Dream-catchers. Heart-stoppers. Medal winners.
You can be one without being the other. Dipa Karmakar taught us all about it four years ago. It didn't matter that the first female Indian gymnast to compete in an Olympic Games finished fourth. Between her first vault, Zamolodchikova and the next -- women gymnastics' toughest act -- Produnova, we cheered, sobbed and forgot to breathe.
In a year leading up to the Games, it's tempting to talk up every sprint, run or throw, and prop its makers as the certain hopes who'll shoulder glory, pride and bling. Of course, we love our medals. Almost as much as we adore our mission to the Mars or the Moon. But the Olympics is a different beast. Its spectacular, imposing stage can turn past performances and pedigree into nothingness.
In a year from today, Tokyo (who're turning robots into Games mascots and field support for throwing events) will be bustling with the nervous energy of a gazillion athletes from around the world, towing alongside coaches with a watch-tapping tic. This will also be India's chance, still embarrassingly tied in medal count, 28, with former American swimmer Michael Phelps, to get ahead. We're dead certain to breach our Rio two-medal count, and topping London 2012's six-medal tally will be nothing short of sassy.
ESPN looks at five prospective Indian athletes who hold the promise of a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
He's almost everything you're looking for in a medal contender. Ranked No. 1 in the world (the first Indian to do so across any weight category), Punia won eight gold medals over his last nine tournaments and his fitness levels haven't flagged. You name it, he's medalled in it - Asian Games (1 gold, 1 silver), Commonwealth Games (1 gold, 1 silver), Asian Championships (2 gold, 1 silver, 2 bronze), World Championships (1 silver, 1 bronze). Next, he has mentor and Olympic bronze medalist Yogeshwar Dutt's tough act to follow. The upcoming World Championships in Kazakhstan on September 14, which will serve as a qualifier to the Tokyo Games, is what Punia should be obsessing over right now.
Amid the gold rush, the 25 year-old Indian faced two surprise defeats against younger opponents - Takuto Otoguro and Yianni Diakomihalis at the 2018 World Championships and the Madison Square Garden this year, respectively. It turned Otoguro, at 19 years and 10 months, into the youngest male wrestler in the history of his country to medal at the World Championships, among Japan's brightest Olympic hopes in the sport and Punia's challengers. The losses also ripped open some flaws in the Indian's technique. Together with Georgian coach Emzarios Bentinidis, he's been working on sewing them back together - primarily, his leg defence and not throwing himself open to takedowns with his attacking stance. Bentinidis' presence has also helped him find willing sparring partners abroad, an aspect he's struggled with in the past. The results are tangible. Punia's medal expedition has gone from impressive to relentless and the Tokyo dream now glows on that horizon.
Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary
10m mixed pistol, shooting
Three World Cup gold medals in four months. The teenaged pair have been on a savage streak in the mixed event, which makes its debut at the Olympics next year. In 2016, the Abhinav Bindra-led ISSF committee's decision to scrap the 50m men's pistol event in favor of the 10m mixed pistol event faced flak from senior Indian shooters for killing off a prospective medal event. It's, however, turned out to be a medal mine. Bhaker missed a bronze by 0.1 of a point in the 25m pistol at the ISSF Munich World Cup in May this year, but the fourth-placed finish was enough to fetch her an Olympic quota. India topped the tally at that World Cup with five gold medals and a silver for a best-ever showing. Two of the gold medals and the silver were won in the mixed event.
Unlike Bhaker, Chaudhary could brag that he earned his 10m pistol event quota with greater flourish - a then world record score (245.0) and a gold medal on his senior debut at the ISSF New Delhi World Cup in February. In shooting, quota places go to the country, not the athlete. Should Chaudhary and Bhaker, whose rapid ascension in the sport was marked by 2018 Asian and Commonwealth Games medals, be picked they will be able to participate in both their individual as well as the mixed event. The 17-year olds, who skipped through life and knew nothing about holding 4.5mm caliber pistols or firing lead pellets at 10m targets around the time of the Rio Olympics four years ago, suddenly find themselves thrust under the arc-lights as medal hopefuls. They could twitch or hit the 0.5mm tenth ring.
