Representative image - Olympics rings in display in Tokyo(REUTERS)
Representative image - Olympics rings in display in Tokyo(REUTERS)

Year-Ender 2019: Shooting a ‘happy headache’, Athletics a worry for India ahead of Tokyo Olympics

Winning gold medals in major tournaments, and setting world records, Indian shooters grabbed the headlines throughout 2019. But will that translate into medals in Tokyo, is the biggest question.
By Karan Prashant Saxena | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON DEC 31, 2019 08:54 PM IST

Going into the Olympics 2020, shooting appears to be India’s best bet of winning medals, with the sharp shooters recording an unprecedented 15 quotas for Tokyo, three more than they did for Rio. Winning gold medals in major tournaments, and setting world records, Indian shooters grabbed the headlines throughout 2019. But will that translate into medals in Tokyo, is the biggest question.

India’s performance in shooting a year before Rio Olympics was superb as well, with the contingent bagging 12 quotas. But the shooters returned without a medal after a poor show at the Games. The result led National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) to evaluate the shortcomings and publicly release a document citing the same. A revamp in the shooting programme saw a huge number of youngsters rising up the ranks. Despite a bright future ahead, Tokyo Olympics will be the biggest test for India’s shooting contingent after largely promising last four years.

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This year, at the ISSF World Cup in New Delhi in March, NRAI President Raninder Singh had predicted three-to-four quota spots in the event. But, 16-year-old Saurabh Chaudhary was the lone shooter to get one after he won a gold in 10m air pistol. India’s total tally of quota places in shooting reached 3, with Anjum Moudgil and Apurvi Chandela already having booked two spots in 10m Air Rifle Women’s category last year.

At the next ISSF World Cup which took place in Beijing, Divyansh Singh Pawar and Abhishek Verma added two more quotas in Men’s 10m air rifle and 10m air pistol events respectively. Rahi Sarnobat won a gold medal in Women’s 25m pistol event at Munich World Cup, while Manu Bhaker finished 4th in 10m pistol event in the same tournament to take India’s total quota tally to seven by the end of May.

The focus shifted to Hockey in June, with India set to participate in FIH Series Finals tournament, from which two finalists would get a berth for final Olympic qualifiers, set to take place in October-November. As expected, India beat South Africa 5-1 in the final to confirm a spot in the Olympics qualifiers.

In Athletics, India faced a couple of setbacks with Hima Das and Neeraj Chopra, who were touted to be two Olympic medal prospects, suffering major injuries at the start of the year. Das won four gold medals in competitions across the world, but it came at the cost of her aggravating long-time back injury which forced her to sit out of World Athletics Championships in September.

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In July, Dutee Chand won the 100m gold at the World University Games in Naples, to become the only Indian after Das to win a yellow medal in a track event in a global competition. But her timing of 11.32 was still far off from the Olympic qualification standard of 11.15s. Despite several attempts in global and local tournaments, the sprinter has not made the mark and is yet ear a quota. She will likely be now relying on her World Rankings to see her through to Tokyo.

India failed to win any medal at the World Athletics in September. But Avinash Sable, after recording a national record in the 3000m steeplechase, managed to book himself a Tokyo berth. The 4X400m mixed relay team comprising of Muhammad Anas, VK Vismaya, Jisna Mathew and Tom Nirmal Noah also earned an Olympic quota, while Irfan Thodi received one in Men’s 20km Race Walk.

India have not won a single Olympics medal in Athletics since 1900. But with javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra and sprinter Hima Das in the fray, there were a few odd eyeballs which were expecting one in Tokyo. But Neeraj has still not recovered from his shoulder injury, and has not been involved in competitions since last year. Similarly, Das’ back injury has aggravated this year, and her recent media commitments has not helped her either in mending the same. AFI needs to find a way to ensure that these two athletes are in the best of shape by the time Olympics begin, or else, the contingent, could, once again, return empty-handed.

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In August, Indian shuttlers stole the show, with Chirag Shetty and Satwik Reddy becoming the first Indian pair to win men’s doubles gold at the Thailand Open. Later, in the same month, PV Sindhu defeated Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara in straight games to win World Championship gold medal. But will these medals the convert into Olympic qualifications and medals?

