After a year's postponement, the Tokyo Olympics are merely a 100 days away. At this point, we take look at 10 Indians most likely to finish on the podium in Tokyo. We assess their strengths, weaknesses, and how well they have been doing across the past two years.
With 15 shooters travelling to Tokyo, much is expected of the Indian shooting contingent. The best prospect of an individual medal will be Saurabh Chaudhary in the men's 10m pistol event. Although Choudhary (WR2) is lower ranked than teammate Abhishek Verma, he is the more consistent shooter with higher qualifying scores.
Chaudhary has been easily the most consistent shooter in the world over the past two years - medalling in all but one competition he's taken part in. He's participated in four World Cups since 2019, winning 2 golds (New Delhi 2019, Munich 2019) one silver (New Delhi 2021) and one bronze (Rio de Janeiro 2019). He also won a silver at the 2019 Asian championships.
Consistency. Since competing for the first time as a senior in 2018, he's made the final of every tournament he's qualified in -- a record in itself. Even his lowest qualification score since then has been 581 (2019 World Cup Finals) which would have seen him qualify in fourth place for the finals of the 2016 Olympics.
There's no obvious weakness, and perhaps the only factor that could work against him would be his inexperience in the biggest stage -- Choudhary has never taken part in a World Championship.
Saurabh Chaudhary and Manu Bhaker
If there's anything likelier than the prospect of Saurabh Choudhary winning a medal at the Olympics, it would be the mixed team pairing of Choudhary and Manu Bhaker. The two have dominated competitions over the 2019 World Cup cycle and continued on that note at the 2021 New Delhi World Cup, too.
India have had consistent performers before, but few like Chaudhary and Bhaker. They have paired together four times -- all in World Cups -- and have won every one of them. Even when the pair were split up, they ended on the podium -- Choudhary and Yashasvi Deswal finishing second to Bhaker and Abhishek Verma at the Rio World Cup in 2019.
Most mixed teams competing at the world cup usually have one shooter who is far stronger than the other. There's always a bit more pressure on that shooter to compensate for their teammate. That's not the case for the Indian pair. Both Chaudhary and Bhaker are incredibly strong shooters individually.
With a near-perfect record, not making the top four would be considered a major upset. Their inexperience might count against them. Bhaker has sometimes struggled under pressure and there will be plenty of it at her first Olympics.
Divyansh Panwar and Elavenil Valarivan
Although she hadn't won an Olympic quota, Elavenil Valarivan was included in the Indian shooting team because she's considered one of the favourites to win a medal -- especially in the mixed team rifle event with Divyansh Panwar.
Valarivan and Panwar have only paired once - in the New Delhi World Cup last month, where they won gold. Panwar, though, has had plenty of success over the past couple of years -- winning two gold medals in 2019 when he was partnering Anjum Moudgil. He also won a World Cup bronze partnering Moudgil the same year.
Currently ranked World number 1 in the women's and men's 10m rifle event respectively, Valarivan and Panwar are individually among the strongest shooters in the world.
While Panwar rarely appears bothered by pressure, Valarivan has shown signs of struggle under pressure. Although she was averaging 631 over the last two years, she shot a sub par 626.7 and 625.3 in the individual events at home at the 2021 and 2019 New Delhi World Cups.
Yashaswini Deswal and Abhishek Verma
Abhishek Verma and Yashaswini Deswal have been overshadowed over the past couple of years by Saurabh Choudhary and Manu Bhaker, which is surprising considering the former two are ranked world number 1 in their individual events. They are fairly strong in the mixed event too, having won a silver and bronze at World Cups.
The pair have competed together twice -- both in World Cup events, winning a silver in Rio (2019) and a bronze earlier this year in New Delhi. However, both have partnered other shooters too. Verma teamed up with Bhaker to win a gold medal at the 2019 Asian Championships while Deswal had teamed up with Saurabh Choudhary to win a silver at the same event.
Much like the two other mixed teams, both Verma and Deswal are exceptionally strong individual shooters.
While consistent, Deswal's qualification scores are on the lower end. Should the Tokyo Olympics be a high scoring affair, the pair might struggle to make it to the last-four medal determining stage.
Neeraj Chopra first burst into national reckoning in 2016 when he created a new junior world record while winning the Junior World Championships. That effort of 86.28m would have placed him third at the 2016 Olympics just a couple of months before.That shows his quality.
Chopra missed all of 2019 because of injury and only took part in a single tournament in 2020 where he qualified for the Olympics with a throw of 87.86m. Although the COVID-19 crisis ensured he couldn't take part in another tournament that year, Chopra showed no signs of rust on his return to action in 2021, setting a new national record of 88.07 at the Indian GP3. That throw is the best by any athlete so far this year.
Since returning from injury, Chopra has been incredibly consistent, regularly throwing the javelin beyond the 86m mark. That consistency is significant in this sport, where most of the best in the world can produce wildly different performances. A throw of 86m will almost always qualify him to the Olympic final and anything close to his personal best will keep him in contention for a podium finish.
If everyone throws at their best, he may not make the cut. 11 of the athletes who have qualified for Tokyo have a better personal best than the Indian. However, with the cancellation of tournaments owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's likely that a lot of these throwers would be rusty heading to Tokyo.
Mirabai Chanu is well placed to become the first Indian weightlifter since Karnam Malleswari (in 2000) to win an Olympic medal. She's a former World Champion and currently the fourth ranked weightlifter in her division. Her chances of medalling, though, have got a boost with the pullout of North Korea, whose weightlifter was ranked one place higher than her.
