Hunt for honour: India’s best bets at the London Olympics have come up the hard way
Ben Johnson tears through the tape at the finish line of the 100m dash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, brilliant sunshine illuminating his face; Michael Phelps glides across a pool to emerge in a shimmer of drops, triumphant at the 2008 Beijing Olympics; 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci whirls and twirls flawlessly,Ben Johnson tears through the tape at the finish line of the 100m dash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, brilliant sunshine illuminating his face; Michael Phelps glides across a pool to emerge in a shimmer of drops, triumphant at the 2008 Beijing Olympics; 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci whirls and twirls flawlessly around the uneven bars to get a perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Games; Leander Paes stands proud on the podium after winning an Olympic bronze for India at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Sporting history is made of such moments of truth. At the 2012 Olympic Games in London, India hopes to add to the record books. Finally. Our podium finishes have been few. In sports such as swimming, gymnastics and men’s athletics, India is not even a blip on the horizon. Will the boys with the golden sticks fulfil India’s medal dreams? Will the wrestlers from Haryana and the shooters wrest our honour? Will the girls from the archery team give new meaning to an ancient men’s sport? Since we began sending competitors to the Games in 1948, we have won a mere 20 medals. The roll of honour has been all too short. The memories are practically non-existent. The nation hopes to banish the ghosts of past failures as Team India aims to bring home the yellow metal. Here’s a look at the men and women India is counting on.Sushil KumarSushil Kumar, 29Wrestling, 66 Kg Men’s Freestyle, Baprola, HaryanaSPORTING STYLE He crouches down and stares into the eyes of the opponent as if trying to gain access into the inner recesses of his mind. As he grapples with his rival, circling around the pit, each waits to catch the other off-guard. In a quick flash, Sushil Kumar lashes out, successfully pinning down his rival. This unexpected burst of energy mixes brute strength with mind games.advertisementHIS STORY The Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna recipient, who couldn’t afford even a pair of training shoes early on in his career, surprised everyone by clinching bronze at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. But recurring shoulder injuries kept him from qualifying for the 2012 Games in his first two attempts. He finally earned his ticket to London on his third attempt at the World Qualifying Tournament in Taiyuan, China, in April. Kumar will be the flag-bearer for the Indian contingent at the opening ceremony in London. This honour should spur him on to leap up the podium.Vantage Point Aggression and agility have been Kumar’s strengths and he is the country’s best bet for a gold medal in wrestling. He defeated Otar Tushishvilli of Georgia, who shared the bronze with him at Beijing, at the qualifiers in Taiyuan.Challenge Ahead The grappler may face a tough fight from defending Olympic champion Ramazan Sahin of Turkey, reigning world champion Mehdi Tagari of Iran, and silver medallist Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu of Japan.OLYMPIC RUN-UP The recent Colorado Springs, US, training camp gave Kumar an opportunity to test his skills against competing nations and work on physical as well as technical aspects of the game. It also gave him a chance to build his endurance and fitness levels, which previously prevented him from qualifying for the Games. M C Mary KomM.C. MARY KOM, 29BOXING, 51 KG; Imphal, Manipur HER STORY When the International Boxing Federation pitched the idea of women’s boxing as a category to the International Olympic Committee, they used M.C. Mary Kom, a five-time world champion, as a case in point. Critics were sceptical about the Manipuri girl who worked in the jhum fields in Assam with her parents. They questioned her concentration levels when she got married. When she gave birth to twin boys, they felt a new mother would not be able to train for an international competition. The twins are aged five now. And Mary Kom is ready to prove the critics wrong. For the last seven years, she has been nurtured by the Olympic Gold Quest (ogq), a foundation set up by billiards star Geet Sethi and badminton great Prakash Padukone. Mary Kom’s career has been closely monitored by ogq ceo Viren Rasquinha. “She has been making records for a decade, but earlier this year she lost in the first round of an Olympic qualifier. This shook her up in time for London,” he says.VANTAGE POINT Mary Kom has never