Athletics is the showpiece event of a multi-discipline extravaganza like the Olympics — the various competitions living up to the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius, the three Latin words meaning ‘Swifter, Higher, Stronger’.
The Indian athletics team started taking part in the Olympics as late as 1920 but has no medals to show for its efforts till date. The two silver medals Norman Pritchard — an athlete of British descent born in Calcutta — won at the 1900 Olympics in Paris was for British India, according to historians.
However, there have been many heroic performances by Indians at the quadrennial event, with three athletes missing medals by the proverbial whisker. Milkha Singh missed the 400m bronze by 0.1 second at the 1960 Games in Rome, Gurbachan Singh Randhawa eventually finished fifth in the 110m hurdles at Tokyo in 1964, while P.T. Usha missed the third spot in 400m hurdles by 1/100th of a second at Los Angeles in 1984.
Apart from them, only three others — triple jumper Henry Rebello in 1948 London Olympics, Sriram Singh in 800m at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and long jumper Anju Bobby George at Athens in 2004 — have reached the finals in individual events, while the women's 4x400m relay team has done that twice — in 1984 and 2004.
At Beijing, 16 athletes will represent India, but none of them has shown the form that puts them in the list of medal contenders. However, one would be hoping for a good performance from Anju Bobby George, triple jumper Renjith Maheshwari, discus thrower Vikas Gowda, heptathletes J.J. Shobha, Sushmita Singha Roy and G.G. Pramila, besides the women's 4x400m relay team.
However, considering the huge gap between the Indian and international standards in almost all athletics disciplines, any expectations of medals from the Indians at Beijing would be akin to daydreaming. Reaching the finals of their respective events would be highly commendable achievement for all the Indian athletes.
But some of them like Anju, Maheshwari, Gowda and the relay team have the potential of spring a few surprises. If they maintain their form, the above-mentioned trio and the relay team should at least make it to the final of their respective disciplines. India would also have high hopes from quartermiler Manjit Kaur. Though the Punjab athlete has struggled with injures recently, she has the potential to emulate K.M. Beenamol and reach at least the semifinals.
Watch out for:
Anju Bobby George
India's best hope for Beijing, she came up with her best-ever performance of 6.83m at the Athens Olympics. And many believe that she was at her peak at that time, having won India's first medal at the World Championships the previous year. Since then, her graph has gradually gone down and the 31-year-old has not managed to come anywhere near that mark. Her best this year has been the 6.55m achieved in the third leg of the Asian Grand Prix at Hanoi. (She did 6.65 at Amman last year to qualify for Beijing). However, her best this year is way below the year's top performance of 7.12 registered by Naide Gomes of Portugal. There are 14 long jumpers who have done better than 6.83 this year.
With one giant leap, Renjith Maheshwari made it to the record books last year as the first Indian to cross the 17m mark in triple jump. The 17.04m he crossed at Guwahati last year is a national record but Renjith's performance has gone down since. However, Renjith is confident of touching his peak form at Beijing.
Women’s 4x400 relay team
The relay team has raised hopes of making a mark on the world stage in recent times with some good timings. The team qualified as the 14th best in the world with an average of 3 minutes 30.42 seconds and is expected to reach the final as it did in the last edition at Athens.