India seek to script a new chapter in Olympic history which begins today
LONDON July 27: Armed with a new-found self-belief, India's top athletes will seek to script a fresh chapter in the country's Olympic history as they go into the 30th edition of the sporting extravaganza from on Friday with a realistic chance of winning medals.
Never before has an Indian contingent raised so much expectations and London could just be the launching pad for a new sporting era.
In the coming days, a record number of 81 Indian athletes, the highest in any Olympics so far, will take part in 13 disciplines with serious medal prospects in archery, boxing, shooting, badminton, tennis and wrestling.
Barring the archers who begin their campaign on Friday, most of the other Indians will join the action after the Opening ceremony on Friday in which Beijing bronze medallist wrestler Sushil Kumar will be the contingent's flag-bearer.
For long, the Indian athletes have struggled to break the shackles of mediocrity and boost the country's measly individual medal collection in the Olympics until the Beijing Games brought about a remarkable turnaround four years ago.
The platform for this transformation was first laid by shooter Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore who clinched a historic silver medal in the Athens Games in 2004.
Shooter Abhinav Bindra's gold medal and the bronze medals by boxer Vijender Singh and Sushil in Beijing were refreshing changes from the agonising history of failures in the world's biggest sporting extravaganza.
The three who brought laurels for the country in Beijing will again be the spearheads of India's medal quest while shooters Ronjan Sodhi and Gagan Narang, shuttler Saina Nehwal, woman pugilist Mary Kom, archer Deepika Kumari and her teammates, are also being touted as medal contenders.
It remains to be seen whether the hype and expectations surrounding the contingent was indeed justified and whether the athletes can improve upon their Beijing medal tally.
In the next two weeks, about 11,000 athletes from 204 nations will battle for glory in 39 disciplines with powerhouses United States, China and Russia expected to do the bulk of the medal shopping in the third Olympics of the millennium.
The preparations for London had started long back for the Indians, most of whom had gone for prolonged training sessions abroad. That has largely been possible because of increased government and private funding that has been given to the top stars, state-of-the art training facilities and world-class competition abroad.
The government had earmarked USD 50 million (Rs 2.3 billion) -- a 10-fold increase from 2000 -- for preparing the contingent for the London Olympics under its 'Operation Excellence' programme.
Lakshmi Mittal's Mittal Champions Trust, and the Olympic Gold Quest, founded by badminton star Prakash Padukone and billiards great Geet Sethi, have also spent big on the athletes.
"No doubt, this is the best-ever contingent which will represent India and we hope that we will improve our record of medals in London Olympics. We have high hopes and we are confident of doing well," IOA Secretary General Randhir Singh said.
"All efforts have been made to provide best possible training to the athletes, who have qualified for the Olympics," he said.
India, considered relative pushovers at the highest level until not too long ago, did have moments of glory in the Olympics when the country won as many as eight gold medals in hockey.
But in individual events before Beijing, India could hardly make any impact with only Kashaba D Jadhav (wrestling, 1952 Helsinki), Leander Paes (tennis, 1996 Atlanta) and Karnam Malleswari (weightlifting, 2000 Sydney) managing to win bronze medals. Shooter Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore then made history by clinching a silver medal in the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Norman Pritchard, an Englishman, who represented India in the 1900 Paris Olympics, gave something to the country to cheer about with silver medals in 200m and 200m hurdles.
But this time around, there are many who can steal the spotlight and with a little bit of luck even a couple of gold medals could come India's way.
The Indian Olympic Association has described the contingent as "the best-ever" but the question is whether they are good enough to pose any challenge to the world's top performers.
For Leander Paes, it will be a record sixth Olympic and the veteran pro would be hoping to win one more medal in what certainly appears to be his last.
A bitter selection row that rocked Indian tennis just before the Games and the heated verbal exchanges among the players were not the ideal preparations for the squad.
But the good thing is that most of them are experienced and may manage to put the unsavoury controversy behind them to put up a sterling display on the court.
But apart from the tennis row, the build-up to London has been smooth for most of the Indian athletes, who have had little or no major complaints about the facilities or coaches.
As many as 11 shooters -- seven men and four women -- will be aiming for glory and given the fine form they are in, a few medals are expected.
Abhinav Bindra, who was slightly off-colour last year, seems to have found his form with a gold in the 10 metre Air rifle event at the 12th Asian Shooting Championships in Doha, Qatar.
His compatriot and challenger Gagan Narang, is also seen as a bright medal prospect and so is trap shooter Ronjan Sodhi, ranked number one in the world.
The boxing arena promises to provide ample excitement and may be a couple of medals as an unprecedented eight pugilists -- seven men and a woman -- battle for glory.
Apart from the experienced Vijender Singh (75 kg), the squad has Shiva Thapa (56 kg) -- youngest boxer ever to qualify for the Olympics -- and five-time world champion in the 29-year-old M C Mary Kom.
Veteran Mary Kom will be fittingly India's sole representative when women's boxing makes its Olympic debut in three weight categories. Apart from Shiva, the boxing team features one more teenager and a couple of 20-year-olds, including the World Championships bronze-medallist Vikas Krishan (69kg).
In archery, which will be held on the hallowed turf of the Lord's, the focus will be on 18-year-old Deepika Kumari, the unassuming world number one who seldom speaks about her chances. Her teammates can do well in the team championship while the men's team is quite capable of springing a surprise.
Saina Nehwal will spearhead the Indian challenge in the badminton court. Five shuttlers would be there in action but the spotlight will be mainly on Saina who has shown that she is capable of taming her strong Chinese opponents.
With back-to-back Super Series titles under her belt in the build-up to Olympics, confidence would not really be an issue and the 22-year-old would look to make the most of her fine current form heading into London.
In wrestling, all eyes will once again be on Sushil, who made the London cut in the final qualifying tournament.
Yogeshwar Dutt is also hopeful of a medal while for the first time a woman grappler -- Geeta Phogat -- has qualified for the Games.
The Indian hockey team would make an emotional comeback to the Olympics after missing qualification for the Beijing Games. A podium finish is not expected of them but a creditable performance would surely be desired by the country's sports fans.
The team had a rather disappointing build-up to the Games and the blue astro-turf, which has been introduced for the London Games, has not helped matters for a side which has been generally inconsistent.
India's chief coach Michael Nobbs has a daunting task at hand to bring about the results as the Australian has allowed his wards to play freely and not tried to change the natural Indian style.
In track and field, discus thrower Vikas Gowda is the dark horse, who might spring a surprise but not much is really expected from the others. Women discuss throwers Krishna Poonia and Seema Antil will seek to make an impact but winning medals may not be that easy for them.
There are qualifiers in sports such as judo, rowing and swimming too but they are unlikely to fetch medals given the stiff competition.