India’s Olympic Medal Hopefuls and Where Their Training Stands
A look at where India’s Olympic-bound athletes and Olympic hopefuls are placed regarding their return to training.
2021. The year of the postponed Tokyo Olympics.
So much has – and will have – changed in the time between the originally scheduled Olympics in the summer of 2020 and 23 July 2021, when the Opening Ceremony of the event finally takes place.
So much change, but also almost none, in the world of Olympic sports. Since the pandemic-enforced lockdowns across the world in March, there are very few sports that have returned to full competition, which means very few new records set and very few new champions crowned.
And among the many sportspersons across the world trying to get back into competitive mode before the summer rolls in, are India’s Olympic-bound stars. However, apart from the boxing and wrestling, very few national federations have made a move towards helping the athletes get back in a momentum any closer to what they had achieved, this time last year.
Boxers Qualified, Stayed on Course
Among the last of India’s athletes to compete in international tournaments before the lockdown were the boxers who were in Amman in March at the Olympic qualifiers where a record nine quotas were bagged.
By the time the contingent landed back home in India, the 15-day travel quarantine rule had been announced after which they regrouped only in August when the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) organised a camp in Patiala. The boxers in fact were the first among India’s Olympic-bound athletes to get back into training, albeit with strict rules that did not allow them to spar or leave the NIS facilities.
Thereafter, BFI organised for a 27-member contingent including boxers, trainers and coaches to travel to Europe to train for 2 months starting October, where they took part in local events in France and Italy. Among the medals they have picked along the way have been three golds, two silvers and four bronze at the recently concluded Cologne Boxing World Cup held in Koln, Germany. Amit Panghal, Manisha Moun and Simranjit Kaur were the ones who finished on top of the podium.
MC Mary Kom and Vikas Krishan, however, have been training on their own with Mary staying back home in Delhi while Vikas received a Rs 17.5 lakh grant to train in America.
Besides the nine boxers who have qualified, there are still nine more quotas India could grab at the World Qualifiers that that take place in June 2021.
Wrestlers Took Things in Own Hands
Post-lockdown, the Wrestling Federation did try to get going camps for Olympic hopefuls and also for the four who had already made the cut, but it was only in September that a men’s national camp could eventually be held. The women’s camp started a month later with big names refusing to attend due to COVID-19 fears.
It didn't help that the months since March have seen the sacking of men’s freestyle coach Hossein Karimi and also the women’s team’s head coach Andrew Cook. So, it was no surprise that the Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, Deepak Punia and Ravi Dahiya, who have made the cut for Tokyo, have charted out individual training plans to prepare for the Olympics.
Bajrang is currently in America training with his coach Emzarios Bentinidis and physio Dhananjay. The camp that extends till 3 January was cleared by the Ministry with a budget of Rs 14 lakh and has wrestlers from other countries also in attendance allowing Bajrang access to world-level sparring partners.
Among the women wrestlers, Vinesh Phogat is the only one to have qualified so for the Olympics. She tested positive for COVID-19 in August but has since recovered and is now training in Hungary and then in Poland after her 40-day training and competition trip with her personal coach, sparring partner and physiotherapist was cleared by the Ministry.
The federation sent a 42-member wrestling contingent to Belgrade earlier in December to compete in the Individual World Cup. Anshu Malik (57kg) won a silver while Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik’s struggles continued as she was knocked out by Bulgaria's Mimi Nikolova Hristova on Day 4.
Hockey Teams Continue Training in Bengaluru
The men’s and women’s hockey teams have both already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics and were training at the SAI facility in Bengaluru when the PM announced the nationwide lockdowns in March.
Staying within a stone’s throw of the hockey pitch, all players, however, were not allowed to step out of the hostel due to the lockdown rules and spent months at the SAI centre itself. After the relaxation of rules, players were allowed to return home but when recalled for the camp, six players including men’s captain Manpreet Singh tested positive for COVID-19 and were hospitalised. They have all since recovered and been part of the training camp that stretched on till 12 December.
Neither the men’s or the women’s teams have taken part in any competitive action since February while teams across the world have already got the wheels in motion. Earlier this week, the hockey federation announced that the women’s team will play eight matches against Argentina starting 17 January, their first outing since the tour of New Zealand in January 2020.
In track and field, Neeraj Chopra, arguably India's biggest medal hope in the field events at the Olympics, qualified for the Tokyo Games in his first attempt at a local meet in South Africa in January.
Chopra's previous competition before that was the 2018 Asian Games, where he won gold with a national record throw of 88.06m, and had been out since then due to an elbow injury.
Right before the lockdown, Neeraj returned home to India and was quarantined at the NIS Patiala at the start. However, the strict lockdown rules meant, despite staying at the training facility, Neeraj nor any of the other athletes, were allowed to step onto the tracks even for a run.
It was only when the lockdown rules were relaxed in May that India’s elite could don their spikes again.
Regarding his next competition, unlike the boxing or the wrestling Federation, the Athletics Federation of India has been unable to line up anything for the Indian track and field stars. Many national tournaments have been scheduled and cancelled and even at the time of writing, there is no concrete plan for a tournament in the near future.
PV Sindhu & India’s Badminton Hope
By the time the pandemic forced the lockdowns, only three Indians had earned comfortable enough rankings to be assured of a spot in the Olympics – PV Sindhu and the doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty.
Olympic medallist Sain Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth will both have to have a stellar season in 2021 to book their spots by the qualification deadline of 18 May 2021.
While Srikanth played the Denmark Open in October, where he had reached the quarter-finals, all other Indians will return to competitive action when they play the Thailand Open from 12-17 January followed by Toyota Thailand Open (19-24 January) and the BWF World Tour Finals which is rescheduled for 27-31 January.
The Olympic qualification cycle however will start where it was paused in 2020, with the Swiss Open from 2-7 March. There will be 17 tournaments carrying ranking points towards Olympics qualification ending with the India open that starts on 11 May.
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