Less than a year ago, Sajan Prakash found himself at a crossroads. Diagnosed with a slip disc in the neck in December 2019, he had already been out of the pool for three months. He was in Phuket, Thailand, on a FINA (International Swimming Federation) scholarship when the pandemic struck. With the pool out of bounds, the trainees were forced to do dry-land training for five months.
“Faced with adversity during this period, many people that I looked up to asked me to find closure and move on from professional swimming,” the 27-year-old tweeted earlier this month. But Prakash, born in Idukki, Kerala, and brought up by a single mother, hadn’t come this far just to give up. He reunited with his coach Pradeep Kumar in Dubai in August 2020 and rebuilt his Olympic dream from scratch. In late June, he became the first Indian to make the “A” qualifying cut in swimming, clocking 1:56.38 in the 200m butterfly event at the Sette Colli Trophy championship in Rome to book his berth for Tokyo. The very next day, his compatriot Srihari Nataraj, who had been micro-seconds off the “A” qualifying mark, breached it. The 20-year-old swam the 100m backstroke in 53.77seconds.
The swimming history they created apart, Prakash knows these Olympics, which began on 23 July, “are going to be very unique”.
The Olympics bring together some of the fittest, fastest, strongest human beings in the world, stellar athletes seeking to push the limits of human physical possibility. In a way, the Olympics celebrate life in its prime. However, the Tokyo Games, which were deferred by a year, come at a time when preserving human life has become paramount. With the pandemic still raging, the Games will happen in a more sterile, sombre atmosphere.
“No one has experienced something like this before,” Prakash had told Lounge after qualifying for the Games on 26 June. He had gone to the 2016 Rio Olympics through the Universality quota (which allows nations that do not have swimmers who have qualified for the Olympics to nominate one swimmer from each gender). “Whatever happens, we need to adjust to the situation, that’s what sportspersons tend to do.”
Over the past year, Indian athletes, many of whom come from humble backgrounds, have shown amazing flexibility in adapting to the “new normal”, travelling and playing tournaments in bio-bubbles, all for a chance to compete on the biggest stage: the Olympics.
As many as 127 Indian athletes have qualified for the Tokyo Games, which is a record number, eclipsing the 117 that went to Rio in 2016. There’s hope that the largest Olympic contingent from the country will yield our richest medal haul yet.
So far, India’s most successful Olympic campaign has been the London Games in 2012, when the country finished with six medals: Sushil Kumar (wrestling, silver), Vijay Kumar (shooting, silver), Saina Nehwal (badminton, bronze), Mary Kom (boxing, bronze), Yogeshwar Dutt (wrestling, bronze) and Gagan Narang (shooting, bronze).
P.V. Sindhu may not have been selected as India’s flag-bearer for the Tokyo Games but the country’s best hopes for a medal lie on her very capable shoulders. The statuesque shuttler had sprung a surprise in Rio by claiming the silver medal. In the five years since, she has built on that success, worked on her fitness and finesse, upped her mental game and captured some of the biggest titles in her sport. Amidst immense scrutiny, she has shed the reductive tag of “Silver Sindhu” by winning the Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Tour Finals (season-ending finale) in 2018 and clinched the BWF World Championships gold in 2019.
One of her biggest rivals, and the player who denied her the gold at Rio, Carolina Marin, will not be competing in Tokyo. But the women’s field in badminton runs deep and there are at least five players, with world No.1 Tai Tzu Ying leading the list, who will pose a serious threat to her medal ambitions. “This (pandemic) period was really good for us to learn new skills and new techniques because we had enough time and didn’t have any tournaments,” Sindhu had said during an interaction with Lounge earlier this month. Her last competitive game was at the Swiss Open in June. “I have got a lot of time to work on my game, my fitness. There are a few new techniques and skills that I have learnt. But I am sure all the players are doing that. We don’t know each other’s game. So this time we will have to see how everyone is playing and adapt to that during the match. We have to be prepared for everything.”
Sindhu has been training at the Gachibowli Stadium in Hyderabad with her personal coach, Park Tae Sang. At 5ft, 10 inches, she already towers over the rest of the competition and uses the vertical advantage expertly to kill off points with a smash. But Park has sought to improve her defence and add to her variation from the back of the court.
