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A billion hopes ride on 127 athletes as Tokyo Olympics kick off amid Covid pandemic

India has sent its largest-ever contingent to Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (Image: IANS)

Over the next couple of weeks, India – a nation of over 1.3 billion people – will pin its hopes on 127 athletes as Tokyo Olympics 2020, the world's greatest sporting extravaganza, begin in the Japanese capital today after a delay of one year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It has been a long wait for the sportspersons who had toiled hard for this moment since August 21, 2016 – the last day of the Rio Olympics. And, when the moment has finally arrived, the surroundings seem surreal.

As the world continues to battle the Covid-19 pandemic, playing in empty stadiums is something which the cricketers and even the soccer players have got used to. But, it will be for the first time that the Olympic athletes will experience it.

As flag bearers for the opening ceremony, boxer M C Mary Kom and Manpreet Singh, captain of the Indian men's hockey team, are still somewhat lucky. Along with a handful of others from the Indian contingent, they will experience that goosebump moment of walking through the nearly empty Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Friday.

The rest, who had spent years dreaming about this juncture of waving to the crowd wearing an Indian blazer, would stay away to minimize the health risks due to the pandemic. As top athletes, they've been through this familiar feeling of so near and yet so far a zillion times before. This time though, it is going to be very heartbreaking.

All of it will, of course, disappear once the Games begin!

India's largest-ever contingent to the Olympics will participate across 18 disciplines for 85 medal possibilities at the Tokyo Olympics.

Every single participating athlete knows how winning an Olympic medal in a country which has added only 28 to its kitty since Norman Pritchard opened the account in the Paris 1900 Games, can change the fortunes overnight.

As most of them were going to bed Thursday night, the Indian Olympic Association announced cash awards for medal winners – Rs 75 lakh for gold, Rs 40 lakh for silver and Rs 25 lakh for a bronze – besides a sum of Rs one lakh to each athlete representing the country at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Various state governments too have announced cash awards for the medallists – from Rs 6 crore for gold in Haryana and Orissa to Rs three crore in Karnataka. 

However, not many Indians have stood at an Olympic podium and gone through a myriad of emotions as the tricolour goes up and the national anthem plays out during the medal ceremony.

The historic gold by Abhinav Bindra in 2008 Beijing Olympics and six medals in the next edition at London 2012 raised hopes of a turnaround but it all came to naught once again at Rio 2016 with the country bagging just two medals. 

Will Tokyo be any different? A double-digit medal haul from the Indian athletes is possible, reckon many optimists. 

India's best hopes of Olympic glory

Having won eight Olympic hockey gold medals, the last of which was way back in 1980 and after which there has been not even a single podium finish, the Indian men's hockey team is being labeled as a "serious contender" for a medal this time around. Led by Manpreet Singh, the FIH Player of the Year in 2019, the team has beaten nearly all top teams in the world in the last two years before booking the ticket to Tokyo.

"The performance levels of all the athletes are at an optimum level and more importantly they work well together. They know what it means to represent the country at the Olympics," coach Graham Reid told FIH recently. 

With four shuttlers – P V Sindhu, B Sai Praneeth and men's doubles duo of Chirag Shetty and Satwik Rankireddy – making it to Tokyo, the Indian badminton team will also be looking to complete a hat-trick of medals after the brilliant medal-winning efforts from Saina Nehwal and Sindhu in 2012 and 2016, respectively. 

Boxing, which has so far given two Olympic medals to India – Vijender Singh (Bronze, 2008) and Mary Kom (Bronze 2012) – is another sport which can punch a surprise in Tokyo. A record number of nine Indian pugilists will be seen in action during the Games.

World No. 1 Amit Panghal, Vikas Krishan – the only second Indian boxer after Vijender to compete in the third consecutive Olympic Games – and six-time world champion Kom will step into the boxing ring with high hopes even though the Indians have been handed out a tough draw. 

While five Indian boxers – Amit Panghal (52kg), Lovlina Borgohain (69kg), Pooja Rani (75kg), Simranjit Kaur (60kg), Satish Kumar (91kg) – will begin their challenge in the pre-quarterfinals stage, seasoned MC Mary Kom (51kg), Manish Kaushik (63kg), Ashish Kumar (75kg) and Vikas Krishan (69kg) will be seen competing in the round-of-32 in their respective categories in Tokyo.   

Kom will start against Dominican Republic's Miguelina Hernandez in the first round and is likely to meet Rio Olympics bronze medallist Colombian boxer Ingrit Valencia in the second round.

Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat, who had to bow out of the Rio Games due to a freak injury, will lead India's medal hopes in wrestling, a sport which has given the country an Olympic medal in each of the last three Games. 

World No. 1 archer Deepika Kumari starts off her campaign in Tokyo after a splendid show at the Paris World Cup recently.

In table tennis, the mixed pair of A Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra face third-seeded Lin Yun-Ju and Cheng I-Chin in the first-round match, beginning at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium on Saturday.

However, it is the 15-member shooting team which would be carrying the biggest burden of expectations at Tokyo. After the disastrous show at Rio 2016 when they returned home empty-handed, India has sent the youngest shooting contingent ever to Olympics.

The likes of Elavenil Valarivan, Manu Bhaker, Saurabh Chaudhary, Apurvi Chandela have been in sublime form over the last couple of years and remain big medal hopes.

"There is plenty of hope this time," says Gagan Narang who won the Bronze medal at London 2012 and has trained prodigy Valarivan through his foundation.

"In the last two years, our shooters have excelled in all big international tournaments. Our shooters are placed at World No. 1, 2 or 3. This raises expectation and hopes. They are in a much better frame of mind and the preparation going into the Tokyo Olympics has also been good," he adds.

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