Neeraj Chopra at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, 2023 (Photo: Getty Images)
Iss baar Sau paar,” runs a campaign on SonyLIV, the host broadcaster for the Asian Games. The promo is beautifully done with people from all walks of life wishing the Indian contingent the very best for their efforts in Hangzhou. With India sending its biggest contingent ever, 650-plus athletes and 200 support staff, it is possible that the medal count can touch 70. While 100 is an exaggeration, 20-22 gold medals do sound realistic. With better preparation and efficient management, things could have been better.
Take the case of football to start with. The Indians reached China just 14 hours before their first game at 2AM the previous night. And they played against hosts China in a packed stadium at 7:30PM local time the next evening. With six players not travelling with the team, the coach did not even have the number of reinforcements he needed on the bench. With jet lag and under-preparedness hurting the team, India, despite a brilliant first half, lost 1-5 to China. Now, the team has to win the next two games to make it to the round of 16.
Things are far better when it comes to another team sport, hockey. Both the men’s and women’s teams have arrived in China well ahead of the competition and look ready to mount a strong bid for the gold medal. It is hugely important to do so because a gold medal ensures automatic Olympic qualification.
Speaking to Open just before leaving for China, skipper Harmanpreet Singh outlined the importance of getting the Olympic qualification out of the way. “We are determined to go for the gold medal because that will mean the Paris qualification is taken care of. You can then pace yourself much better in the next 10 months. We are ranked number 3 in the world at the moment and it is natural that our fans will expect us to do well. I can assure you the team is well prepared and is ready to get the job done in China,” concluded the captain.
Coach Craig Fulton, who has been praised for his methods during the Asian Champions Trophy campaign in Chennai, concurred with the skipper. “We are a good side and have been working very hard. From drag flicks to defending, every aspect has been worked on. Now, it is time to put the hard work into effect and mount a strong challenge for the gold medal,” said the coach.
The one discipline where India is expected to win the maximum number of gold medals at the Asian Games is athletics. With poster boy Neeraj Chopra leading the way, strong performances are also expected from Murali Sreeshankar in the long jump, Avinash Sable in the 3,000m steeplechase, Tejaswin Shankar in the decathlon, Parul Chaudhary in the women’s 5,000m, the men’s 4×400 relay team, Tejinder Pal Singh Toor in the shot put, and the triple jump contingent. With Kishore Jena and DP Manu also in good form, India can well win multiple medals in men’s javelin if they can stave off the challenge from Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem.
“I am expecting a very strong showing and I have said that to you multiple times in the last few months. Indian athletes have been doing well and for the first time, multiple athletes qualified for the Diamond League final. Athletics is sending its biggest ever contingent and I am confident of our biggest ever medal haul,” said Athletics Federation of India President Adille Sumariwala, who has done some fantastic work in the domain as the man in charge.
If athletics is expected to give India 20-plus medals, the other sport that can give a significant push to the medals tally is shooting. With an underwhelming Tokyo campaign behind us, Indian shooters will need to make a real statement in China. A strong showing in the recently concluded world championships in Baku where India won four Olympic quotas should have added to their confidence and going by recent form, Mehuli Ghosh, Akhil Sheoran, and the supremely talented Rudranksh Patil have strong medal prospects. While China is expected to dominate the sport, India’s performance will be looked upon in the context of the Paris Games and will give the Akhilesh Singh Deo-led federation a reality check as to where they stand.
In badminton, India has had a mixed year. While HS Prannoy has played some fantastic matches and Satwik and Chirag have made it to the third spot in the world rankings, the last few weeks have seen a slight dip in form. No Indian made it past the round of 32 in the China Open and it was a first in five years. While it is fair to call it an aberration, in the presence of strong pairs from Japan, Korea, and China, Sat-Chi will have their task cut out.
“On their day, they can beat anyone. I am not reading too much into the China Open. They have been consistent this year and can win from any situation against any pair as long as they stay fit. They have a complete game and are one of the best doubles teams in the world for sure,” says Pullela Gopichand.
