WITH EXACTLY one year to go for the Olympic Games, Indian sportspersons, like their counterparts all over, are charting their programme for the mega event. Nine shooters, one swimmer and the women archers have already qualified and more will be hoping to make the grade in the coming months.
India have won only 17 medals — eight gold (all in hockey), four silver, including two by Norman Pritchard for British India in 1900 Paris Games, and five bronze — in over 100 years. However, performances in the last three editions, the brilliance of shooters and a certain Sania Mirza raise hopes that the days of taunts like 'country of one billion and only one medal' could be numbered.
We take a look at the disciplines that could get India there.
A DECADE-AND-A-HALF ago, hardly anyone would have imagined that India could produce world shooting champions or Olympic medallist. Today, the game has become a middle-class prerogative.
The silent revolution saw a record number of qualifiers at the 2004 Athens Games, and if any further proof was needed that shooting is thriving in India, nine marksmen have already made the grade for 2008. That number could well swell with a couple of Asian championships lined up.
If a young Gagan Narang showed that a new generation had arrived, with the World Cup gold in China after the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, trap shooter Mansher Singh has proved that the old order is intact.
In between, there have been names who have earned glory, with world champion Manavjit Singh and rifle marksman Abhinav Bindra standing out. Not to forget the toast at the 2004 Athens — double-trap silver-medallist Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore.
Will India qualify for the Games? That's the question foremost on the minds of Indian hockey fans at the moment.
Though the task is not impossible, it will, however, not be as easy as in the past because of a change in the qualifying system. Earlier, it used to be one tournament of 12 teams, from which seven used to qualify. Now, the qualifiers will be three, six-team each, events from which only the winners will join hosts China, South Korea, Pakistan, South Africa and Canada, the top three from Europe and the Oceania champions.
That means India will be up against Japan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Australia/New Zealand and four representatives from Europe, for three tickets to Beijing. This clearly spells trouble for our inconsistent team that is prone to off days. The things against India are conceding last-minute goals, lack of firepower upfront and the absence of a consistent drag-flicker like Jugraj.
Qualification seems even more difficult for the women, who earned the right to participate in the qualifiers by winning bronze at the Doha Asian Games. However, earning their maiden ticket to the Olympics will be an uphill task considering the tough competition and the indifferent results over the years.
Though India have the potential to get a medal at the Olympics, their recent performances are not very optimistic. The men's team failed to qualify and the women's team just about managed the cut.
Though there'll be a couple of places in men's individual category up for grabs at the Asian meet in China this month, India's strength has been in the men’s team event. With that gone, all eyes will now be on the women. Dola Banerjee's recent gold at the Dover World Cup has come as a saving grace, even though the big guns from South Korea were absent. But it will be a tough task.
KARNAM MALLESWARI was just another name in Indian sport till that eventful day at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Then she struck bronze — India's only medal in that edition — and was immediately hailed as the messiah of Indian sport. Lifting became a priority.
Then came the 2004 edition in Athens, and everything changed. Two positive tests and Malleswari's sudden injury turned the sport into a rogue one. Then, after the 2006 Commonwealth Games, where two more lifters tested positive, the team was banned for a year and deprived of a chance to qualify for the Olympics.
Whether the Indian strongwomen would be able to get the maximum of four berths at the World Championships in Chiang Mai will be known in September. But the IWF biggest challenge would be to remain clean till the Beijing Games.
WRESTLING PROVIDED independent India's first individual medal when Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav won bronze at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Since then, no Indian grappler has made a mark.
With the Olympic qualifiers all set to kick off in September with the World Championships in Baku (Azerbaijan), the newly constituted Wrestling Federation of India is expecting more that 10 wrestlers to qualify from the World, Asian and various continental championships. India had sent seven grapplers — six free-style and one Graeco-Roman — to Athens.
However, with a host of good wrestlers, like Yogeshwar Dutt, Sushil Kumar, Palwinder Cheema etc in various weight categories, things do look good. But a medal remains a distant possibility.
Some decent performances in recent years and Indian boxing is looking good. But the road to Olympics has always been fraught with obstacles.
The senior World Championship in Chicago — the first qualifier for Olympics — will be the real test for Indian pugilists. Those who reach the last eight of the championship, to be held from October 30 to November 1, will automatically qualify.
There will be two more chances for Indian boxers — the Asian Zone qualifiers in Japan in January next year and another in Kazakhstan in March. Tough, but if the pugilists get their act right, they could be quite a handful.
Norman Pritchard won the first ever medal for India on the tracks in 1900 in Paris. In fact, he won two silvers.
Since then, we are still waiting for that elusive podium finish in athletics. The closest an Indian came to winning a medal was when Milkha Singh finished fourth — after leading almost the entire race 1 in 1960 in Rome.
Amongst the current crop, none inspires confidence enough to end this drought in an event that can yield the maximum medals. In track events, Anju Bobby George seems a shadow her old self, the runners are nowhere near world standards and the women's 4x400m relay team is the only one that has been consistent.
With the Indian team failing to impress even at the recent Asian Championships in Amman, hopes of a medal seem only a dream.
When 15-year-old Veerdhaval Khade qualified by bettering the 200 metres freestyle qualifying mark at the Melbourne World Championships in March, he became the toast of the nation. he remains the only swimmer to ensure a spot at the 2008 Olympics and has been consistently improving his performance. After Shikha Tondon and Rehan Poncha in the previous edition, Khade has given India hope. But a medal? For now, that can wait.
After Leander Paes, who? Sania Mirza will get a chance to answer the question when it comes to Olympics if she manages to continue her impressive performance. Sania will be among the medal contenders as most of the top-30 players on the WTA circuit normally don't take part in the Olympics.
Also only four players from a country are eligible for participation, thus improving Sania's chances. Apart from Sania, there is uncertainty over whether Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi will pair up again to renew their bid for a medal they narrowly missed at Athens.
(Inputs from Ajai Masand,Abhishek Hore, Indraneel Das,B. Shrikant, Uthra Ganesan and Khurram Habib)