Indian athletes' London tryst amid soaring expectations

Carrying the hopes of a billion plus people back home, Indian athletes are supremely confident of returning with the richest medal haul from the Olympic Games, the sport's biggest showpiece, opening in London Friday.

India can get medals not from one or two sports, but a handful. Their shooters, archers, shuttlers, wrestlers and boxers all look good and they cannot fail for want of effort. They have all done well at international meets in the run-up to the Games. Add tennis to the list, that perennial medal hope.

Impressed by the athletes' performance in the 2010 Commonwealth and Asian Games, the Indian Olympic Association has cleared the country's biggest contingent of 81 in 13 disciplines for the quadrennial event.

Over the years India have not had a great run of podium finishes at the Olympics, but there have been encouraging signs in the last couple of Games.

The major turnaround came in the last Games in Beijing. There were three medals, including the country's first individual gold from shooter Abhinav Bindra in the men's 10 m air rifle.

Wrestler Sushil Kumar (66 kg freestyle) and boxer Vijender Singh (75 kg) got the other two medals, a bronze each making it India's highest  tally in any single edition of the Games, where through the years the country's metal count has been only 20 - nine gold, four silver and seven bronze - since its maiden appearance in 1900.

The troika's feat has spawned a new era for Indian sports, inspiring a new generation of youngsters. India will thus have 11 shooters, eight boxers - four of whom qualified through the toughest route of World Championships - and five wrestlers competing in London.
It is in this backdrop of the resounding performance at the 2010 Commonwealth Games when the country bagged 100 plus medals for the first time, and days later they came up with their best ever medal tally of 64 (14 gold, 17 silver, 33 bronze) at the Asian Games at Guangzhou and that became a benchmark to measure the London performance.

Much is expected from the ranges. There are two men who know what it is to be World champions - Bindra and trap shooter Manavjit Singh Sandhu. Double-trap Ronjan Sodhi is not far behind, having been a World Cup winner.

Bindra has left behind a lacklustre 2011 with a gold at the 12th Asian Shooting Championships in Doha in the New Year. In the same event, Gagan Narang - who shot four golds in the Delhi Commonwealth Games - is also a big medal hope.

Among the pugilists, pin-up boy Vijender would be hoping to defend, if not better, his show at Beijing. However, the biggest medal possibility in the discipline seems to be World No.6 Vikas Krishan Yadav (69 kg), who sensationally clinched a gold at Guangzhou and a bronze at the World championships.

The team also includes the promising 18-year-old Shiva Thapa, the youngest Indian boxer to qualify for the Olympics, in the 56 kg category.

Five times World champion M.C. Mary Kom could find herself in the medal bracket if the draw is favourable in the inaugural women's boxing event.

In wrestling, Sushil is back to his best, making the cut with a gold at the World qualifying event in Taiyuan, China, to add to his Asian gold.

Yogeshwar Dutt, a veteran of two previous Olympics like Sushil, is another wrestler who has had good results ahead of the Games. He can pull off some surprises in the 60 kg freestyle. The extremely talented Amit Kumar Dahiya also cannot be counted out in the 55 kg.

At Lords, the home of cricket turned archery arena for the Games, the nation is hoping to hit the bull's eye through 18-year-old Jharkhand sensation Deepika Kumari - currently ranked World No.1 - in the women's individuals.

Medals could also come from women's team event, where the combination of Deepika, Laishram Bombayla Devi and Chekrovolu Swuro are now ranked World No.2. The men'steam of Jayanta Talukdar, Rahul Banerjee and Tarundeep Rai, now World No.5, are no pushovers and could cause upsets on their day.

In badminton, World No.5 Saina Nehwal is the brightest medal
prospect. The 22-year-old, seeded fourth at the Games, is in good form  after back-to-back victories in Thailand and Indonesia Super Series where she beat top-ranked Chinese players.

There is also an outside chance in the women's doubles, where the Jwala Gutta-Ashwini Ponnappa pair needs to recreate its magic at the same venue - Wembley - to win the country's first bronze at the World championships last year.

The glamorous tennis players recently made headlines for all the wrong reasons. But with the partnership battles over, Sania Mirza and Leander Paes could come up with a podium finish in the mixed doubles.

But the scenario is far from rosy in hockey - a game where India were once the unchallenged kings with a bounty of eight gold, one silver and two bronze. They won gold here when London hosted the 1948 Olympics. Things have come to such a pass now that if they finish in the top six is considered a creditable showing for the World No.10 side.

Besides, India would take part in athletics, judo, rowing, swimming, table tennis and weightlifting - where the competitors would do well to come up with their best performance in the toughest of fields to gain valuable experience.

All in all, winning an Olympic medal is hard and only those who have won will tell you what it takes to get it. That's why a Games medal is far superior to everything else an athlete achieves.

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