Looking ahead to Indian sports in 2016

As a new season of hope unfolds, Indian sports is poised for another leap, in the Rio Olympics.

Leander Paes triggered the Indian Olympic revival with the individual tennis bronze becoming the first Indian to win an individual medal since KD Jadhav won bronze in wrestling at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.   -  PTI

As a new season of hope unfolds, Indian sports is poised for another leap, in the Rio Olympics.

Leander Paes who had triggered the Olympic revival with the individual tennis bronze, against much superior ranked opponents in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, is set to compete in his seventh successive Olympics. The hope of a second Olympic medal, which wrestler Sushil Kumar was able to win with such a flourish, a silver in the London Games after the bronze in Beijing, is still burning bright in the heart of Paes, despite the heart wrenching losses.

It is a mystery of Indian sports that the 42-year-old Paes is bound to go through anxious moments in his bid to have the best partner for men’s doubles and mixed doubles. The focus will be to stay in the top-10 of world rankings, and possibly have the choice of a partner. It is easier said than done.

Having been given a taste of team competition and mixed doubles as early as the Busan Asian Games in 2002 when she won the bronze with Paes even before celebrating her 16th birthday, Sania Mirza has made phenomenal progress, winning tons of medals and accolades, to having a long and distinguished run as the World No.1 in women’s doubles.

After not getting to play with Mahesh Bhupathi with whom she had won two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, in the London Games, it is expected that the 29-year-old Sania will have her say this time.

For sure, it is not just going to be the story of Paes, Sania and Rohan Bopanna in Rio. There is likely to be Yuki Bhambri and the women’s doubles partner of Sania, a spot for which there is already a separate race in progress.

Another distinguished woman athlete, badminton ace Saina Nehwal, who also became world No.1 apart from making it to the finals of the prestigious All England championship and the World Championship should have her say, in her attempt to add to the fortuitous bronze won in London.

Indian badminton has been robust. PV Sindhu has been beating the best, winning two World Championship medals and together with the likes of P. Kashyap and K. Srikanth, not to forget Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa, should be able to aspire for the medal rounds in the Rio.

Still, no sport has been as strong as Indian shooting, on all the big platforms around the world. From Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore winning the silver in double trap in Athens, to Abhinav Bindra winning the most elusive individual gold in air rifle in the Beijing Games, to the most recent Vijay Kumar’s fairy tale silver in London, apart from Gagan Narang re-establishing his credentials with air rifle bronze and Joydeep Karmakar’s fascinating journey to the fourth place in rifle prone event, Indian shooting has delivered big time with commendable assurance.

While Vijay Kumar is struggling to recapture his magic of yore towards gaining qualification for Rio after a neck surgery, champions of the calibre of Abhinav Bindra and Gagan Narang will be joined, by the unassuming Jitu Rai, who has already given a fair hint of his prowess with a World Championship silver and the Asian Games gold, apart from a flurry of other world class medals.

Apurvi Chandela winning the World Cup Final silver recently has rekindled hopes of medals in women’s air rifle in which Anjali Bhagwat and Suma Shirur had made Olympic finals.

Other capable shooters likes Heena Sidhu and Rahi Sarnobat, not to forget the much accomplished Ronjan Sodhi and former World Champion Manavjit Singh Sandhu, are still in the process of winning the Olympic quota place. Meanwhile, shooters like Gurpreet Singh, Prakash Nanjappa, Chain Singh and Mairaj Ahmad Khan have gained qualification from World Cups and World Championships.

More shooters will enhance better medal chances for the Indian contingent, as the qualification procedure is the most stringent in shooting in which only 390 athletes make it from about 200 countries to fight for 15 gold medals.

Will Sushil Kumar make it to the Olympics yet again and look for the gold? Will boxer Mary Kom or for that matter Sarita Devi, fight for a medal in Rio? Will we get to see Yogeshwar Dutt twirling his opponent by his legs, or one of the young boxers donning the legacy of Vijender Singh and win an Olympic medal.

The biggest question, of course, will be whether Indian archery will deliver a medal that it had promised as early as 1992 in Barcelona, through Limba Ram. The accomplished Deepika Kumari and a host of other Indian women and some men have matured to be world class on a regular basis. They will need the best guidance to realise their potential on the biggest platform that sport has to offer.

The Russian dope expose has strengthened our belief that long jumper Anju Bobby George was denied a medal in Athens. At times, rules stop us from rectifying errors and rewriting history.

It will be up to someone of the calibre of discus thrower Vikas Gowda, with rich experience in the Olympics and World Championships, to further reduce the space between the Indian aspirations and an Olympic medal in athletics. Tintu Luka and Inderjeet Singh will also attempt to prove that they can match Gowda with performances on the big stage.

Of course, there is a lot more to Indian sports than performances in the Olympics. It will be interesting to see five-time World chess champion Viswanathan Anand negotiate another route to be the Challenger for Magnus Carlsen. And also see how many world titles cue artist Pankaj Advani adds to his already bulging collection.