Sindhu’s graph has gone downhill since August, as she has failed to even reach the quarters in any tournament after the Worlds. In the recently concluded BWF World Series Finals, the defending champion was knocked out in the first stage itself after three straight defeats.

With a Worlds gold, PV Sindhu has put herself as India’s best bet of an Olympic medal in 2020. But her recent performances have raised certain doubts. Is this a strategy to reduce workload to avoid injury? Or is it a decline of a player who gave her all to win the top prize at the World Championships?

Sindhu’s foreign coach Kim Ji Hyun, who was seen as one of the major reasons for her success this year, has resigned due to personal reasons, and maybe her departure has caused a decline in her performance. There are certainly rumours going on that all is not well between her and coach Pullela Gopichand.

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Satwik and Chirag also made it to French Open Finals, but failed to win their second gold. While they are the most improved doubles shuttlers in the country, the pair still needs to do a lot more to win an Olympic medal. India’s veteran women’s doubles player Jwala Gutta, though, is not sure if the duo can win a medal. “They can qualify, sure. But I am not sure if a medal will come out of it,” she told Hindustan Times in an interview.

Shooters also grabbed limelight in the same month, with Yashaswini Singh winning 10m air pistol gold at Rio World Cup to earn an Olympic quota. Veteran shooter Sanjeev Rajput added one more quota berth for India as he won a silver medal in the 50m Rifle 3 Positions in the same tournament.

Boxing and Wrestling dominated the news in September and October. Amit Panghal became the first Indian boxer to reach AIBA Men’s World Boxing Championships final. He had to settle for a 52kg silver after losing 0-5 to reigning Olympic champion Shakhobidin Zoirov. Speaking to Hindustan Times in an interview after the historic silver medal win, men’s boxing coach Santiago Nieva had questioned the scoring systems:

“We improved a lot in Round 2 and the last round was totally open. We tried to make some adjustments to get more clarity, to make a difference. When the bout finished we hoped that victory will be ours but in the end they gave it to the opponent,” he said in September.

Manish Kaushik also won a bronze medal in 63kg category. With the medal wins, both Panghal and Kaushik booked respective spots at Olympic qualifiers which is set to take place in February next year in Wuhan, China.

The controversy over scoring system erupted after AIBA Women’s Boxing World Championships after Mary Kom lost her semifinal bout against Turkey’s Busenaz Cakiroglu in 51 kg category, and had to settle for a bronze medal. After the defeat, a sour Mary Kom took to Twitter to express her anguish over the decision, and later, in an interview to Hindustan Times, demanded IOC for a change in rule.

“I attended the IOC meeting as an athletes’ representative for AIBA. So I shared my opinion with them and asked for more transparency in points system while judging bouts. Those who deserve should win,” she said in October.

The controversy over the scoring systems led IOC deciding to amend the rules in November, bringing in transparency in scoring systems for the upcoming Olympic qualifiers and Tokyo Olympics. Amit Panghal explained further in an interview to Hindustan Times on why this will be helpful for Indian boxers.

“Boxers will get a lot of help at the Olympics as they will continue to be aware of scores of each round and know if he/she is leading or trailing. Then, the boxer can decide his strategy accordingly in the further rounds. When trailing, the boxer can decide to become more aggressive in the last round to cover the deficit or hang back if in front,” he said.

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Of course, that was not the only controversy in boxing. BFI’s decision to grant Mary Kom a spot in India’s Olympic qualifiers contingent, even though she did not reach the final at the Worlds, saw fellow 51kg pugilist NIkhat Zareen demanding the federation to give her a trial. The controversy paved way for BFI to change her mind, and schedule a trial between the two boxers in the last week of December.

Now, just earlier this week, Zareen further demanded the bout between her and the Manipuri boxer to be televised as she does not have faith in the fairness of the trial. Irrespective of how the entire scene plays out, it has certainly exposed a need for BFI to explain their guidelines on Olympic qualifiers selection clear in a written document, and to adhere by it, irrespective of any other external pressures.

Among wrestlers, Vinesh Phogat grabbed the spotlight after she won a 53kg bronze medal at World Wrestling Championships at Nur-Sultan to book a spot at the Olympics. The grappler had suffered a severe injury in Rio 2016, which almost ended her career. Speaking on the same, Phogat told Hindustan Times that she believes it was her destiny to reach Tokyo.