Sindhu today is a more mature, better-rounded version of the feisty player we saw in Rio. India have won medals in badminton at the last two Olympics, and much is expected in Tokyo of the badminton squad, which also comprises B. Sai Praneeth (men’s singles) and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty (men’s doubles).
In Rio, Sindhu had shown just how far youthful exuberance and an unburdened mind can take you. India’s Olympics debutants in Tokyo, in sports ranging from athletics to shooting and wrestling, will be seeking to follow in her footsteps. If Neeraj Chopra is being tipped to win India’s first medal in track and field at the Olympics, Bajrang Punia is hoping to improve on the medal tally in wrestling.
Javelin thrower Chopra had been marked as a medal prospect ever since he won gold at the IAAF Under-20 World Championships in 2016 with a world junior record of 86.48m. Even though he has suffered injury setbacks, the 23-year-old from Haryana kept raising the bar. He won gold medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2018 Asian Games.
Despite a long break due to the pandemic, Chopra started the Olympic season on a high. In his first competition in more than a year, he hurled the javelin to a personal best and national record distance of 88.07m at the Indian Grand Prix 3 in Patiala, Punjab, in March. But to win a medal, he will have to reckon with the world No.1, Johannes Vetter, who has already laid down a marker by breaching the 90m mark seven times this season. Chopra, who is currently working on his angle of delivery and striving to throw the spear as flat and straight as possible, will have little room for error when he makes his Olympics debut on 4 August.
And to be able to do so, Chopra will have to shed the burden of a century and more of narrow misses and disappointments.
The first and only time India won a medal in track and field was in 1900, when Norman Pritchard won silver medals in the 200m and 200m hurdles. Milkha Singh, who died in June due to covid-19, lost out on a bronze medal in a photo finish in the 400m final in Rome at the 1960 Olympics, while P.T. Usha missed the bronze in the 400m hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Games by one-hundredth of a second. “Neeraj did 88m earlier this year, he could probably go past 90m,” Usha told The Hindu on 14 July. “I think he is capable of winning a medal.”
In wrestling, Punia is hoping to emulate his idol Yogeshwar Dutt, who won a bronze at the 2012 London Olympics. He is seeded second in the competitive 65kg category, in which, he believes, “there are at least 12-13 wrestlers who can beat anyone”. The 27-year-old, one of India’s most decorated wrestlers, has won three World Championship medals. The one thing missing from his impressive haul is an Olympics medal. Having refused to go up against his mentor Dutt for the 65kg quota place India had secured during the 2016 Games, Punia is hoping to make Tokyo 2020 count.
The one sport where Indian youngsters have been making the most noise is shooting. The Indian Olympic squad is made up of talented youngsters like Manu Bhaker, Saurabh Chaudhary, Elavenil Valarivan and Divyansh Panwar. They have all won multiple medals at world cups and shown they can keep calm under pressure. “I am really looking forward to the performance of our young shooters,” India’s lone individual gold medallist at the Olympics, Abhinav Bindra, was quoted as saying by the Millennium Post. “The young shooting athletes represent the confidence of India and have a lot of self-belief. They have done well in previous competitions and go into the Olympics with confidence.”
Rubbing shoulders with the young and the restless will be veterans like Mary Kom and Achanta Sharath Kamal.
Table tennis star Sharath Kamal is a seasoned Olympian, having participated in three Games. Even though the 39-year-old has qualified for the men’s singles and is still the highest-ranked Indian player at 32, his best chance of a medal lies in mixed doubles.
Kamal and Manika Batra have qualified for the mixed doubles event debuting at the Olympics. The pair had won bronze medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2018 Asian Games and defeated a top-five pair at the qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics in March. They have practised together in spurts since, first in Kamal’s home-town Chennai and then at the national camp in Sonipat, Haryana. “Game-wise, body-wise, I am in the right space,” he told PTI before departing for Tokyo. “Now I have understood how the mind reacts, how to handle pressure and anxiety. Physically, I have really worked hard to be here.”
Another Indian sporting legend who wants to leave the stage on a high is Mary Kom. Having won a bronze in the 51kg category when women’s boxing was introduced at the Olympics in London 2012, she is back in the hunt. At 38, she may not be in her prime but she’s still capable of winning medals on the big stage. Though the strict lockdown deprived boxers of sparring partners, “Magnificent Mary” made a comeback in 2021 with a bronze at the Boxam tournament in Spain and a silver at the Asian Boxing Championships in June. A six-time world champion and mother of four, the diminutive Kom still possesses a mean left hook, and will be gunning for glory in Tokyo. “Like all athletes, to win gold at the Olympics is something I have dreamt always, and I have an opportunity to take a shot (again),” she had told this reporter earlier.
