The possible dream
THE WEEK|August 01, 2021
THE INDIAN CONTINGENT WILL BE LOOKING TO EQUAL OR BETTER THE SIX-MEDAL HAUL AT LONDON 2012, AND IT HAS A HANDFUL OF CONTENDERS
NEERU BHATIA

Tokyo 2020 is different. Not just because of the restrictions at venues. Covid-19 has also resulted in many athletes going into the world’s biggest sporting event without sufficient competitions or test events. For Team India, too, the lockdowns were tough; training, even more so. But, for 17 days, the athletes will strive to shift the focus of the nation from the grim to the glorious.

The 228-member contingent—117 athletes and 111 officials—is looking to better the two medals won at Rio 2016. But the real target is to match or better the six-medal haul at London 2012. While shooting is expected to deliver the most medals, there are expectations in other disciplines, too—men’s hockey, badminton, boxing, wrestling, javelin throw, and, perhaps most notably, weightlifting.

The hopes of a weightlifting medal are shouldered by the 4’11” frame of Saikhom Mirabai Chanu. At Rio 2016, a 21-year-old Chanu failed to lift any of her three attempts in clean and jerk in the 48kg category. But, five years on, she is wiser, fitter, an Asian Games and Commonwealth Games (2018) medallist, a world champion and a world record holder.

A lower back issue in 2018, plus the lockdown in 2020 seemed to have derailed her preparation for Tokyo, but the postponement of the Olympics helped. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the Target Olympic Podium Scheme facilitated a stint in the US for her to work on strength and conditioning. She went from not being able to lift two days in a row to lifting twice a day.

At the Asian Championships this April, she lifted a below-par 86kg in snatch but went on to break the world record by lifting 119kg in clean and jerk. The combined total of 205kg earned her bronze and a ticket to Tokyo. Before landing in Japan, Chanu, who hails from Nongpok Kakching, 45 minutes from Imphal, in Manipur, trained in St. Louis, Missouri in the US for almost three months.

Her coach Vijay Sharma told THE WEEK from Tokyo that they worked a lot on her strength and conditioning with Dr. Aaron Horschig, a former weightlifter. “We worked a lot with Dr. Horschig to improve her shoulder strength and snatch lift,” he said. The withdrawal of her main competitor Ri Song-gum of North Korea (the country is not participating) will help.

By the time Chanu tests her strength against the best, India would have started its Olympic quest with a test of precision— archery. To land arrows in the 10-ring over the standard competition distance of 70m, it takes great skill, a calm mind, and a strong heart. Many times, in order to ensure consistency, the shots have to be fired at the exact same stage in the cycle of an archer’s heartbeat.

For Deepika Kumari, 27, the run-up to Tokyo has been all about controlling the mind and the heart to keep past disappointments at bay. Her outings at London 2012 and Rio 2016 were disastrous. But, Kumari and her archer husband, Atanu Das, put up strong performances and won medals in the World Cup Stage III in Paris, just three weeks before the Games.

Kumari’s triple gold elevated her back to world No 1. However, her performance in Paris came in the absence of archery powerhouse South Korea, which decided to skip the World Cup ahead of the Olympics. “I don’t want a repeat,” said Kumari, before leaving for Tokyo. “It is the past, but it will play on my mind. So, it is about trying my best to keep myself free of all those negative thoughts and focusing just on my shooting.”

As the women’s team failed to qualify, Kumari practiced against her male teammates—Das, Tarundeep Rai, and Pravin Jadhav. Kumari had booked her spot in 2019, and the archer from Jharkhand is in with a chance of winning a medal in her individual event (recurve) and in the mixed team event. The mixed event is making its debut at the Games and only 16 of the 29 teams will make it to the matchplay phase.

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