The Sporting Life: Are we prepped for Tokyo, asks Rudraneil Sengupta
For the past few months, Indian cricket has been on such a mad, thrill-a-minute ride — filled with near impossible victories, defiant stands, breathtaking debuts, backs-to-the-wall fightbacks and beastly domination — that it’s easy to forget that this is also an Olympic year.
And the Games are only five months away.
Before the pandemic struck, India’s Olympic hopefuls looked set to make serious breakthroughs at Tokyo 2020. In the handful of disciplines in which India are medal contenders — boxing, wrestling, shooting and badminton — there were a spate of unprecedented performances in the year leading up to the original Olympic dates.
PV Sindhu became the first Indian badminton world champion, in 2019. Amit Panghal became the first Indian silver-medallist at the boxing world championships, in the same year. We had the unprecedented high of seeing Indian women shooters occupy the top three spots globally in the 10m air rifle. Wrestlers Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia were medalling in every tournament they fought in, including the world and Asia championships.
There was even hope from an unexpected quarter. In Neeraj Chopra, India found its first world-class javelin thrower, with a personal best that would have seen him finish on the podium at any Olympics in the recent past.
Everything went haywire after that, of course. The Olympics were postponed by a year. Sporting events came to a standstill.
Now the time has come to once again take stock of where we stand, and the news is still largely good.
Last week we saw Phogat take to the mat again after a year in which she contracted Covid-19, stopped training for three months, then began training with baby steps overseen by her Hungarian coach via online sessions. She shifted to Europe in November and stepped into high-intensity mode again. And last week, at a European event, she scythed through the field (which included the 2017 world champion) with a devastating show of power and skill, including a takedown so spectacular that it’s usually seen in show-wrestling. In the semi-final, she ducked under her incoming opponent, shifted her weight from left to right (thus throwing her rival off-balance), drove in with her shoulder, picked her opponent off the ground and slammed her back into the mat. She is all right.
We don’t know where Punia stands, though he managed to escape the chaos and apathy of the Indian sporting system early on and has been training with his personal coach in Michigan for the last few months.
The three women shooters — Apurvi Chandela, Anjum Moudgil and Elavenil Valarivan — are still at it, with one change. Valarivan, 21 and the youngest of the three, has toppled Chandela from the top spot. When domestic shooting competitions restarted after a year’s gap in January, Valarivan blew the field away with a score higher even than Chandela’s existing world record (scores at domestic competitions are not considered for world records). The shooters are all right too.
Meanwhile, the entire boxing contingent has managed to hold on to form and fitness. Nine Indian boxers, men and women, qualified for Tokyo 2020, and they were the first Olympic athletes in India to resume training together, with their coaches, all in one place. They were also the first team to get back into international competition, fighting in a series of events in France and Italy between October and December.
In stark contrast, Chopra has yet to resume competition and is becoming desperate. The domestic track and field calendar is still in disarray. Chopra last threw at an event in South Africa in January 2020, after spending a year away following an elbow injury. He immediately hit the Olympic qualifier mark. Since then, nothing. In the time he’s lost to the total lack of opportunity, the world’s top javelin thrower, Germany’s Johannes Vetter, has participated in eight events.
“It is very important to get high-intensity competition against the top throwers of the world before the Olympics. I need to play in at least six international competitions before Tokyo,” Chopra told HT recently. “I also need to make time for recovery and training between those events.”
Chopra hopes to return to the European circuit this month. We will know then where he stands.