lost to the same opponent twice. She gauges her opponent’s strategy and skill and adapts her game accordingly.CHALLENGE AHEAD The transition from her regular 48 kg category to the 51 kg category will pit Mary Kom against bulkier competitors.advertisementOLYMPIC RUN-UP At the Asian Boxing Championship held in Mongolia this year, she defeated Mongolia’s Alice Kate Aparri and China’s Ren Cancan on her way to gold in her current 51 kg category. Mary Kom attributes her current form to British coach Charles Atkinson, who has provided her better female sparring partners to train with at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune. Geeta PhogatGEETA PHOGAT, 23WRESTLING, 55 KG, Bhiwani, Haryana HER STORY Karnam Malleswari’s bronze at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 convinced Mahabir Singh that his girls, too, could excel in sport. A wrestler himself, he set up an akhara in Bilali village near Bhiwani, Haryana, and began training his daughters. Today, his efforts have paid off in the form of daughters Geeta (55kg) and Babita (51kg). Geeta Phogat won three consecutive wrestling golds at the Asian Cadet Championships since 2003. But the world of sport took notice of her only when she struck gold at the women’s wrestling event at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.VANTAGE POINT She has the psychological edge of being the first ever female wrestler to represent the country at the Olympics.CHALLENGE AHEAD International wrestlers work more on speed and technique, while Indians only work on power. Indians are still in the akhara age with training that involves rope climbing and push-ups on bricks.OLYMPIC RUN-UP She won a gold medal each at the Commonwealth Wrestling Championship in 2009 and the 2010 Commonwealth Games. She qualified for London by reaching the final of the Wrestling fila Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament in Astana, Kazakhstan, in April. Since then, she has been training in Colorado Springs, US, and Minsk, Belarus. Gurmeet SinghGURMEET SINGH, 2720 km race walking Uttarakhand HIS STORY He was a rejected student. His coach was at retired athlete coaching schoolboys. Together, they created India’s strongest medal hope in race-walking. After being shunned by coaches as a non-performer and failing to qualify for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, Gurmeet Singh approached Ramakrishnan Gandhi, a walker who competed unsuccessfully at the national level in the 1980s. Gandhi took him under his wing and egged him on to beat his 2010 best of 1:27:00 as well as the Olympic qualifying mark of 1:22:30 and deliver a 1:20:35 at the Indian Grand Prix I, 2011, all in five months.VANTAGE POINT The first Indian to qualify for the Games in this discipline in the past 28 years, Singh did not have access to proper facilities. This changed, with help from the Mittal Champions Trust .CHALLENGE AHEAD He qualified for London at the Dublin International Grand Prix in 2011, clocking 1:22:07, but came sixth in the event. He also lost gold by just nine seconds at the 2012 Asian 20 km Race Walking Championship in Japan.OLYMPIC RUN-UP Singh covers 120-150 km every week, walking a minimum of five-and-a-half hours daily, alongside marathon runners.Abhinav BindraABHINAV BINDRA, 2910m Air Rifle, Mohali, Punjab SPORTING STYLE Fifteen minutes after winning the first individual gold for India at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Abhinav Bindra could feel just one emotion: Relief. He had overcome the biggest fear of his life: Being in the Olympic limelight. In his world, a mere 0.1 point difference can be the tipping point between coming first and 10th. The ace sharpshooter has described how he mastered the obsession for detail in his memoir A Shot at History: My Obsessive Journey to Olympic Gold (2011). He used rubber from Ferrari tyres to craft shoe soles, imported yak’s milk from China for strength, and even mapped his brain to understand it better.advertisementVANTAGE POINT India’s only gold medallist personifies quiet confidence. His perpetual hunt for ways to enhance mental potency will prepare him for the pressure of the final rounds.CHALLENGE AHEAD No Indian has ever won a medal in two Olympic events. Bindra’s target is to equal or better his 2008 tally.OLYMPIC RUN-UP Since Beijing 2008, Bindra has worked on improving his fitness levels. He started the Olympic year by beating long-time rival and Olympic champion Zhu Qinan at the Asian Shooting Championship held in Doha to win gold. But despite being a gold medallist, his score at the Olympic qualifier in Munich was 596, which ranked him eighth. He managed to book his berth only by hitting a 52.6 in the shoot-off.Sandeep SinghSANDEEP SINGH, 26 Hockey, Shahbad, Haryana HIS STORY On August 22, 2006, Sandeep Singh, then aged 20, climbed