If 2018 was about the FIFA World Cup in Russia and 2019 was all about the ICC World Cup in England, next year 2020 all the attention will shift to the Japanese capital city of Tokyo.
Last time when Olympics were held in Tokyo in 1964, the best the Indian contingent could manage was one gold, courtesy the men’s hockey team.
It has been 55 years since then and a lot has changed in the sporting world, in Indian sports too. India is no longer a superpower in hockey but there are a host of other Olympic events where Indians have learnt to ply their trade.
India's best outing ever came only seven years back in London where they won 2 silver and 3 bronze.
So, when the Indian contingent lands in Tokyo in July 2020, not only will there be lot of new faces from four years ago in Rio, but also athletes who have aced their discipline in the last one or two years and are all set make their country proud at the biggest sporting platform.
Here’s a look a some world-class Indian athletes who will look to make India proud at the maiden Olympic appearance in Tokyo:
Twenty-five-year-old Bajrang Punia was unlucky to miss out on qualification during last edition of the Olympics in Rio. But in the last four years the former world number one grappler has become one of the frontrunners to win an Olympic medal for the country in Tokyo.
Bajrang has had a great run in 2019. Out of the 10 competition he has participated in, the wrestler from Jhajjar in Haryana has returned with gold in 8.
Prior to this, Bajrang had won gold medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast and Asian Games in Jakarta. He followed that with a gold at the Asian Championships but faltered at the World Championships to settle for a bronze after a controversial loss in the semi-finals.
The first Indian to be ranked number one in any category was very recently dethroned from the top spot after his disappointing World Championship campaign in Nur-Sultan earlier this year.
But in no way will this hamper Bajrang’s chances of returning with a gold medal from Tokyo. With his Georgian coach Emzarios Bentinidis, Bajrang has worked on his leg defence which cost him Gold in the 2018 edition of the Worlds.
"“There has been lot of improvement. Since the new coach has arrived my performance has improved. I am trying to make good use of all the inputs from the coach and prepare well till the Olympics.”" - Bajrang Punia to The Quint in July 2019
With Bentinidis now facilitating Bajrang’s training abroad and international sparring partners,Bajrang is likely to return with a medal in his maiden Olympics.
Manu Bhaker & Saurabh Chaudhury
India’s strongest contingent at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be the shooters, without a doubt.
A record-breaking 15 places were up for grabs for India and the shooters didn’t waste any time. A mix of youth and experience, the Indian shooting contingent won 21 gold, 6 silver and 3 bronze as the country topped all the Rifle-Pistol World Cups and Finals this year.
At the forefront of all these triumphs were consistent pair of Manu Bhaker & Saurabh Chaudhury. If the Indian contingent hit the target with monotonous regularity, these two 17-year-olds were just a step ahead.
Four golds in 10m Mixed Pistol in 2019. The duo was on a hot streak in the mixed event, which will make its debut at the Tokyo Olympics. Apart from winning gold together in New Delhi, Beijing, Munich and Rio, Manu and Saurabh also won gold and silver respectively in Putian in China in the last ISSF World Cup of 2019 but with different partners.
On a personal front, both Manu and Saurabh made headlines with their gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in 2018. Saurabh followed this with another gold at the Asian Games. The duo again won gold in individual events at the Youth Olympics in 2018.
In 2019, Saurabh won three golds in the individual event, along with an Asian Championship gold. Meanwhile, Manu’s first individual gold at the World Cup this year came in the last event in Putian.
In shooting, quotas are awarded to the country and not the athlete. So, if Manu and Saurabh are picked to participate in their individual as well as the mixed event, there is very little doubt keeping in mind their current form.
It was a great 2019 for the 20-year-old wrestler which saw him become the first Indian wrestler in 18 years to win gold at Junior World Wrestling Championships in Tallinn, Estonia.
Deepak followed World Junior Gold with a silver on his debut at the Senior World Wrestling Championships in Nur-Sultan in Kazakhstan. He was only Indian to reach the final in Nur-Sultan. But he had to withdraw from the final against Hassan Yazdani of Iran due to an injury.
Deepak’s silver was enough to clinch him a quota spot for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the 86kg category.
Continuing his phenomenal run in 2019, Deepak was named the ‘Junior Freestyle Wrestler of the Year’ and recently he also became world No 1 in the 86 kg category in world ranking.
The Wrestling Federation of India is not leaving any stones unturned to help Deepak realise his dream. 2008 Beijing Olympics silver medallist Murad Gaidarov has been roped in to work closely with Deepak till the Tokyo Olympics.
After making a dream debut at the World Championships, Deepak would be aiming for an equally memorable debut at the Olympics and there is no reason why he shouldn’t.
"“My focus is now completely on the Olympics. A medal in Tokyo will be the most satisfying thing. The target is return with a medal, only then I will be happy.”" - Deeoak Punia to The Quint.Neeraj Chopra
Ever since Neeraj Chopra made headlines in 2016, courtesy his junior world record-breaking javelin throw, there have been hopeful Indians who believe India’s search for the elusive Olympic medal in track and field would come to an end at Tokyo 2020.
So, there is no doubt that three years down the line, Neeraj continues to be among India's biggest medal hopefuls for the Tokyo Olympics. Despite the fact that he hasn’t participated in a competitive event since September 2018.
Neeraj Chopra’s throw of 86.48m as a 19-year-old in Bydgoszcz in Poland made all the right noises deservingly. It would have been good enough to win him a bronze at Rio Olympics and a gold at London Olympics.
His next big stop was the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast in Australia where he came up with a throw of 86.48 metre to become the first Indian javelin thrower to win a gold. Four months later, Neeraj bettered himself with a personal best throw of 88.06m at the Asiad, which was again good enough for a gold medal.
But that was the last time Neeraj took the field, thanks to a shoulder injury. He also missed the World Championships in September this year.
According to his German coach Uwe Hohn, Chopra would have needed to throw 92m at the World Championships in Doha and finish among the top six. But that never happened.
Hohn has set a mark of 94m for the Tokyo Olympics, which he believes would be good enough for Neeraj to win a medal. But with Neeraj’s long absence from the circuit and the threatening line-up at the Olympics is surely going to make it difficult for Neeraj, who is yet to breach the 90m-mark, unlike his closest competitors – Olympic champion Thomas Rohler, world champion Johannes Vetter and Andreas Hofmann.
But again, it is all about that one given day in Tokyo and one stunner of a throw from Neeraj and his name will be etched in the annuls for Indian sports history. Neeraj surely has the pedigree to pull off something like that.
Yet to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, Amit Panghal is confident that India will come back from Tokyo with at least two medals in boxing. And going by his current form, one of them is surely going to belong to Amit himself.
Amit won a historic silver medal this year at the World Championships in Ekaterinburg in Russia. The 23-year-old Panghal not only won his maiden Worlds medal in Russia but also was the first Indian male boxer to reach the finals of the prestigious tournament.
Fighting in the 49kg category, Amit had a great 2018 where he returned with silver and gold from the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games respectively.
Serving the Indian Army as a junior commissioned officer, the diminutive boxer changed his weight category earlier this year and successfully defended his title at Strandzha Cup in Sofia. This was followed by a gold at the Asian Boxing Championships in April.
Panghal is currently number one in the flyweight category and is busy preparing for the Asian Olympic qualifier to be held in Wuhan, China, in February 2020.
The way things stand Amit looks good to bag a quota for the Tokyo Games. And nobody would be surprised if he keeps his word and manages to achieve yet another first in Indian men’s boxing.
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