India’s Asian Games journey often follows a woeful pattern of selection, rejection, petition, addition, deletion and confusion. It has been even more so ahead of the 18th edition of the continental competition beginning on Saturday in the Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Palembang.
At a time when the preparation should have been at the final stages, the talk in the Indian camp is still about who is in the contingent and who is not. Administrative incompetence is the sole reason for such a scenario, leaving the main protagonists – the athletes – in a state of helplessness when they should be brimming with confidence and hope.
Less than a week from the opening ceremony, all we know is it will be a jumbo contingent, and we are not talking of the sportspersons alone. A rush to join the bandwagon as team officials was on in different sports, with the sports ministry applying its wisdom in the chopping and changing process. From 524 to 541 to 575, the squad size has grown by the day and as in many previous Games, you can safely assume that no one would have a fair idea of the exact figure even when the fiesta concludes on September 2.
After an encouraging performance at the Commonwealth Games, optimism should have been the reigning theme heading to the Asian Games. But that good feeling of April, when India finished third on the medals table at Gold Coast with 26 gold, 20 silver and 20 bronze, has been pushed to the background. It will take some effort to bring it back, to embrace the joy of pure sport.
Of course, the Commonwealth Games shows are no indicator of Asian Games performances in most disciplines. The standards are far higher in Asia in events where India revel in the Commonwealth – shooting, weightlifting and wrestling. These three disciplines accounted for seventeen gold medals for India in Gold Coast but all the three put together might bring home a tally of three in Jakarta.
A playfield of nations who routinely dominate the world stage, the Asian Games often reduce India to spectator levels. With China, Japan and South Korea flexing their muscles, minor pickings are the order and if the gold medal level touches double digits, the journey is considered a successful one.
At the Incheon Asiad four years ago, India had a haul of 11 gold medals, with the highlight being a rare triumph in hockey that earned the men a direct route to the Olympic Games.
Can we go beyond Incheon and reach the highs of Guangzhou 2010 when the tally showed 14 gold medals – second behind the all-time best of 15 in 1951? While hope is a positive sentiment, reality could be painfully different. Even so, there is plenty to look forward to for India, thanks to the surge of the youth that was so conspicuous in Gold Coast. They may not offer a shower of gold but the youth of India, definitely, will leave its mark in Jakarta and Palembang.
Youth power was most apparent in shooting where the likes of Manu Bhaker and Anish Bhanwala paraded their talent in full measure. Bhaker epitomised the fearlessness of youth when she proclaimed that she was not bothered about pressure. “The more you think, the more things become complex. So it’s never a good idea to think too much. Just do the best you can and forget about everything else,” the 16-year-old pistol shooter had said after her triumph in Gold Coast. The young Indians will be up against world and Olympic champions from South Korea and China and any medal in such fields will only enhance their reputation while offering valuable lessons for the future.
A young gem in Neeraj Chopra injects doses of confidence into the athletics team. The sport has contributed maximum medals for the country in Asian Games history but the flow has become a trickle now. The arrival of Chopra and the blossoming of Hima Das could mark the beginning of a turnaround even though negativity lurks due to frequent doping cases. Chopra, the Commonwealth Games champion, is India’s lone world class athlete at the moment and he has everything going for him to add the tag of Asian Games winner.
Youth power has a strong presence in India’s boxing ring too. The sport may have contributed just one gold medal in Incheon but it has so often been rocked by administrative wrangling that any medal will mark the beginning of a turnaround. Amit Phangal in the 49kg class and Gaurav Solanki in the 52kg category impressed at the Commonwealth Games but in a tougher field featuring Olympic medallists galore, they have their task cut out.
“The confidence level is very high, they have been very consistent as one can make out from their results. We are moving in the right direction,” India’s high performance director Santiago Nieva had said as the team applied finishing touches to their preparations. Optimism might be his calling card but when Nieva says he expects five medals, it is apparent that Jakarta won’t be a mere exposure trip for India.
Constant exposure has also added strands of experience in squash as also in a team-game like hockey – where nothing less than gold will be deemed a failure -- while the effect of the Pro League cannot be discounted in kabaddi, a sport in which India have swept all the nine gold medals so far. Selection controversies have cast a cloud over the team’s preparations but that should only spur them to ward off the challenge expected from Pakistan and Iran.
Sparring with the best on a consistent basis is also a key factor in the rise of India in the badminton arena. Kidambi Srikanth and P V Sindhu have their best chance at Jakarta even if they are treading a potential minefield of razor-sharp rivals. Still, when youth combines with experience and ambition, it can be an irresistible concoction. India need it now more than ever.