aboard the Delhi-bound Kalka Express to join his teammates and head for the World Cup in Germany. A sub-inspector travelling in the same compartment was carrying a service pistol which accidently went off, injuring Singh. After three years of endless hospital visits and intensive physiotherapy, Singh made a comeback in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in 2009 where he scored eight goals, closing the tournament as its highest goal getter.VANTAGE POINT His close brush with death has made him fearless. It has drawn him towards suicide running, a defence technique that involves running towards a ball hurtling towards the athlete at 140 km/hr. He’s also credited with a drag-flicking attack during penalty corners that is modelled on Pakistan’s champion player Sohail Abbas. The team has worked hard. It has been training in a hypoxic chamber set up at its Pune training camp which involves breathing reduced oxygen for a considerable period of time to help boost endurance. The players have also been preparing for the blue-turf at the Olympic Hockey Centre at Stratford by practising on synthetic pitches.CHALLENGE AHEAD Younger than the much more fancied teams of Australia, Germany and Netherlands, the Indian team makes up for what it lacks in experience with its youthful flair. Singh has been fine-tuning his defensive and play-making skills.OLYMPIC RUN-UP The team is in fine form, having won five of its six matches and scoring 16 of the 44 goals scored in all at the 2012 Olympic qualifiers in London in February. The team followed it up with an impressive showing at the Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia in May. India defeated Great Britain, ranked No. 4 in the world, 3-1 to win the bronze medal, Singh converting a crucial penalty corner in the 52nd minute. Deepika KumariDEEPIKA KUMARI, 18 Individual and Team Recurve, Ranchi, Jharkhand HER STORY Shooting stones at mangoes as a child, Deepika Kumari, who grew up in Jharkhand’s Ratu Chati village, about 15 km from Ranchi, decided to pursue sport at a young age. Her father Shivnarayan Mahato, an auto-rickshaw driver, supported her despite his limited means. In 2005, he borrowed a motorcycle to take her for trials at the Arjun Archery Academy, Kharsawa. The effort paid off when she clinched gold and became the talking point of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Deepika edged out Lee Sung Jin, the 2004 Athens Olympics gold medallist, in the final of this year’s World Cup in Antalya, Turkey. Coached by Poornima Mahato at the Tata Archery Academy in Jamshedpur, she follows an eight-hour practice session daily, coupled with mental exercises. In her free time, she tunes into songs by her favourite artist, Shaan.VANTAGE POINT Kumari never looks at the scoreboard, so doesn’t feel the pressure of tumbling in the initial rounds.CHALLENGE AHEAD A recent illness has made her weak and reduced her ability to shoot against the wind.OLYMPIC RUN-UP She earned two golds at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in the individual and the recurve team event. Later that year, she partnered Rimil Buriuly and Dola Banerjee to earn a podium finish at the Asian Games. This year’s World Cup victory has bumped her up to the World No. 1 spot. Ronjan Singh SodhiRONJAN SINGH SODHI, 33Double Trap Shooting, Ferozepur, Punjab SPORTING STYLE A gunshot on the India-Pakistan border doesn’t always spell conflict: Ronjan Sodhi’s private shooting range is nestled in the border village of Sodhi Nagar in Punjab. The shooter equalled Italian D.I. Spigno’s world record score of 194/200 at the International Shooting Sport Federation (issf) World Cup in Belgrade in 2008.Vantage Point Having booked his berth for London with a silver medal in the 2011 issf World Cup in Beijing, Sodhi has had a long-drawn training schedule. His consistent form over three years has won him No. 2 rank in the issf Super 25 chart this year.Challenge Ahead Since double trap shooting is an outdoor shooting event, Sodhi will have to grapple with wind speed and wind direction during the competition.OLYMPIC RUN-UP Sodhi has participated in 19 issf World Cups and secured three golds, two silvers and two bronze medals. He has been training in Bologna, Italy, under coach Marcello Dradi for the past three years. Krishna PooniaKRISHNA POONIA, 29Discus, Agroha, Haryana SPORTING STYLE She positions her throwing arm to concentrate the energy from her 80 kg frame. She swings her upper torso to gather impetus and finally pirouettes, thrusting muscular power into the right arm as she unleashes the discus in the air. The flying disc lands at 64m, near her current personal best, but her husband and coach Virender Poonia worries that it might not be good enough for the Olympics.HER STORY The first Indian woman to claim gold in the