Who will be India's poster boy/poster girl at the Tokyo Olympics?
There are several names who have emerged as India's medal contenders. But who could be the poster boy or poster girl for India at the Tokyo Olympics?
All the excitement and fervour over the Tokyo Olympics will see a climax when the grand quadrennial sporting event kicks off in about ten days. The build-up to the Games has been quite intense for the fans who'd been waiting for a year after the Olympics were postponed in 2020 owing to the coronavirus pandemic.
This time, the excitement has hit a different high, with Indian athletes having possibilities like never before. India will be sending a strong contingent comprising 126 athletes to the Tokyo Olympics. There are several names who have emerged as medal contenders. But who could be the poster boy or poster girl for India at the Tokyo Olympics?
The Bridge picks two names who could emerge as the biggest superstars in the Games - Deepika Kumari and Neeraj Chopra.
Deepika's record chase for an Olympic medal
Who doesn't like a good, old-fashioned, fairytale-style inspiring narrative? It is where the protagonist fights the odds of trials and tribulation to emerge as the champion. Deepika Kumari's story is one such utmost honest account of punching above your weight and attaining glory.
India's most successful archer till date, Deepika's rise to the pinnacle of success is the stuff of legend. Deepika announced her arrival in style, winning two gold medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in individual and team events, which were being hosted in New Delhi. In the years that followed, Kumari quickly rose to the top. Winning medals in World Cups and World Championships, Kumari soon found herself in a spot no other Indian archer been before- World number one. Kumari carved out her own destiny with sheer determination and fought her way to the top and inspired many others to do so. The 27-year-old has been a part of every Women's Recurve medal India has ever won. With 35 world cup medals (stages and finals) under her belt, including 11 gold medals, the Jamshedpur athlete has been a true inspiration in her field of sport for the upcoming generation.
Despite being the best in business, the one dream that has always eluded Deepika was an Olympic medal. Her first outing at the Olympics was in London 2012, where she had crashed out of the first round of the women's individual event, bringing the curtain down on the country's hopes in the sport. The then World No.1 Deepika suffered an upset, going down to Amy Oliver of Great Britain by six points to two. She looked completely off colour, and was no match for her British rival at Lord's.
The match took place under thick overcast conditions and the cold did not seem to suit Deepika, who paid the price for some poor shots. Four years later, dreams took a toll once again when Deepika lost in Women's individual competition after losing to Chinese Taipei Tan Ya-ting by 0-6 in the Round of 16 at the Rio Olympics.
Deepika had secured an individual quota for the Tokyo Olympics after winning the Gold medal finish at the Asian continental qualifier in Bangkok in November 2019. Nine years after her first Olympics in 2012, Deepika Kumari's sub-conscience could be tossed for a deja vu. She regained the number one position in global rankings for recurve women following her hat-trick of gold medals at the World Cup Stage 3 in Paris. At 27, opportunity knocks on Deepika's doorway once again for that elusive Olympic medal India has been hunting since time immemorial. Her unparallel success has once again unleashed hype from all over the country, and she has mounted the weighty bag of expectation around her shoulder. Now the question remains can Deepika Kumari change her fortunes at the Tokyo Olympics?
The recent world cup success has made her one of the top medal contenders and the hype all around her is justified. Fans who never followed any other sports than cricket has suddenly taken interest on archery because of Deepika. And if she wins the elusive Olympic medal, it could be a matter of pride for the entire nation.
The other name on this list doesn't have tasted as much success as Deepika, however, his fortune could change the history of Indian athletics. The legendary Milkha Singh, who passed away recently, went without his dream fulfilled of seeing India win a medal at the Olympics in a track and field event. However, his dreams could come true with the entire nation rooting for javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra to attain the feat.
Neeraj Chopra, the outsider who could make history
Neeraj Chopra marked his presence as the next big thing for India in track field events when he won the gold medal at the IAAF World Under-20 champion in 2016. He created junior world record of 86.48m and became the first Indian to win a gold medal in a track and field event.
Since then, Chopra has never turned his back. He went on to win gold medals at the 2017 Asian championships, 2018 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games 2018. Soon after Asian Games, he faced a roadblock as a shoulder injury robbed him of his entire season in 2019 and he had to miss the Athletics World Championships in Doha.
Chopra came back stronger and made a thumping return in 2020. The Haryana lad breached the Olympic qualification mark of 85m with an 87.86m throw to book his ticket to Tokyo at the ACNW League Meet in Potchefstroom, South Africa. But soon after that, the world went into a standstill with the coronavirus lockdown imposed.
In 2021, Neeraj Chopra won two domestic events – the Federation Cup and Indian Grand Prix 3 - in Patiala. In the latter event, he threw his personal best of 88.07m, which is also the current national record. It is the fourth-best throw of 2021, behind the likes of Johannes Vetter, Marcin Krukowski and Keshron Walcott.
While one can definitely expect Neeraj Chopra to walk into the final of men's javelin throw, a medal also doesn't seem a far-fetched idea.
Chopra is expected to face some stiff competition from the likes of Keshorn Walcott, Anderson Peters, Julian Weber, Andreas Hofmann – though he has not been at his best, and others in Tokyo.
The biggest challenge of all, though certainly will be the presence of Johannes Vetter.
If the decision of the reigning Olympic champion Thomas Rohler from Germany to pull out of the Olympics might be a blessing in disguise for Chopra, the other German, Johannes Vetter, has been throwing the javelin over 90m for fun.
In June, Neeraj got a taste of competing against the world's top javelin throwers at the Kuortane Grand Prix in Finland. Chopra took third place with a throw of 86.79m. Vetter, who has consistently crossed 90m this season, won with a throw of 93.59m and Walcott was second with his season's best 89.12m.
It was Chopra's third international competition in a month, having warmed up with two smaller meets. Neeraj has to pull a punch above his weight to win India its first athletics medal at the Olympics. However, if he does so, his name would forever be etched on India's sporting history in golden verses.