Every time there is a discussion on Tokyo Olympics with former athletes, administrators or even coaches, the one question that gets invariably asked around is: How many medals will India win at the 2020 Games?
The frequency of this question will only increase with each passing day with exactly a year left for the quadrennial event. The last time Sports Authority of India decided to take this question seriously and actually made projections for a possible medal count in Rio Olympics six months before the Games, they pegged that number between 10-14, only for the 120-member strong contingent to return with just a silver and bronze.
Gracenote Sports, which provides statistical analysis for sports leagues around the world, has projected 14 medals for India including one gold on current data in their virtual medals table.
But all those who have followed Indian sports over years will tell you that these are still early days to predict a medal count for India.
As things stand, India is currently assured of seven spots in shooting, three in men’s archery and one in athletics through KT Irfan. While a few more athletes have managed to clock a timing better than the qualifying mark, their Olympic berth would depend on their overall ranking at the end of the qualification period.
The qualification process for most sports would go on till a few months before the Games and only then can a real assessment of medal prospects be made.
But with a year to go for the Games, the real question to ask is whether we are gearing up well for Destination Tokyo. And we are not talking about winning medals here but ensuring that every athlete qualifying for the Games peaks at the right time to come up with his or her best performance.
Shooting probably looks the most assured in this regard. But that was also the case before the Rio Games when the likes of Jitu Rai and Heena Sidhu had been performing exceptionally well in the run-up to the event. But they lacked the tunnel vision required to peak in Brazil and India paid the price for lack of preparation.
In contrast, PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik weren’t really in the best form four months before the Games but managed to raise the bar when it mattered the most to return with medals.
Given the high standard of competition within the country and the selection process that is based on tabulating performances in trials and other tournaments to look at consistency, even the players who have earned quotas for the country would be more worried about peaking at most of these events to cement their place than work on their flaws and chart out a plan for Tokyo.
It is probably similar to taking multiple detours on the way when you should be looking to chart out the fastest possible path to your destination.
Among the other sports in which Indians have done well in the last few editions, badminton qualification would continue till April next year and like chief coach Pullela Gopichand has said, the build-up to the Games may start now but the specific preparation would happen only in the last three months.
The situation in hockey is much more complex with the men’s and women’s teams still not assured of an Olympic berth, which now hinges on a two-leg match in October-November 2019. In the run-up to the qualifiers, both the Indian teams won their respective Hockey Series Finals but those events were hardly a test of their progress.
Surprisingly, the Indian teams are not likely to play any top nations to prepare for the qualifiers and talks of groupism in the men’s squad are already rearing their ugly head. The women’s team seems far more settled but a lot will depend on the draw for the qualifiers for them.
The boxers and wrestlers have been coming up with some impressive performances in international competitions in the past few months but the real challenge for them would be the world championships.
The wrestling world championship in Kazakhstan would be the first time India’s best medal prospects – Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat – will compete against all the contenders in their respective categories and it would be interesting to see where they stand thereafter.
On the other hand, the boxing world championship has been stripped of the Olympic qualifier status after the International Olympic Committee decided to suspend AIBA. This means that the players would have to maintain their focus and motivation for another six months before the qualifiers start as some top boxers from other countries may not make the trip for the worlds.
The focus of most other sports from hereon would be to ensure that a maximum number of their players qualify for the Games. Athletics Federation of India’s High Performance Director Volker Herrmann has set a target of qualifying 25-30 athletes for Tokyo Games but even that looks a distant dream given the current level of performance of the top athletes.
Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, arguably India’s best medal hope on the basis of his performance in last two years, has been out injured and it would be interesting to see how well he holds up after his return. Among the other big names, Hima Das is still finding her way after the back injury despite the five gold medals in European competition while the likes of Dutee Chand, Vismaya and others are nowhere near world standards.
India’s other star performer in Rio, gymnast Dipa Karmakar, is still nursing a knee injury and it would be difficult for her to even make it to Tokyo with the new qualification process let alone challenge for a medal.
Under these circumstances, all we can do as Indian sports fans is to cheer every improvement and probably stop asking how many medals we can win in Tokyo for now. We need to get to the starting line before we can even start dreaming of medals.