track and field event at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, Krishna Poonia didn’t always dream of a career in sports. A village girl, she was introduced to the game while in college. But with marriage at the age of 20 and pregnancy a year later, she gave up all hope of being anything but a homemaker. Her in-laws, however, wanted otherwise. They forbade the new bride from donning the veil and encouraged her to keep up her passion in sports. Six months after giving birth to her son Lakshya Raj, Krishna was ready to get back to her game and fulfil the dreams she and Virender had seen.VANTAGE POINT In the Altius Track Crew Throwdown event in the US this year, Krishna smashed the existing national record of 64.64m with a throw of 64.76m. She has her eyes set on the 65m mark.CHALLENGE AHEAD The season’s best is 68.89m, by Nadine Muller of Germany. Krishna will have to do much better than 64.76m to defeat Muller.OLYMPIC RUN-UP In the past few months, Krishna has been able to better her personal best of 64.76m during training and is striving hard for a podium finish at the Olympics.Saina NehwalSAINA NEHWAL, 22Badminton, Women’s Singles, Dhindar, Haryana SPORTING STYLE She jumps up high and in the next instant swoops low, shuffles to the left and runs to the right. All this in the blink of an eye, because 22-year-old ace shuttler Saina Nehwal is at war against not one but four players. The opposition comprises her mentor Pullela Gopichand, Indonesian coach Dwi Kristiawan and fellow players Parupalli Kashyap and Guru Sai Dutt. This game has been chalked out for her by Gopichand, a former All England Badminton Championships winner who is training Nehwal for her second Olympics. At her first Olympic appearance in Beijing in 2008, Nehwal, then just 18, became the first Indian woman to reach the badminton quarter-finals. Now in 2012, with a Commonwealth Games gold medal, four Super Series wins and six Grand Prix titles to her name, Nehwal is at her peak and only getting better.VANTAGE POINT The Chinese are considered the superpowers of badminton, with the three Wangs (Wang Yihan, Wang Xin and Wang Shixian) and Li Xuerui holding the first four positions. But recently Nehwal breached the impregnable Chinese wall by defeating World No. 4 Wang Shixian at the quarter-finals of the Indonesia Open in June and went on to win the finals against World No. 3 Li Xuerui.CHALLENGE AHEAD She reached her career high in 2010 when she was crowned World No. 2 but has now dropped three positions. She has also never defeated reigning champion Wang Yihan, who will be in action at London.OLYMPIC RUN-UP In April, Nehwal crashed out of the India Open, losing against World No. 12 Bae Yeon Ju, but displayed nerves of steel at the Indonesia Open. If she maintains her current form, she has a good shot at winning in London.Sania MirzaSANIA MIRZA, 25Tennis, Mixed and Women’s Doubles, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh HER STORY In June, Sania Mirza lifted the French Open mixed doubles trophy with Mahesh Bhupathi. Now she is in the running to win an Olympic medal with Leander Paes. Even though her country honours her medals and titles by “using her as a bait to pacify a disgruntled tennis stalwart”, she promises to wear her best professional attitude. The Paes-Mirza match is not made in heaven and there isn’t much time to perfect the pairing. Mirza had to feature in the women’s doubles event in London in order to be eligible for mixed doubles. For this, she was paired with Rushmi Chakravarthi, a veteran on the tennis circuit. The pair got a wild card entry to play in London. The duo’s last association was a fruitful one, yielding India a bronze at the Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010.Vantage Point Paes reached the finals at Wimbledon this year with Elena Vesnina of Russia while Mirza won her second Grand Slam title at the French Open. Both have had a good European summer and if they can work as a cohesive team, they have a good shot at winning a medal.Challenge Ahead India’s clumsy women’s doubles pairing might not be able to face some of the finest in the world, from defending champions Serena and Venus Williams of the US to World No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska and her sister Urszula of Poland.Olympic Run-up At 34, Chakravarthi is well past her prime. Mirza’s form has also been inconsistent since 2010. The two don’t look poised for victory. Similarly, Paes and Mirza started practising together only from July 23. Their inability to train consistently means they will be second guessing each other on court, which could spell double trouble.Chekrovolu SwuroCHEKROVOLU SWURO, 30ARCHERY WOMEN’S RECURVE, Dimapur, Nagaland HER STORY The north-eastern state of Nagaland has contributed only one Olympian before archer