Who are India's top Olympic medal contenders?
- From veterans to young rising stars, India's top athletes in some disciplines will go into Tokyo as the best in their field.
Here are the eight athletes and one team that we think are India’s top medal contenders. We will be tracking them closely through the two months leading up to the Tokyo Olympics.
Ranked World No.1 in 65kg, Bajrang Punia thrives on the big stage. He has consistently medalled at major tournaments in the last three years, including gold at the 2018 Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and silver and bronze at successive World Championships (2018, 2019). He is the only Indian wrestler with three medals from the World Championships.
Punia is a complete wrestler—with great speed, agility and power and an uncanny ability to fight back from nearly hopeless situations.
Her Rio Olympics campaign ended in pain and tears—a knee injury in the quarter-finals that saw her being stretchered off. A surgery and a long rehab later, Phogat has made a stunning comeback, winning gold medals at the 2018 Asian Games and Commonwealth Games and a bronze at the 2019 World Championships after shifting up in weight class.
Currently the world No. 1 in 53kg, she is on a hot streak with gold medals in her last three tournaments in Kiev, Rome and Asian Championships. She will benefit from the withdrawal of North Korea from the Olympics as world champion Pak Yong Mi will be missing from the draw.
In a short span of three years, Panghal has gone from rookie boxer to world beater and top Olympics contender. He has not looked back since beating Rio Olympics Champion Hasanboy Dusmatov (light flyweight) in the 2018 Asian Games final, after two earlier defeats. He had to move to flyweight division (52kg) for Olympic qualification in 2019 and again beat Dusmatov at the Asian Championships. But his biggest triumph was winning a silver medal at the world championships – a first for Indian boxing. An intelligent and fast boxer who thrives on counter-attacks and close-in fighting.
MC MARY KOM
Six-time world champion and London Olympics bronze medallist, Mary Kom still has the hunger and guile to win a second Olympic medal. With her vast experience, the 38-year-old can never be counted out. She has dominated the light flyweight division but had to move to flyweight for the Olympics. A bronze at the 2019 world championships has kept her afloat.
As a 19-year-old, he has bagged 10 World Cup medals, including eight gold, shot world record scores in both junior and senior competitions in 10m air pistol and was ranked world No.1 rank (currently No.2).
Add to it the Asian Games gold – he is the youngest Indian shooter to achieve the feat – and it seems the reclusive teenager talks only through his gun.
The junior world champion’s combination with another shooting prodigy, Manu Bhaker, make them strong favourites in the new mixed team format as well. The pair has been unbeatable on the global stage in the last two years.
Mentored by London Olympics bronze medallist Gagan Narang, Valarivan has made it to the Tokyo Olympics team because of her high level of consistency at the world stage, replacing quota winner Anjum Moudgil in the 10m air rifle individual event. She is the current world No.1 and won gold medals in two World Cups in 2019. A rising star on a hot streak at the right time.
The reigning badminton world champion, Sindhu has been amazingly consistent in major badminton tournaments. She won a silver at the Rio Olympics and has since made the finals of all three world championships (2017-2019). She is a big-match player with an all-round game and ability to lift herself in crunch moments.
Having burst onto the scene in 2016 with a junior world championship title, the javelin thrower, India’s first global track & field star in decades, has had a poor build up to the Olympics. Laid low by an elbow injury in 2019 and trapped by pandemic restrictions in 2020-21, he has competed in just one international meet in two years. Yet he remains one of the world’s top throwers, and with a 88.06 metre throw that won him the 2018 Asian Games gold and a 88.07 m throw at Indian GP this year, he is inching closer to that elusive 90 m mark that only one man in the world hits right now.
MEN'S HOCKEY TEAM:
Indian hockey loves its good old story of hope. So here we are again, riding that same wave, for a long-awaited Olympic medal from the men's team. After ending a disappointing eighth in Rio, the men have done precious little in major events since: the team missed out on a medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games after losing to New Zealand in the semi-finals, settled for bronze at the Asian Games that robbed them of a direct Tokyo berth and crashed out in the quarter-finals of the FIH World Cup to Netherlands the same year.
Under new coach Graham Reid, however, the team has shown promise again, beating sides like Australia, Belgium, Netherlands, Argentina and Germany over the last couple of years. But whether they can do it in the pressure matches at the biggest stage, where they often wilt, remains the key question.