The torch is lit, the stage is set, and the world is watching. Welcome to Summer Olympics 2016 at Rio De Janeiro, the happiness capital of the world. The city that thrums on the beat of its world renowned carnival will play host to the best athletes across sporting disciplines. The romance associated with the Olympics hasn’t faded even a little bit in 116 years since India first competed as a British subject. India will send its biggest ever (103 and counting) team of athletes, with the Beijing Olympics gold medalist, Abhinav Bindra, as our flag-bearer.
Expectations from Team India are sky-high with Olympic medalists like Abhinav Bindra, Yogeshwar Dutt, Saina Nehwal and Gagan Narang, among others, returning to the fray. Participating are athletes who have won continental championships, but for whom the Olympics medals has so far remained elusive (looking at you, Jwala Gutta!). Then there are those young athletes who grab destiny by the horns and announce their arrival on the world stage at the Games. Here’s looking at the top ten medal prospects – individuals and teams – who can help change India’s underwhelming history at the world biggest sporting spectacle.
Event: 10m air rifle
The 33-year-old soft-spoken sharpshooter will be India’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony. India’s only individual Olympics gold medalist so far, Bindra will be competing in his fifth, and probably, last Olympics event. He qualified for the games back in May 2015 at ISSF (International Shooting Sport Federation) World Cup in Munich, and since then has been relentless in his preparation for the games. He will be keen to find the bullseye as his parting shot.
Event: 10m air rifle, 50m rifle prone, 50m rifle (three categories)
This versatile shooter is probably the only Indian to qualify for three events at Rio, and is a potential medal-winner in each of these shooting categories. Already a bronze winner at the London Olympics (10m air rifle event), Narang is a world record holder in the 10m air rifle category. Part of the 11-member Indian shooting team, he is India’s best bet to add to the medals tally this Brazilian summer.
Event: 10m air pistol, 25m pistol
Heena has already accomplished much that puts her way ahead of her peer group across genders. She is the first Indian pistol shooter to be ranked World #1, to have won the Shooting World Cup (2013), and the first Indian to make it to the cover of ISSF’s magazine! Already a gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games (2010) and the Asian Championships (2015), Heena is all geared up to take Rio by storm.
Event: Women’s badminton singles
Saina vs China has been the predominant theme for any international badminton championship for the last five years, and this is not going to change in Rio. Saina has been the tireless warrior who has conquered bastions that previously belonged to an assortment of Chinese players who ruled the roost in world badminton. Saina has won 22 individual titles and made her mark at the global level with a Bronze at the London Olympics, Gold at the Commonwealth Games (2010) and Silver at the World Championship (2015). It will be a major upset if she were to come back from Rio empty-handed.
Event: Lawn Tennis Women’s doubles, Lawn Tennis Women’s mixed doubles
Riding high on her World #1 (doubles) ranking, Sania Mirza is in the best form of her life. She won the Australian Open in January 2016, and took home the Wimbledon and US Open trophies last year. She has found an able partner in World #10 (doubles) Rohan Bopanna for the mixed doubles discipline, and has India’s best prospects at Rio. In the women’s doubles, her stronger suit, she pairs with Prarthana Thombare, who is just a few notches away from world class.
Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna
Event: Lawn Tennis men’s doubles
Leander Paes is 43, and just last year had his best year on the circuit since 1999, when he lifted the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open mixed double trophies. He remains a force to reckon with, and adds depth to the men’s doubles team. His partner, the higher-ranked Bopanna, is playing the best tennis of his life and is currently ranked World #10 in doubles. The only thing standing between these two and a podium finish are their personal differences. Rohan Bopanna has clearly stated his preference to play with the lower-ranked Saketh Myneni, and was forced to pair up with Leander by Indian tennis officialdom. Leander’s rigid approach to the game has pushed many of his doubles partners, including Mahesh Bhupathi, to the edge. Both Paes and Bopanna have to find the middle ground and back it with some serious prep if they are to put up a serious challenge at Rio.
Women’s Archery Team: Deepika Kumari, Bombayla Devi, Laxmirani Majhi
Event: Women’s archery, team and individual
Deepika, Bombayla and Laxmirani are the current bronze medal holders at the World Championships (Copenhagen 2015), and form a formidable team. In the lead is the 22-year-old Deepika Kumari, the youngest of the trio, currently ranked World #5, and a former World #1. A lot was expected from her in the London Olympics, but a spectacular meltdown saw the then 18-year-old lose in the first round. This performance was bracketed by Gold medal winning performances at the 2012 Recurve World Cup in Turkey, and the 2013 Archery World Cup in Colombia. Since then, she has done a fair amount of growing up, and is expected to mount a challenge at both the events. Bombayla Devi is a seasoned performer who has done well in team challenges, but less so at individual events. Laxmirani, who made her international debut as recently as 2015 with a team Silver at Copenhagen, is unproven at an individual level. The expectations from the team are high; anything more from the girls will be a pleasant surprise.
Event: Field hockey
6 Aug: v Ireland, 8 Aug: v Germany, 9 Aug: v Argentina, 11 Aug: v Netherlands, 12 Aug: v Canada
7 Aug: v Japan, 8 Aug: v Britain, 10 Aug: v Australia, 11 Aug: v USA, 13 Aug: v Argentina
The women’s hockey team has qualified for the Olympics event for the first time in 36 years, and along with the men’s, is already recognised as a formidable force in world hockey. The men’s team is on a high after securing the Silver at the Champions’ Trophy in June 2016, and their qualification came through after winning the Gold at the Asian Games after a 16-year-gap. The women’s team, led by halfback Ritu Rani, is currently recovering from a bad performance at the Hawke’s Bay Cup in New Zealand, where the team lost five out of six matches.
The men’s team has shown huge improvement in the last couple of years under coach Roelant Oltmans and captain PR Sreejesh, the hero during the penalty shootout win against Pakistan in the Asian Games final. In VR Raghunath, SV Sunil and Rupinder Pal Singh, the team has world class players who can turn the match around in the blink of an eye. This is a golden chance for this generation of players to make it count. Chak De India!
Event: Men’s freestyle wrestling (65kg)
Before he won the Bronze at the London Olympics, Yogeshwar was already a superstar in the global wrestling fraternity. He had won five Golds at various continental level events between 2003 and 2010. Since his famous victory in London, he has moved up a weight category and proved that he has mastered it with a gold medal at the Incheon Asian Games (2014). He is expected to lead the Indian challenge in wrestling at the Rio Olympics in the absence of two-time Olympics medalist, Sushil Kumar. Dutt will have able allies in Narsingh Yadav (freestyle 74kg), and Hardeep Singh (Greco-Roman 98kg), both strong contenders in their respective weight categories.
Vinesh Phogat and Babita Kumari
Event: Women’s freestyle wrestling
Cousins Vinesh Phogat and Babita Kumari are wards of famed wrestling coach Mahavir Phogat, Babita’s father and Vinesh’s uncle. Both girls compete in different weight categories: Vinesh (48kg) and Babita (53kg), and won gold medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, among other notable victories to their credit. The Phogat family has come into limelight courtesy the biopic Dangal on Mahavir Phogat, portrayed by superstar Aamir Khan. Phogat went against the entire village in Haryana by training his girls to wrestle. Despite facing stiff opposition from his extended family, and others in conservative Haryana, has turned them into world class wrestlers. These girls are part of wrestling’s Cinderella story, and a podium finish will make for a perfect ‘happily ever after’ ending.