The Tokyo Games are a chance for a do-over for Mirabai Chanu, Deepika Kumari and Vinesh Phogat.
Like London 2012, Kumari is once again the top-ranked women’s archer in the world. The daughter of an auto-rickshaw driver, she battled all odds to rise to No.1. But the 27-year-old has struggled to deal with expectations on the Olympics stage. She lost in the opening round of the women’s individual event in London and was knocked out in the round of 16 at the Rio Olympics four years later. “I don’t want a repeat any more,” she said before leaving for Tokyo. “It’s the past but yes, that will play on my mind…. So, it’s about trying my best to keep myself free of all those negative thoughts and take less pressure. It’s about focusing just on my shooting.”
Going into the Olympics, she has gathered some momentum by winning gold at the World Cups in France and Guatemala. Kumari will compete in the women’s individual event and the mixed team event with husband Atanu Das.
For weightlifter Chanu and wrestler Phogat, the Rio Games turned out to be agonising for very different reasons. While Chanu was unable to register a single valid lift in her three attempts in clean and jerk, Phogat suffered a horrific knee injury in the quarter-finals and had to be taken off on a stretcher.
Both bear the mental scars. But Phogat and Chanu have returned stronger than ever. Phogat, who has moved up to the 53kg weight category, won a World Championships bronze in 2019 and has risen to world No.1. “The journey to Tokyo has been long, bittersweet and difficult at times,” she tweeted on 11 July. “Casting my mind back five years, I wasn’t even sure whether I would be able to get on to the mat again. The injury in Rio was easily one of the lowest moments in my career, and even had me questioning whether I would ever be able to wrestle again.”
Along with picking up the pieces mentally, Chanu has also rebuilt herself physically and technically. She went to the US to recover from shoulder and back injuries, caused mainly by asymmetrical motion during the lifts. The 26-year-old from Manipur proved just how far she had come from the Rio nightmare by setting a world record in clean and jerk. At the Asian Championships in Tashkent in April, Chanu lifted a record 119kg, more than twice her body weight, on the third lift in the 49kg category—bolstering her medal hopes for Tokyo.
Another set of players eyeing redemption is the Indian men’s hockey team. Much of India’s Olympic success in the 20th century was shaped by its field hockey team. The country’s first Olympic gold was won by it at the 1928 Amsterdam Games and India continued to dominate for more than 50 years. They won eight golds and a total of 11 Olympic medals in hockey, the last of which was a gold at the 1980 Moscow Games.
The 1976 Games were the first time hockey was played on AstroTurf (artificial grass) and the change of surface has been cited as one of the main reasons for Indian hockey’s decline. As the AstroTurf sped up the game, Indian hockey struggled to keep pace.
But the current team, led by Manpreet Singh, has rekindled hopes of a turnaround. It’s unbeaten this year, despite sparring with tough opponents like Argentina and Germany. It’s currently ranked No.4.
For goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh, who made his international debut in 2004 and has won over 200 international caps, it will be the third straight Olympics. He had led the team at Rio, when India finished a disappointing eighth. At 35, he may be playing his last Olympics in Tokyo.
When the covid-19 pandemic struck last year, fencer Bhavani Devi was at home in Chennai, trying to figure out the best way to train in lockdown. She built a dummy opponent, placing a helmet over her kitbag and practising on the terrace. In March, she became the first Indian fencer to qualify for the Olympics.
Athletes like Prakash and Devi, and Nethra Kumanan, who will be the first Indian woman sailor at the Olympics, embody the can-do attitude of the younger generation of Indian athletes. Even though their lives were disrupted by the pandemic, they found a way to keep their dreams on track. Their spirit, more than anything else, has inspired hopes of a medal rush in Tokyo.
The country’s sporting landscape has changed since the 2012 London Olympics, with much greater investment from government agencies and companies and increased fan involvement. India is moving away, ever so slightly, from being a one-sport (cricket) nation as athletes break new ground in sports like swimming and embrace elite European sports like fencing. Though the Tokyo Olympics will go down in history for the unique circumstances they are being held in, Indian athletes have a chance to make the Games truly memorable—for happier reasons.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.