans also flying to Tokyo. Once such is Rahi Sarnobat. The 25m pistol shooter’s outing at the 2012 London Olympics did not turn out as expected as she finished 19th, coming nowhere near to a podium finish. However, she was just 21 at that time, with her entire career in front of her.
A year later, she won a gold medal at the ISSF World Cup and also medalled at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She was on track for a second Olympics appearance, but an elbow injury in 2015 washed away her plans for good. It took a considerable time, recruiting a new coach, and almost three years to restore her career once again, as she jumped back into the scene with a gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games, becoming the first individual to achieve the feat.
Participation at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics looked inevitable, having also bagged a gold medal at the ISSF World Cup, in 2019. However, the pandemic break meant it was a one-year wait before her second shot at the mega event. However, she ramped up her preparations with a silver medal at the 2021 ISSF World Cup, Delhi and a gold in her last tournament (ISSF World Cup, Osijek) ahead of the Tokyo showdown. With her going into the Olympics as one of the top-ranked athletes in the category, a tough fight is expected from the shooter.
Sania Mirza/Ankita Raina
Saina Mirza is not a new entrant at the Olympics, with her set to appear for the fourth time at the mega event. It was in Rio, five years ago, that she came closest to win a medal, having lost the bronze medal match alongside Rohan Bopanna in Mixed Doubles. After a year-long absence from the sport, Mirza returned to the professional circuit last year. She recently featured in the Wimbledon, her first major tournament after comeback, and still managed to reach the round-of-16. Riding on the momentum, Sania would be a force to be reckoned with at the Olympics.
Ankita Raina might not be as experienced as Sania Mirza, but her performances in the recent past have raised hopes. In fact, she has played in the main draw of each of the three grand slams this year - Australian Open, French Open, US Open - in the women’s doubles event. In fact, it was earlier this year, during the 2021 Phillip Island Trophy, that she claimed her maiden WTA title, in women’s doubles, partnering with Kamilia Rakhimova. Blending her recent form with the experience of Sania Mirza, the women’s pair is likely to give a hard time on the court to the competitors in Tokyo, even though a medal would be a far-fetched reality.