India's sporting rise faces litmus test in London

India's transformation from a laggard to a nation waking up to its sporting potential would be put to test when the biggest-ever contingent of 81 athletes sets out to prove that the three Olympic medals in Beijing were no fluke in the London edition of the biggest sporting show on earth.

Wrestlers Sushil Kumar, who will hold the Indian flag in London Olympics 2012, with Yogeshwar Dutt and Narsingh Pancham Yadav (R) during a send off function ahead of the mega event, in New Delhi on Tuesday. PTI

From just making up the numbers and fetching an odd medal every four years, India have come a long way to be in with a genuine chance of winning more than the gold and a couple of bronze that changed the face of sports in the country four years ago.

The three heroes of Beijing have made the cut for London as well and while gold-medallist shooter Abhinav Bindra would aim for an encore with his rifle, Sushil Kumar (wrestling) and Vijender Singh (boxing) would try to get better-coloured medals around their necks.

A nation of more than a billion, India's untapped sporting potential has been discussed threadbare ahead of many Olympics gone by but for the first time, talk is about how many medals the country might get in what is being anticipated as the best-ever show when the 30th Games unfold on July 27.

Expectations are sky-high from shooters, boxers, archers, shuttlers and wrestlers and then there are the dark horses in the tennis team which unfortunately spent the better part of its build-up squabbling over who would partner whom -- a reminder that despite some good changes, politics remains inherent in Indian sports.

But apart from the ugly selection row that struck tennis, the build-up to London has been smooth for most of the Indian athletes, who have had little or no complaints about the facilities or coaches.

They have had international exposure to their heart's content. In fact, most of them have left for London much ahead of the Games' start for acclimatisation with a proactive Sports Ministry doling out the money whenever asked to by the national federations. 

As many as 11 shooters -- seven men and four women -- will be aiming for the bull's eye in London and given the fine form they are in, more than one medal is expected from them.

The reclusive Abhinav Bindra, who was slightly off-colour last year, seems to have found his mojo with a gold in the 10 metre Air rifle event at the 12th Asian Shooting Championships in Doha Qatar.

His ever-smiling partner with the rifle, Gagan Narang, is also a bright medal prospect and so is trap shooter Ronjan Sodhi, ranked number one in the world.

Then there are the boxers, led by pin-up boy Vijender (75kg). An unprecedented eight of them -- seven men and a woman -- are in fray and given their consistent rise after Beijing, it won't be a surprise if at least a couple of medals come through them.

The team is an interesting mix, it has the youngest boxer ever to qualify for the Olympics in Shiva Thapa (56kg) and a mother-of-two five-time world champion in the 29-year-old M C Mary Kom.

The veteran Mary Kom will be fittingly India's sole representative when women's boxing makes its Olympic debut in three weight categories. An athlete par excellence, Mary Kom embodies the spirit of Olympics -- faster, higher, stronger.

Apart from Shiva, the boxing team features one more teenager and a couple of 20-year-olds, including the World Championships bronze-medallist Vikas Krishan (69kg).

They are all wide-eyed and excited about living a dream but remain untouched by the burden of expectations because as their coaches put it, "They have got absolutely nothing to lose".

That's not all, medal hopes are also high from the unassuming archers. Deepika Kumari, perhaps the least talked about world number one from India, is a top contender and so are five others -- including three men. 

Then there is the shuttlers' brigade led by the gritty Saina Nehwal. Five of them would be there in action in London and Saina would shoulder a huge burden of expectations given the way she has breached the Chinese domination of the sport in the past couple of years.

With back-to-back titles under her belt in the build-up to Olympics, confidence would not really be an issue and the 22-year-old would look to make the most of her fine current form heading into London.

Not to forget, the other racquet sport, which hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons just weeks before the Games.

The tennis players did not give a very good account of themselves with all the bickering off the court but they would try to ensure that it would not be what they are remembered for when the Games draw to a close.

There is a good medal chance in mixed doubles where Sania Mirza has reluctantly agreed to team up with Leander Paes after being denied her regular partner Mahesh Bhupathi.

In men's doubles, Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna, both of who took on the federation to be sent as a team, would need to perform or face a backlash given that they started the furore by refusing to partner Paes.

In wrestling, all eyes will once again be on Sushil, who made the London cut in the final qualifying tournament.

Elsewhere, the Indian hockey team would make an emotional comeback to the Olympics after missing qualification for the Beijing Games.

A podium finish is not expected of them but a creditable performance would surely be desired by the country's sports fans. 

In track and field, Vikas Gowda is the dark horse, who might spring a surprise but since India have just about started catching up with international standards, a medal would be too much to ask from the 14 athletes.

There are qualifiers in sports such as judo, rowing and swimming too but they are unlikely to fetch medals given the stiff competition.

But looking at the larger picture, Indian sportspersons hold out immense promise as they head to the 30th Olympics and their comfort level in the chilly conditions would be increased by the warmth they are likely to be offered by the huge expatriate population in the British capital. 

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