Abhinav Bindra believes the pandemic edition of the Olympics will belong to athletes who can adapt swiftly, overcome moments of crisis and remain detached from outcomes. Speaking at 'Talking Tokyo', ESPN.in's round-table discussion on the Tokyo Olympics, which begin on July 23, India's only individual Olympic gold medallist Bindra hoped that this time 'plenty' of Indian athletes will join him in the distinction.
"The only thing I'd say to athletes is remain focused in the present, don't look too far ahead, certainly don't look back and remain detached from the outcome," Bindra said.
"The Games are happening in exceptional circumstances in Tokyo, and you have to remain open minded and adapt to situations. There maybe a crisis in the middle of a competition and it will be about overcoming those critical moments that could go either way. The boys and girls who adapt to them faster can get out of them sooner and have the best possible chance to get the best out of the crisis."
Bindra spoke about India's chances in the shooting mixed team events, which will be making their Olympic debuts this time. "In the mixed events, I think we have an incredible chance," he said. "There could be a scenario where two Indian teams are going up against each other in a gold medal match. Of course it would be a fantastic result for India, even if it is boring for sports fans in general. I read a news agency report which said India is likely to win 21 medals. Even if we win half of that, I'll be happy."
This Games is projected to be India's best-ever showing, with a strong chance of improving upon the country's biggest medal haul so far - six - in London 2012, by a fair distance. In April this year, data firm Gracenote forecasted a rich harvest of 17 medals - four gold, five silver and eight bronze for India at the delayed Tokyo Olympics.
"I grew up in a generation when we were written off and as an athlete I wasn't too optimistic. I first began shooting under a mango tree, but today's athletes start out at world-class arenas. This is a generation that has self-belief and it comes from the society and the exposure they've gained," Bindra added.
The discussion on Monday was moderated by ESPN India assistant editor Debayan Sen and senior journalist Sharda Ugra. It was also attended by two-time Olympian and former badminton player Aparna Popat, Straits Times assistant sports editor Rohit Brijnath, former India hockey captain and director and CEO, Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), Viren Rasquinha, and GoSports Foundation managing trustee Nandan Kamath. Both nonprofits, OGQ and GoSports, have been putting in concerted efforts together with federations and private sponsors to keep Olympic athletes ticking through the Games cycle and particularly a year's halt due to the Coronavirus.
The months away from tournaments, Popat believes, has allowed overextended badminton players an opportunity to recoup and work on their games and bodies. This time, she said, India's biggest name at this Games, Rio Olympic silver medallist PV Sindhu, is in with a bright chance for a second consecutive podium finish. "Sindhu is certainly up there, among possibly the all-time sporting greats for us. She's in great form and I think she can make it two medals in a row," said Popat.
"We will be travelling a bit light and will miss Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth. A part of the reason is because of how the pandemic situation impacted qualifying tournaments. On the bright side, these months have been a break from the mandatory 12 tournaments and it's allowed players who've qualified to recoup. I think they're fighting fit."
In hockey, Rasquinha said the big difference in the men's game this time is the lack of clear favourites. "Australia and Germany are not as strong as they used to be," he said. "India is in a tough pool, so the first task would be to make their way out of it. They have in recent times beaten all the top teams, so that's definitely a good sign.
"For the women, the major change when you compare them to our earlier teams is in their strength and conditioning and fearless attitude. They've shown courage and their ability to take on top teams physically and hang in has been impressive. They too have a tough pool and have to aim to make the quarterfinals."
The growing number of COVID-19 cases at the Games village - with reports of a female USA gymnast and a member of the men's Czech beach volleyball team testing positive on Monday -- raises fears of a cluster four days ahead of the Olympics. Indian athletes began arriving in Tokyo over the weekend, posting panoramic views from their apartment windows of flag-lined, quiet streets at the Village. This Games, about to take place in extraordinary circumstances, Kamath offers, is almost a tribute to the spirit of jugaad (improvisation). "It's also how our athletes trained through the whole of last year, dealing with ambiguity with jugaad and being resourceful with what they have. We've had to give athletes very clear training, kits and briefing of rules since this Games is going to be very different."
Brijnath, who will be travelling for his sixth Games, agrees that the Tokyo Olympics, robbed of fans and limited in access, will be far removed from his previous experiences. His most enduring Olympic memory is Leander Paes' bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games. "After Leander won the bronze, there was a small reception for Indians and I remember people going up to him to touch the medal. It was India's first individual medal in 44 years and up until then, we'd never seen a medal. It was a very moving moment and that's when I understood the value of an Olympic medal."