Chirag Shetty, softspoken and composed when you speak to him but radically opposite when on court, explains the transformation saying, “If you see someone like Virat Kohli, you will know what I am saying. He can’t play the best if he is calm on the field. He has to be pumped up. Unless I am charged up, I won’t be able to get my best game to come to the fore. It is not some put-on. That’s how I am and that’s what works for me,” says Chirag before going on to add, “In our country, people watch these multi-discipline games. There is a lot of interest always. However many super series titles you win, it is always about the Olympics and the Asian Games. We are aware of this reality and will do our best to win.”
There are some low-hanging fruits as well and should give India a few easy medals. Women’s cricket is one such. While there is some competition expected in the men’s realm, there is hardly any team that can challenge India in the women’s game in Asia. Despite the absence of Harmanpreet Kaur from the first two games because of suspension, India is expected to sail through to the medal round.
India’s women’s power, always a force to reckon with in multi-discipline games, is yet again expected to dominate in China. In Mirabai Chanu, who is expected to not push herself and go for a silver behind the Chinese, Nikhat Zareen in boxing, and Antim Phangal in wrestling, India should script some memorable wins and add to the medal count. The Asian Games medal is the only one missing from Chanu’s cabinet and despite suffering a hip injury a few months back, the superstar from Manipur is gradually getting back to her best. While I don’t expect her to try the 90kgs in the snatch, Chanu could still touch 195kgs overall and go for the silver medal behind the Chinese world champion. For Nikhat, however, it is the gold that draws her to the ring. “I have waited for years to get this opportunity. Now, every competition is a make or break. I won’t settle for anything less,” says the vibrant star from Hyderabad. The new poster girl of Indian boxing, Nikhat Zareen is already a world champion and a CWG gold medal winner; so, the Asian Games medal is the next logical addition to her cabinet.
Finally, the one sport, which I will watch with a lot of interest is women’s rugby. While India isn’t expecting a medal just yet, the story of the sport is the story of incredible India.
Three of the girls in the team come from rural Odisha and for the longest time weren’t allowed to wear shorts in their village, let alone play sport. From there to China is quite a story. Rahul Bose, president of the Rugby Federation of India and one who is doing fantastic work, helped put things in context. Speaking about Hupi Majhi, one of the stars of the side, he said, “Would you believe it that none in her village knew she played rugby till 2017? This is because her parents were seriously against her playing and in a conservative village where no woman is allowed to wear shorts, playing rugby was a far cry. She decided not to tell anyone and just pursued her passion.”
Asian Games 2023 in many ways is a stepping stone for Paris 2024. Make a statement to the sporting world that Indians are ready to take them on and play sport on global terms. That India will not wake up every four years anymore and rue the lack of infrastructure. Failure isn’t the norm
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“The problem arose when we finished runner-up in the Asia Rugby Women’s Seven’s tournament in Laos. When we came back to Odisha, the local papers published my pictures. That’s when my parents were shocked to know that I was a rugby player. They had seen the pictures and it wasn’t pleasant. What changed everything was the support from the Government of Odisha. The government had announced a reward of `5 lakh for each one of us. In our family, no one had ever heard of that kind of money. When the money was transferred to our accounts and I handed over the money to my parents, they were stunned. Initially, it was a sense of disbelief. How could I earn so much money playing rugby? It was not something they had ever imagined, and all of a sudden things changed,” Hupi says.
With Rugby India getting reasonable support from the Government of Odisha and with a proactive federation at the helm, things can only get better in the future. The Odisha girls are now the benchmark with many looking at them as role models and success stories, who have all proved that “dreams do come true”.
Asian Games 2023 in many ways is a stepping stone for Paris 2024. Make a statement to the sporting world that Indians are ready to take them on and play sport on global terms. That India will not wake up every four years anymore and rue the lack of infrastructure. Failure isn’t the norm. Can never again be. As Abhinav Bindra says, “The Olympics don’t come every four years. They come every day.” For a new India, high-performance sport is now an everyday thing—hopefully, the biggest takeaway from Asian Games 2023.