“I never thought I would have to go to a phase where I have to go through an operation (knee). The mindset was that if surgery happens it is the end of the road (as a wrestler). During rehabilitation, I thought maybe I have to go through this phase because God wanted me to be strong. Now destiny again wants me to be at another Olympics and if God wants I will win a medal,” she said last month.

Also Read: Marijne confident India will reach quarters at Tokyo Olympics

There were plenty of other surprises in store for India at Nur-Sultan. Olympic medalist Sushil Kumar was knocked out in the first round and a controversial decision ended Bajrang Punia’s hopes of winning 65kg gold. Bajrang had to settle with a bronze medal, but he booked a berth to Tokyo. Ravi Dahiya (57kg) and Deepak Punia (86kg) also won bronze and silver medals, respectively, and booked Olympic quotas.

Deepak, who had to opt out of his final bout against Iran’s Hasan Yazdanichara at the World Championships due to injury, was recently named the ‘Junior Freestyle Wrestler of the Year’ by United World Wrestling. He had a breakout year in 2019 and will certainly be confident going to Tokyo next year. For now, Deepak appears to be in contention for Olympic medals, as much as Bajrang, after what has been a breakout year for the youngster.

Hockey returned to India in November with the men’s team, as expected, picking an easy 11-3 aggregate win over lowly Russia to book a berth at the Olympics.The real star of the show was the women’s hockey team and its captain Rani Rampal. Facing off against a trickier opponent in USA, India, women’s team won the first leg 5-1. But they were stunned when the USA covered the deficit to make it 5-5 within just 30 minutes of the second half.

Under pressure, Rampal hammered a reverse hit in the third quarter to give lead back to India, and then the side defended till the final whistle. Speaking to Hindustan Times on the win, Rani said: “At half-time, our coach (Sjoerd Marijne) said, ‘You’ve not lost the tie.’ We had 30 minutes to decide who will head to the Olympics. He told us not to give up and play with more energy. The players changed their mindset and decided to fight. In the last two quarters we played well and aggressively.”

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Now the Olympic groups and schedules for both the teams have been announced by IOC, and intense preparations for Tokyo are underway. While the men’s team will be playing at the Pro League from next month, the women’s team will be travelling overseas to gain some experience against foreign teams.

Speaking on the road to Tokyo, men’s team coach Graham Reid told Hindustan Times: “The Pro League will give us a complete depth of the level of competition that we need to be playing against. Our aim is to train at the top level, at high and fast pace. Training at this level will also help us in getting the consistency that we are looking to achieve.”

The women’s team coach Marijne also addressed how not playing in Pro League could prove useful for his side. “I am always thinking on the positive side and working of a solution. The positive thing about not playing in Pro League is that we can test our bench more. There is no schedule for us. We can decide it all on our own, which can be an advantage,” he said.

The shooters also took the spotlight in November with Deepak Kumar (Men’s 10m Air Rifle), Aishwary Tomar (Men’s 50m Rifle 3 Positions), Chinki Yadav (Women’s 25m Pistol), Tejaswini Sawant (Women’s 50m Rifle 3 Positions), Angad Bajwa (Men’s Skeet) and Mairaj Ahmed Khan (Men’s Skeet) adding six more quota places for India with medal wins at Asian Championship Shooting in Doha.

Also Read: Deepika Kumari, Ankita Bhakat secure Olympic quota, medals for India at Asian meet

The success of shooting contingent has also proved to be a happy headache for NRAI. The quota wins do not automatically guarantee any shooter a spot in India’s shooting squad for the Olympics. The final squad is decided by NRAI. With 18-year-old Elavenil Valarivan winning her maiden seniors gold in 10m Women’s Rifle this year at ISSF, it could be a three-way tussle between her and the two quota winners Anjum Moudgil and Apurvi Chandela, for selection.

“There are chances I could be considered for Olympic contingent. Let’s hope for the best,” Elavenil had told Hindustan Times in an interview back in August.

India also earned two quotas in Archery with the men’s recurve team of Tarundeep, Atanu Das, Pravina Jadhav bagging one, and Deepika Kumari, earning one in singles’s competition. The biggest surprise in terms of quota came in Equestrian, with Asian Games silver medalist Fouaad Mirza bagging one in November. But a medal for India in these two sporting events, is highly unlikely.

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