A build-up to any major multi-discipline event in India has one constant – controversies.
Be it over team selections, choice of officials and support staff to even which sport disciplines could ultimately make the grade.
And it has been no different even this time around.
Even as majority of India’s 570-plus contingent has reached Jakarta and Palembang for the 2018 Asian Games, some such as 400-metre runner Nirmala Sheoran still await clearance at this moment.
It is an indictment of the shambolic build-up to the Asiad that up to six of the 36 disciplines that India would be sending sportspersons in, had to resort to going to the courts to settle selection matters.
Athletics, Badminton, Boat Racing, Taekwondo, Sailing and Handball were all involved in legal wrangles, while other sports like football and rugby were “collateral”, in the words of the Indian women’s rugby captain Neha Pardeshi, in the war between the Indian Olympic Association and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports.
And with all these sports hogging the limelight for the wrong reasons, could Indian tennis be far behind? Leander Paes, winner of eight Asian Games medals, pulled out at the last moment citing the unavailability of a specialist doubles partner. Squash, which returned four medals including a men’s team gold, has also been plagued by controversy as Dipika Pallikal bemoaned the lack of a foreign coach in the run-up to the Games.
Reasons to be positive
But with the games just under 24-hours away, the attention needs change from controversies to performances. And though surpassing the 57-medal mark of the last edition in Incheon would be the primary target of the country’s biggest Asian Games contingent so far, the real focus would be on the considerable percentage of young guns who would be egging to prove themselves on the continental stage after their success at Commonwealth Games in April.
India returned from Gold Coast with 26 gold and 66 overall medals, only behind New Delhi (2010) and Manchester (2002) in medal numbers and the core of the contingent was also of those youngster who are expected to be in their prime by the time Tokyo Olympics 2020 arrives.
And nothing underlines this fact more than the contingent’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremony. Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, gold medal winner at the Commonwealth Games and national record holder, is only 20 and one of India’s gold medal aspirant at the Games.
Look at India’s other medal hopefuls: Hima Das is 18, PV Sindhu still only 23, Gaurav Solanki with a Gold Coast gold to his name is 21, country’s only world junior cycling medallist Esow Alben is 17, the hockey teams boast a youthful look, shooters Anish Bhanwala and Manu Bhaker are just 15 and 16 respectively.
While some of these youth prospects have already made their major meet bow at Gold Coast, the competition in Jakarta and Palembang will be an opportunity for them to establish their reputation as potential champions.
Athletics and Shooting the lifelines
Not all of them may end up on the podium as like at the Commonwealth Games, some sports will have higher probability of winning medals and India’s performance in those disciplines will decide the final position the country finishes in the overall standings.
Athletics and shooting will have to be the main bankers while badminton, tennis, hockey, and kabaddi are expected to bring home the bulk of medals between them.
Athletics has always been a gold-mine for India at the Asiad with 233 of its 619 medals coming from the sport. Chopra starts off as a strong favourite in the javelin while Hima Das will have to contend with the pace of Bahrain’s Salwa Eid Naser in the 400m. Both the 4x400-metre relay teams will stand a chance, considering the depth that India have.
In the absence of Mary Kom, Jitu Rai and Yogeshwar Dutt, Seema Punia will return as the only individual gold medallist from Incheon while Muhammad Anas, Ayyasamy Dharun, Arpinder Singh, Khushbir Kaur and Swapna Barman all stand an outside chance of an upset.
The shooters will however have their task cut out as the team events, where India have won bulk of the medals, have been discontinued. In Incheon alone, five of the nine medals from the shooting range were in team events.
There are a couple of mixed team events this time around for the Indian contingent to challenge for silverware.
The shooting contingent after a strong start to the year and a successful CWG campaign, experienced a dip at next two World Cup’s World stage. But that shouldn’t matter as the team has got enough time to prepare for the Games. While old warhorses Sanjeev Rajput and Manavjit Singh Sandhu will provide experience in this contingent, Bhaker, Bhanwala, Ankur Mittal and Shreyasi Singh should win medals in their respective disciplines.
And despite the late withdrawal of Paes, the Indian team should still return with at least half a dozen medals despite the possibility of enhanced competition in singles events, which offer a Tokyo Olympics berth to the gold medallists.
Badminton returned with the women’s team bronze, their only medal from Incheon, but even with the presence of Japan and China, the contingent should be more competitive this time around. The men’s and women’s kabaddi teams start favourite while their hockey counterparts will fancy a good show, especially after the run of the women’s team to the World Cup quarters.
India's best tallies at the Asian Games
|New Delhi (1951)||15||51||2nd|
|New Delhi (1982)||13||57||5th|
Time for fringe sports to impress
Apart from these discplines, fringe sports like Wushu, sportclimbing, bridge and roller skating have a chance to present their cases as the Asian Games and Olympics are looking to expand beyond regular sport.
Sportclimbing, at the Asiad for the first time, will send 18-year-old Bharath Pereira, 16-year-old Shreya Nankar and 15-year-old Maibam Chingkheinganba to compete across two categories.
Cycling will feature the prodigious Esow Alben, silver medal winner at the junior World Championships, while India’s number one amateur Diksha Dagar will take to the course for her first and, possibly, final Asian Games as an amateur.
The meet is important in more ways than one for these sports. With the sports ministry’s 2015 diktat that only those who finished top eight in an individual category at the last Asian Games or top six for team sports can take part in 2018, their continued participation in 2022 may well be defined by their showing at these games.
Weightlifting, wrestling, boxing face challenge
There are sports which will not have it as easy as Gold Coast. The weightlifters, wrestlers and boxers will be aware of the enormity of the task in front of them.
Two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar will face an unenviable task of coming up against a packed field, filled with world medallists. Bajrang Punia will start as India’s best medal prospect in wrestling while the Greco-Roman contingent will hope to improve on their zero medals four years ago.
Only four weightlifters will head to the Asiad after the withdrawal of world champion Mirabai Chanu. Her absence from the contingent will be felt as much as that of Mary Kom’s, who won India’s only boxing gold last time around. Kazakh boxers walked away with six of the 13 golds in Incheon, and the likes of South Korea, Uzbekistan, China and Mongolia will present stiff competition.
The 11 gold in Incheon will be this contingent’s first target but how India performs in the disciplines in which it is not fancied will also be interesting to see. With lots of new faces and CWG momentum, this should be a par performance from the overall team, if not better. What is par? The last four Games have returned at least 10 gold medals, one that is within reach this time around.