Less than a month after being lauded for salvaging the national pride in the wake of the trouble-plagued preparations for the Commonwealth Games, India's athletes are heading to China carrying great expectations for the Asian Games. The months leading up to the New Delhi Commonwealth Games were marred by security concerns, allegations of corruption and delays in construction of venues that led to a last-minute rush to get things finished.
The filthy state of the games village only days before athletes were due to arrive sparked global criticism and calls by some to boycott the event. But that galvanized the government and organizers to complete preparations and the mostly successfully Commonwealth finished with a bang _ India overhauled England for second spot behind Australia on the medals table on the final day of competition.
The athletic performance has raised expectations at home and abroad.
Suddenly, the ills of Indian sports administration have been forgotten and the likes of shooter Gagan Narang, badminton player Saina Nehwal, wrestler Sushil Kumar and discus thrower Krishna Poonia have become household names in India after outstanding performances in front of home crowds in an event that even drew some attention away from cricket _ the national obsession. "The present lot of sports persons is hungry to perform at the international level. You will see that they will do well in major international competitions including the Olympics," said Abhay Chautala, the head of India's delegation to the Asian Games. The Asian Games are an opportunity to consolidate the performances in the Olympic disciplines, which have languished in India for years because of a lack of infrastructure and sports budget constraints.
The unprecedented $146 million budget provided primarily for preparation of the Commonwealth Games team is expected to stand the country in good stead during the Asiad, when the focus will again be on its shooters, wrestlers, weightlifters, boxers, archers and badminton players, who contributed the bulk of India's 101 medals at New Delhi.
At the Doha Asian Games four years ago, India won 54 medals, including 10 gold, for an eighth-place finish. India has set its sights much higher for Guangzhou.
The challenge for athletes is to peak twice in a season and to channel enough energy to the continental event, where the competition will be more intense in some disciplines. Shooting is one sport were competition will be of a higher standard at the Asian Games.
"The Asian Games are going to be much tougher for India with the presence of Chinese and Korean shooters," warned India's national shooting coach Sunny Thomas, whose team won 30 medals at the Commonwealth Games, including 14 gold. "But we are improving and are expecting do well with all the exposure in the past few years." India, however, will be without some high-profile competitors in Guangzhou.
Star wrestler Sushil Kumar has decided to skip the Asian Games due to a niggling shoulder injury after winning the World Championship and Commonwealth Games gold medal.
"The injury has been troubling me for the past six months and officials have advised that I ensure the injury does not flare up to jeopardize my chances in the London Olympics two years from now," the 66-kilogram category freestyle wrestler.
India is also likely to miss last edition's tennis doubles gold medal winners Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathy, while top chess players Viswanathan Anand and Koneru Humpy are also missing from the Indian team for the games.