Owing to the pandemic, Chanu didn't get a chance to compete in 2020 but she put together some strong results the previous year. The Indian recorded total lifts of 192kg at the Egats Cup, 199kg at the Asian Championships, 191kg at the Senior Commonwealth Championships, 201kg at the World Championships and 194kg at the Qatar Cup.
With the exception of two Chinese and the one North Korean lifter, Chanu is well ahead of every other weightlifter in the world. The next best total lift in 2019 was that of 193kg -- eight kgs off Chanu's best. The absence of North Korea has only made her medal prospects brighter. With China only permitted to send one lifter in the 49kg division to Tokyo, Chanu is well placed to contest for at least a silver medal. Should China skip the lightest women's division though (as they did at the 2016 Olympics), Chanu might even be in a position to push for the top step.
Chanu was well placed to finish on the podium in the Rio Games as well but returned from that tournament without recording a single lift in the clean and jerk category. But she has not let the pressure get to her in recent competitions and even if she is marginally off her best, she should still have a strong chance to medal.
Although he's amongst the most decorated wrestlers in India with three Worlds medals to his name, Bajrang will be competing in his first Olympics in Tokyo. With medals at the last two World Championships, he's considered a top prospect to finish on the podium in Tokyo, too.
Bajrang has competed in nine international tournaments since the start of 2019, medalling every time. His gold medal at the 2019 Asian Championships made him one of the favourites going into the Worlds and although hurt by a bit of poor refereeing, he still finished on the podium. The Indian stayed busy through the coronavirus pandemic, competing in minor tournaments in the U.S.. He's shown little signs of rust in 2021, winning the Matteo Pellicone tournament in Italy last month.
Bajrang's relentless pressure makes him one of the toughest contenders in the men's 65kg division. Although often conceding early leads, he invariably grinds opponents down over the course of the six minutes.
While there's little doubting his potential, Bajrang is competing in an exceptionally deep division. The men's 65kg category is stacked with talent. With two wrestlers still to qualify (including possibly 2016 Olympic champion Vladimir Khinchegashvili) the draw for Tokyo will already feature three world champions in Haji Aliyev, Takuto Otoguro and Gadzhimurad Rashidov.
Phogat is the most likely medal prospect among India's women wrestlers and will be looking to make happier memories in Tokyo than at her debut Olympics in Rio, where she picked up a serious injury. Although the Indian's talent was never in doubt, she finally proved herself in elite company with a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships.
Phogat has been competing regularly over the last couple of years. She's had a fair bit of success too, medalling in every one of the 10 tournaments she's competed in. Although the 2019 Worlds bronze was probably her most memorable result, Phogat has put up strong performances more recently as well, pinning former world champion and reigning European champ Vanessa Kaladzinskay to win the Outstanding Ukrainian Wrestlers and Coaches Memorial in Kyiv.
Phogat's draw will be weakened in the absence of world champion Pak Yong-Mi of North Korea. She's also beaten many of the top contenders who will be competing in Tokyo, including Sofia Mattson, Maria Prevolaraki and two-time world champion Vanessa Kaladzinskaya.
If there is one wrestler who has troubled Phogat it is Japan's Mayu Mukaida. The Indian has lost three times to the Japanese wrestler, although she's come closer to turning things around with every contest. Additional challenges are likely to come from China's Qianyu Pang and the unknown factor that is USA's world champion in the women's 55kg division, Jacara Winchester.
Silver medalist from Rio, PV Sindhu will be hoping to go all the way in Tokyo. Although she's not had the most consistent run over the past couple of years, her victory at the 2019 World Championships is proof that the 25-year-old Indian is still amongst the best in the world.
Despite 2019 being the year she was crowned world champion, Sindhu would admit she had struggled for the most part as her record of 30-17 would suggest. However, she's shown signs of finding some form in 2021, reaching the final of the Swiss Open and beating former World No.1 Akane Yamaguchi to reach the semifinals at the All England.
Sindhu isn't someone who would be too concerned about her lack of recent success. Back in 2015, a year before she won a silver at Rio, Sindhu had a record of 40-19. Indeed, her record in 2016 prior to the Olympics was a dismal 23-13. Coaches who have worked with the Indian reckon she's someone who peaks for the major events.
Sindhu's world title would always be coloured by the fact that she won it in the absence of Carolina Marin (who was out injured). Since the Spaniard's return, Sindhu has yet to beat her. Their most recent encounter saw the Indian lose 21-12 21-5.
Indian men's hockey team
Despite their strong history in the sport, India have routinely flattered to deceive in the Olympics since their last gold medal at the 1980 Games. Going into the tournament on the back of some strong performances though, the team might have a good chance to medal in Tokyo.
India have enjoyed a fair bit of success over the past couple of years, the most crucial of which were the two wins over Russia that enabled them to qualify for the Olympics. In the 2020 FIH Pro League, India picked up two wins over world no.4 Netherlands, and drew 1-1 against world no.1 Belgium and world no.2 Australia. This month, India have twice beaten defending Olympic champions Argentina in the same tournament.
India are currently world no.5, a ranking justified by their recent results. Going by their performances, they are very likely to advance out of their group that comprises Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Spain. With the exception of Spain, who India have not faced over the last two years, India have beaten every other team at least once since 2019.
Although India have beaten higher ranked teams in the Pro League, it remains to be seen how they perform under the pressure of the Olympics. Even at the 2018 World Cup, India appeared to be in fine touch, holding Olympic silver medallists Belgium to a draw in the group stage but then conceded a late goal to go down to the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.