Moving up weight categories (from 48kg to 49 kg) and injury - Mirabai Chanu has had to deal with change and pain in equal measure over the past year. An unexplained lower back pain struck her right after her gold medal showing at the Commonwealth Games last year, forcing her to skip both the Asian Games and World Championships. She returned after a nine-month layoff with a gold medal at the EGAT Cup in Thailand in March this year. Despite her personal best lift of 199 kg (86kg +113 kg), she lost out to China's Zhang Rong who had a higher clean and jerk result at the Asian Championships, narrowly missing a medal. A gold medal at the Commonwealth Championships earlier this month would offer some swift solace.
Her toughest and most real test though would lie in the World Championships in September. The gold medal lift at that competition stands at 209 kgs, 10 kgs above her personal best. She's set herself a 202-kg-plus target, has admittedly lifted 203 kgs in training, and would want to push for a 210-kg mark in time for Tokyo.
You cannot not believe in her. The Sindhu of today is a vastly improved player than the one that turned up at Rio and blinked back tears wearing a silver medal. Her ominous touch - namely, assured retrieving and brilliant variations - was in full display last week in the run-up to the Indonesia finals. The drop-flicks from the middle of the court and cross-court smashes, both half and full-throttle ones, were a thing of beauty. Yes, she may not have made all the finals we'd hoped for or titles we'd want, but in a pre-Olympic year, she'd rather count on a greater blessing: fitness. The world No. 5-ranked Indian only knows too well why. During the Indonesia Masters final against Saina Nehwal in January this year, Carolina Marin ruptured the ACL on her right knee. Six months since, the gold medallist at the previous Games is yet to get back on court and remains uncertain to recuperate in time for the World Championships in September.
Before she can get to the medal entrée, Sindhu has a lot on her plate - a marauding Akane Yamaguchi, who crept up on her with a fast-paced game at last week's Indonesia Open finals, the spectacularly consistent world No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying, who has won 19 of the 24 tournament finals she's appeared in since the start of the 2016 and the hello-endless-rallies opponent in Nozomi Okuhara. For all the silver stuck to her name, Sindhu would want to make a scramble for gold. We'd jump at either.
From a guy trying to cut flab at a Panipat gym, Neeraj Chopra has hurled himself a long way. He's converted fatalists, who'd sneer at the possibility of a track and field Indian Olympic medal for India, into believers. But the Asian and Commonwealth Games gold medalist himself had a turn of fate to contend with at the start of the year. A right elbow injury (on his throwing arm) followed by surgery in March has kept him away from competitions since. His last appearance at an event was the Inter-Services Championship in September last year where he finished with gold.
The original plan, chalked out by coach Uwe Hohn, was to have Chopra throw 92m (Olympic qualifying mark stands at 85m) at the September World Championships in Doha, finish among the top six and go for a 94-m distance and a medal in Tokyo. The field is a threatening one. In the first leg of the Diamond League series in May last year, all the top three finishers -- Olympic champion Thomas Rohler, world champion Johannes Vetter and Andreas Hofmann -- breached the 90m mark. It's not among the most run-of-the-mill occurrences. However, Chopra's personal best -- and the national record -- stands at 88.06m, a mark that fetched him a gold at the Asian Games.
He's currently placed ninth in the IAAF world rankings (which will constitute 50 per cent of athlete qualification for the 2020 Games, the other half being made up of athletes who meet minimum standard recorded at competitions between 1 May, 2019 and 29 June, 2020). His personal best mark could have had him miss a silver (Julius Yego took it for a 88.24m effort) but was good enough to fetch a bronze in Rio (Trininad and Tobago's Keshorn Walcott won for a 85.38m throw). Now, it's a battle of the 90s. Unless he has an utterly horrific day, Chopra is certain to make the 12-man final in Tokyo. From there, personal bests could wither, tested world champions could spectacularly fall apart and it could be just about anyone's fight. It's where Chopra will find his game and a silver or a bronze in the reckoning.