Challenging times

Indian sport will be put through a stiff test in the 17th edition of the continental bash, beginning on Friday at Incheon

Challenging times

As the Indian contingent arrives in Incheon, South Korea, for the 17th Asian Games, nursing great ambitions in their heart, they very well know the herculean challenge that awaits them if they are to match -- let alone overhaul -- their deeds of Guangzhou four years ago.

Last time around their biggest ally was momentum -- very crucial for athletes -- which they cashed in on brilliantly to make the 16th Asian Games their most successful ever in terms of total number of medals won. But sadly, momentum has been replaced by chaos and confusion now, while there is still no clarity on the participation of some of the participants, including boxers, who have some potential medal winners in their midst.

Four years ago, the entire nation was swept by patriotic fervour. The country had just hosted the Commonwealth Games where it put up a great show also, finishing runners-up in the medals table (38 gold, 27 silver, 36 bronze) for the first time that gave a rare boost to multi-discipline sports.

Within a month, almost the same set of athletes and several more took the flight to Guangzhou and returned with a rich haul of 14 gold, 17 silver and 34 bronze, capping a very successful year for Indian sports.

Compare that to the current scenario and it isn’t a pretty picture. Although they returned from this year’s Glasgow Commonwealth Games with a good haul of 15 gold, 30 silver and 19 bronze -- fifth in the standings -- performance there cannot offer an insight into what is in store at the Asian Games.

Firstly, there is no China at the Commonwealth Games. The Asian giants are the most dominant Olympic force now, with even the mighty United States finding it difficult to surpass them in the recent editions of the Games. They command a much greater superiority at the continental level, their hold on sports like shooting and badminton — where India stand a chance — simply overwhelming.

China’s rise as a superpower in badminton is well chronicled with several of their shuttlers occupying slots in the top-10 rankings. The same applies to shooting, a sport that we bank upon immensely to deliver the medals. Apart from the Chinese, several Koreans are amongst the top marksmen in the world and it will take some firing from the Indians to knock them off.

Another blow that has hit India hard is the pull-out of several high profile athletes who were successful last time at Guangzhou. Leading the list is wrestler Sushil Kumar, the country’s only back-to-back individual medal winner at the Olympics.
Joining him are Somdev Devvarman, Vijender Singh and Jwala Gutta -- all potential medal winners -- hitting our medal chances badly.

Some of our best hopes have not had the best of seasons, and with form so crucial in sports, it remains to be seen whether they regain their champion touch at Incheon. Ace shuttler Saina Nehwal has struggled for consistency, even opting to switch coaches ahead of the crucial bash, while many track and field athletes -- where we won five of the 14 gold last time -- are yet to hit their intended rhythm.
If that is not enough, cue sports -- a sport that the country excels in -- has been axed from Incheon, robbing India of certain medals. Uncertainty also prevails over the participation of our boxers with the international federation -- AIBA -- expected to make a decision sometime next week.

Topping it all, some of the athletes left for Incheon amidst confusion on who will be eligible to board the flight. While the Indian Olympic Association wanted a jumbo squad of 942 athletes and officials, a defiant Sports Ministry finally gave the green signal to 516 athletes and 163 officials, a move which didn’t go well with the administrators.

The wrangling between the Ministry and IOA went on for about a week, making needless headlines when all the talk should have been about the athletes’ preparations. Despite the drama-filled send-off, Sports Authority of India Director-General Jiji Thomson felt the country stands a good chance at Incheon. “We are not to be blamed for the controversy over pruning of the contingent,” he said. “We had clearly laid out the criteria much before but the IOA ignored them and sent us a massive list. Having said that, the top athletes didn’t have to fear anything during our argument with IOA.

“The potential medal winners were never in doubt of boarding the flight to Incheon. We were just against the ones who were merely making up the numbers. So the top athletes knew they were going and they trained as hard as they normally do. I’m confident we will have a very successful Asian Games,” added Thomson.
Indian athletes are no strangers to chaos and confusion. The build-up to almost every major event has been hit with some trouble or the other and many of them have shown good temperament overcoming all the hurdles. One hopes many cross them at Incheon.

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