Neeraj Chopra was back on the podium, this time at the World Athletics Championships, the first Indian man to do so. On a windy day in Eugene, Oregon in the US, Chopra battled past a slow start—he wasn’t in medal contention after the first three rounds—to finish in the medal bracket with a throw of 88.13m. “But this one isn’t gold,” Chopra lamented to Indian reporters after the final on Saturday evening.
So blinding is the sheen of Chopra’s gold medal at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, that a silver at the World Championships, the only other event comparable to the Olympics in athletics, felt like a disappointment to him. The floppy-haired javelin star has become the standard-bearer for Indian sport and his absence will be felt at the Commonwealth Games (CWG), which will be held in Birmingham, England, from 28 July-8 August. The 24-year-old pulled out of the event on Tuesday due to fitness concerns. Chopra, who is the defending champion at CWG, suffered from a groin injury during the World Championships and has been advised one-month rest by the doctors.
It should be said at the outset that not all multi-sport Games are made equal. While the Olympics is the pinnacle of sport, the Commonwealth Games would rank third among the three big events India participates in. In terms of importance and scope of the competition, the Asian Games edges the CWG. But the CWG, which also comes every four years, remains an important stepping stone in the life of Indian athletes.
India has won over a 100 medals just once in CWG—as the host country in 2010. It was a remarkable medal tally of 101, and a highest-ever finish on the table, at second. At the 2018 Games, held in Gold Coast, India finished third on the leaderboard with a total of 66 medals. The 215-strong Indian contingent, which will participate in 15 sports this year, will be looking to eclipse that count.
However, shooting, which was India’s most successful sport in 2018 with a medal count of 16, has been excluded from the Birmingham edition after much controversy. In 2018, India was also the most successful nation in wrestling, weightlifting, badminton and table tennis, and the second-best in boxing. And they will be expected to dominate these disciplines once again.
With any close competition missing, weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, who opened India’s medal tally in Tokyo, is looking to push past her personal best, and break some mental blocks in the process, in Birmingham. Chanu won the gold in the last edition with a Games record of 196 kg, which was a whopping 26kg more than her closest rival. “CWG will be easy for me. I will be fighting with myself,” Chanu told PTI recently. “I have to give my best performance keeping in mind the future tournaments.” One of the big targets for 27-year-old Manipuri is lifting over 90kg in snatch, which is her weaker suit. She will lead a 15-member weightlifting contingent, which includes promising talents like 19-year-old Jeremy Lalrinnunga (67kg) and 20-year-old Achinta Sheuli (73kg).
Like weightlifting, the field is relatively weak in wrestling in CWG. Apart from India, Nigeria and Canada are the only two nations who have a wrestling pedigree at the CWG. India won medals, including five golds, in all the 12 events they participated in in 2018, and are looking for an encore. While Olympic medallists Ravi Dahiya and Bajrang Punia lead the medal prospects in the men’s field, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik are keen to stage a comeback. Phogat, who has won two CWG golds, is hoping to erase the disappointment of Tokyo and fight her way back into contention, while 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medalist Malik will be playing her first big event in nearly four years.
Despite the absence of their 2018 talisman Saina Nehwal, India is hoping for a rich medal haul from badminton. P.V. Sindhu, who lost the women’s singles final to Nehwal in the previous edition, is aiming for her first individual gold at the event. The recent Thomas Cup triumph has also raised expectation from the men’s players: Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen in men’s singles, and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty in men’s doubles. India is also defending a gold medal in the mixed team event, and the only country that can rival them at this CWG is Malaysia.
While India was expected to do well in sports like weightlifting, wrestling and badminton at 2018 CWG, the revelation of the tournament was the table tennis squad. Of the nine events that took place, India won medals in eight, including three golds for the men’s team, the women’s team, and Manika Batra in women’s singles. India’s victory over the higher-rated Singapore in the women’s team event was one of highlights of the Games.
Since that breakthrough, India’s table tennis players have continued to break new ground. In 2021, Batra and veteran Achanta Sharath Kamal became the first Indians to reach the third round in singles at the Olympics. Batra has also forged a strong partnership with G. Sathiyan in mixed doubles and the duo are currently ranked No. 6 in the world. They are likely to be seeded second in Birmingham.
In boxing, all eyes will be on Olympic bronze medallist Lovlina Borgohain, and recently crowned world champion Nikhat Zareen. This is the first multi-sport event for Zareen, who has lived in the shadow of boxing legend MC Mary Kom as they compete in the same weight category. With only six weight classes marked for women in this year’s CWG, the 25-year-old Zareen will step out of her comfort zone and compete in 50kg (she won the World Championships in 52kg).
As far as team events are concerned, India will be hoping to build on their stunning run in the Olympics in hockey. The men’s team put India back on the hockey map by winning a bronze, India’s first medal in over 40 years. The women’s team, which created history by entering the bronze-medal playoff in Tokyo, is looking to overcome the disappointment of finishing ninth at the World Cup. India will also field a team in the women’s T20 cricket competition, which is making its debut at the CWG.
Even though Chopra will be missing in action, his Tokyo gold has injected new energy into Indian athletics. The country’s athletes are brimming with belief and are looking to overhaul India’s best performance in track and field events, which came in 2010 when they won 12 medals, including two gold. At the recently concluded World Championships, India reached the finals of six track and field events.
Avinash Sable (men’s 3000m steeplechase), Murali Sreeshankar (long jump), Annu Rani (javelin) and Seema Punia (discus) will be the leading medal contenders in athletics at CWG. High-jumper Tejaswin Shankar, who was added in the team after much drama, has spent most of his time in the US collegiate scene but will be keen to shine on the international stage. After the best-ever show at last year’s Olympics, India eye another Games high in Birmingham.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.