Chekrovolu Swuro, in the form of Talimeren Ao, who captained the Indian football team in its first official game at the 1948 London Games. It took 64 long years and, coincidentally, for the Games to return to London before a second Naga could don Indian colours. At the age of 13, the burning desire to have her picture published in the newspaper drew Swuro to archery. She has been training under Korean world champion Lee Wang Woo. “He never treats us as his inferiors and respects our strengths, which gives us confidence,” she says. Sourcing equipment is the biggest problem for archers and Swuro feels grateful to the Mittal Champions Trust for taking care of it.VANTAGE POINT She has spent the past 17 years perfecting her technique, a prerequisite for a precision sport like archery.CHALLENGE AHEAD She was slated to be part of Beijing 2008 Olympics but lost out to bad form. Swuro will be competing with the best, against champions like Ok-Hee Yun of Korea, who won two golds at Beijing.OLYMPIC RUN-UP She shot to fame at last year’s World Archery Championship in Turin where she paired with her current teammates Deepika Kumari and Bombayla Devi to score 54 points and win a silver medal. Her team stood No. 2 at this year’s world ranking for 52 countries, and is expecting a podium finish at the London Olympics.Shiva ThapaSHIVA THAPA, 18, Boxing, 56 Kg Bantamweight, Guwahati, Assam HIS STORY He calls it a mind game, where staying alert, being competitive and keeping cool triumphs over age and experience. Shiva Thapa made this evident when he defeated World No. 2 and Amateur Boxing Champion Delakliev Detelin of Bulgaria in his first international competition at the senior level, the Belgrade Winner Tournament in 2011, to claim the gold. This optimistic teenager from Assam was a football buff but Mike Tyson’s inspiring bouts coupled with his desire to opt for an individual sport made him choose boxing over football at the age of nine. Thapa’s family supported him to the hilt. His father, Padam, a karate instructor, learnt about boxing to help his son. Thapa’s elder brother was his sparring partner, and the boxer says some of his best fights have been with his sibling. This Olympics, Thapa joins India’s seven-man boxing contingent, eager to grab glory.VANTAGE POINT Thapa secured gold at the Asian Olympic qualifying event in the 56 kg bantamweight category in April in Astana, Kazakhstan, beating 2010 Asian Games bronze medallist Wessam Salamana of Syria.CHALLENGE AHEAD While most boxers do an in-depth analysis of their opponent’s techniques, Thapa avoids research and adapts to the moves of his rival, calculating counter-attacks on the spot.OLYMPIC RUN-UP This teen sensation makes mistakes, but doesn’t shy away from admitting them. He works on them with determination. In the 43rd Grand Prix held in Czech Republic in March, Thapa played extremely well through the final bout but was handed a two-point penalty just 30 seconds from the closing, which denied him a gold. He learnt from this disappointment and clinched the gold at the Olympic qualifiers. Vijender SinghVIJENDER SINGH , 26Boxing, 75 Kg Middleweight, Bhiwani, Haryana HIS STORY The pin-up boy of Indian boxing, Vijender Singh took the country by storm when he won a bronze at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He also shocked many in equal measure by crashing out of the aiba World Boxing Championship in 2011 in Azerbaijan, jeopardising his chances for an early entry into the London Games. Singh finally qualified by reaching the semi-finals of the 2012 Asian Olympic Qualifiers; a win which he hoped would silence his detractors. The final judgment, however, will only be passed post London. Singh is no stranger to pressure. He failed to qualify for the Beijing Games too in his first two attempts but came back from the quadrennial event with the country’s maiden Olympic boxing medal. This time too, Singh hopes to peak at the right time and win gold for our medal-hungry country.VANTAGE POINT He became the world champion in the middleweight category in 2009. The achievement earned him the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award and a Padma Shri. His last notable win was gold at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China.CHALLENGE AHEAD Often criticised for allowing success to interfere with his training and partying in the glamour circuit, Singh made room for more doubt when he settled for bronze at the Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010 and followed it up with a poor run of form through 2011.OLYMPIC RUN-UP Whether it is a case of bad luck or sheer complacency, Singh is far from his peak. He has hired a personal physiotherapist and trainer to get him in shape for London. His medal hopes rest on his ability to outsmart opponents by drawing on experience.