Despite India's sending its largest ever contingent (till then) to the summer Olympics in 2012 in London, the opening ceremony featured Bangalore-based danseuse Madhura Nagendra, who was seen walking at the head of the Indian team’s march during the Parade of Nations.
She grabbed more attention than the medal exploits of the 83 member-strong team representing India. Considering that India did end up with its best-ever haul of six medals – two silver and four bronze – perhaps it was a little bit unfair. After all, India's showing in the Olympics has to be measured not against other countries (Jamaica, with a population similar to Pune's, 2.75 million, won four each of golds, silvers, and bronzes) but against its own past.
Improving on London
So, bettering that six-medal tally, and a rank of 55th (with no golds) is the name of the well, game. Three of those six mdeal-winners are in the fray, hoping to improve on the bronzes they won last time. While Saina Nehwal will look for gold in badminton section, Gagan Narang and Yogeshwar Dutt are also strong medal hopefuls among the 100-strong contingent – yes, the largest-ever, yet again – headed to Rio.
One of the most exciting aspects of this contingent are the 38 athletes who have qualified for the athletics events. It's a huge achievement for a nation in an area in which it has traditionally struggled to provide even participants, leave alone medal winners. However, at least four athletes – Vikas Gowda (men’s discus throw), Kavita Raut (women’s marathon), Khushbir Kaur and Sapna Punia (women’s 20 km walk) – are yet to prove their fitness before the games begin.
But while the track and field athletes may not be in the contention for the podium – although we can always dream of PT Usha in the 400 metres hurdles in 1984 and hope – there are some others who definitely are.
Take India’s flag-bearer and golden boy of the Class of 2008, shooter Abhinav Bindra. After winning a sensational gold for India in Beijing, Bindra managed to finish a lowly 16th and not even qualify for the final in 2012 in the same event, the 10 m air rifle. Now, in what could possibly be his last Olympics, Bindra will look to shoot for glory one last time.
The prodigiously talented and former World No. 1 Deepika Kumari will be looking to hit the bull’s-eye this time in archery. Still only 22, Kumari was seeded eighth in 2012, but lost in the round of 64 to Amy Oliver of Great Britain in the women’s recurve section. She will certainly look to make amends for that showing.
All eyes on shuttlers
Badminton, boosted by the inclusion of the gifted PV Sindhu, will be the most likely source of medals for the contingent. While Manu Attri and B Sumeeth Reddy get their Olympic debuts as a men’s doubles pair, the experienced women’s pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa, who narrowly missed out on a knockout berth in 2012 in controversial circumstances will look to set the record straight this time around. And, of course, there's always Nehwal.
With the magnificent Mary Kom failing to qualify this time, India’s hopes in the boxing section will almost entirely rest on Shiva Thapa, the 22-year pugilist from Guwahati, ranked third in the world in the bantamweight category and a former Asian Games gold medallist. He will look to improve on his Round of 32 loss last time at the hands of Mexico’s Oscar Valdez.
A hockey resurgence?
The hockey gods finally seem to be smiling on India as both the men’s and women’s teams are in the running this time around. Both teams witnessed a change of skippers prior to the tournament.
The men, in particular, must forget about the disastrous 2012 campaign, where they finished dead last and failed to win any of their six matches. Drawn in a group alongside Argentina, Australia and Great Britain, qualification for the knockout stages is the minimum expected of the men.
For the women, qualification after 36 years is an important milestone and a pleasant surprise, but they will have to do something really special to upset the odds and grab a medal.
As for gymnastics, there's already an extraordinary story in Dipa Karmakar. Her ability to pull off a Produnova, demonstrated in 2014, makes her one among a very select band of gymnasts. She is the first female gymnast ever to represent India at the Olympic level, and the 22-year old has won bronze medals at the Commonwealth and the Asian Games previously.
Yogeshwar Dutt, after a heroic showing in 2012 where he won a bronze despite having the side of his face swollen, will lead the India charge in wrestling. Vinesh Phogat in the 53 kg women’s freestyle section is also someone to look out for.
Narsingh Pancham Yadav, having survived a High Court plea by 2012 silver medallist Sushil Kumar to revoke his Rio spot, will be in the limelight as a result of the controversy just prior to the mega-event.
And then there's tennis, where India always promises a lot but fails to deliver, has been relatively low on bickering this time. But the problem as always remains: while Leander Paes, Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza are all excellent doubles players with their regular partners on the tennis tour, they are anything but successful while playing alongside one another.
The other sports where India has managed to qualify include rowing, judo, swimming and weightlifting. But a medal would be a miracle in all of these. Only in golf might a depleted field offer a window of opportunity to Anirban Lahiri, SSP Chawrasia and Aditi Ashok.