These are unlikely to be called the ‘Greatest Games’ but will certainly be the most ‘Challenging Games.’ Yet it could be India’s best, so what if these are the worst of times. A small slice of luck here or there in the form of a draw or a close match could see India win more than six medals – their best-ever from London in 2012. But above all, the important factor will be their mental strength and how they have coped with the pandemic and the stress it brought over the past 18 months.
First things first, watching the Opening Ceremony of the 2021 (or 2020) Olympic Games on TV from my couch in the sitting room was a strange feeling; maybe even emotionally draining after having been at every venue from 1992 to 2016. The absence of cheers and applause from spectators made it almost bland as the athletes trooped into an empty Olympic stadium.
How I craved for a smile; a hearty throaty laugh as they walked around at the Opening Ceremony, that in my humble opinion should never have been held. The International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s say mattered more than that of the Japanese people, who unlike the Montreal (1976 host) residents may not be paying taxes for decades to come, but could suffer likewise from the effects of a virus that has left humanity both crippled and perplexed.
These are strange times and the athletes could lose not just to their rivals, but even to an unseen virus. A syringe has always been a dirty word in sport, but this time it will be an all-important weapon used to administer the vaccines. Above all, cheerless, empty stadia and empty halls don’t make for a happy Olympic Games. No smiles. Just masks. Hopefully, the eyes will convey the message of joy.
The women could be the stars
An early medal could provide an awesome boost to the morale of the entire contingent. That could come from any of the following – archery, shooting and weightlifting with the women showing the way.
Archer Deepika Kumari, weightlifter in the 49-kg category Mirabai Chanu, and the shooters Elavenil Valarivan and Apurvi Chandela in women’s 10-m Air Rifle are all great prospects. Add to them the young guns, Saurabh Chaudhary and Abhishek Verma in men’s 10-m Air Pistol.
Back in 2012, Deepika, now in her third Games, came to London as the World No.1 but lost in the first elimination round to little-known Amy Olivier. Then, in 2016, once again highly touted as a medal prospect, she came through two matches in elimination rounds before losing to the eventual silver medallist Lisa Unruh of Germany in the round of Last 16.
Ahead of the Tokyo Games, Deepika is once again World No. 1. But the lingering question is whether she can hold her nerve at the Olympic stage.
Deepika shot 663 for ninth place, while the top archer was Korea’s An San who had 680, an Olympic record. An San, 20, began her career by competing with boys because her primary school did not have archery.
Deepika has an easy opponent in Round of 32 but she will also need to win Round 16 after which she could run into in-form An San in the quarter-finals. In the team events, the very second match, the quarter-finals, could be against the fancied Korea. The consolation is that these results don’t count anymore as the head-to-head clashes begin.
Shooters Elavenil and Chandela, as also Verma and Chaudhary, spent much of their training away from India in Croatia and are said to be ‘raring to go.’ This young and fearless lot could rewrite Indian sports history in both men’s and women’s Air Pistol 10m. Remember India’s only individual gold medal ever has come from shooting and the marksmen have a lot to make up for the blank they drew in 2016 after three successful Games.
Another major medal contender is Mirabai Chanu, the world record holder in Clean & Jerk (C&J), in 49 kg. A good effort in C&J followed by ‘snatch’ could mean India’s second weightlifting medal since Karnam Malleswari in 2000.
Personally, I have mixed feelings. Confusion, a mix-up, and a change in my accreditation meant I would need to make extra efforts to get it rectified in time to get to Tokyo, at a time when stepping out of the front door was as challenging as qualifying for the Olympics.
Caught between the emotions of sorting out that or taking an early call to skip the Games, I chose not to go to Tokyo back in March this year. And, my family heaved a sigh of relief – after a lifetime in sport, a medal from the family counts for a lot. Anyway, the Games are finally on. Bring on the Games and bring home the medals.
(The author has covered every Olympic Games from 1992 to 2016).