Beijing: India hopes to make up for the absence of its trademark field hockey team at Beijing by providing their “best ever” finish at the Olympics.
The hockey stars, India’s flag bearers at past Olympics, despite winning the last of their eight gold medals way back in 1980, have fallen on such hard days that they failed to qualify for the first time.
But officials are confident hockey’s absence in Beijing will be made up by a promising display from other competitors like shooters, archers, boxers and tennis players. “This is our chance to prove there is more to Indian sport than just hockey or cricket,” the country’s senior Olympic official Randhir Singh said. “We are confident this could be our best ever Olympics.”
It will not take much to achieve that. India’s best Olympic performance was in Helsinki in 1952 when wrestler Khasaba Jadhav added a bronze to the hockey team’s then customary gold medal. India has just four individual medals to show for its efforts at the four-yearly Games.
The last three Games produced a medal each with tennis star Leander Paes winning a bronze at Atlanta, women’s weightlifter Karnam Malleswari a bronze in Sydney and shooter Rajyavardhan Rathore a silver at Athens.
The shooters remain the best bet in the 57-strong contingent, with Rathore hoping to relive his Athens moment of glory in the double trap.
Rifle shooters Gagan Narang and Abhinav Bindra, both among the top 10 in the world, pistol ace Samaresh Jung and trap shooter Manavjit Sandhu are also strong contenders for medals.
The seventh-ranked Narang, 25, returns to China where he won the air rifle gold medal at the World Cup in 2006 and followed that with a bronze at a similar event in April this year.
In tennis, Paes rubbished suggestions that his on-off partnership with Mahesh Bhupathi had hurt the three-time Grand Slam winners’ chances of winning a doubles medal. “We click well on court and that is half the battle won,” said Paes, 35, with whom Bhupathi won the Asian Games title in Doha in 2006 after losing the Olympic bronze medal play-off in Athens.
Paes and Bhupathi differ on most matters and reunite only to represent India at the Davis Cup, Olympics or Asian Games.
Tennis player Sania Mirza, making a comeback after a wrist surgery, faces a tough field at Beijing, but India is counting on the archers and boxers to spring surprises.
Archer Mangal Singh, picked up from a remote village by steel baron Lakshmi Mittal’s sports foundation in 2006, helped India win the men’s recurve team event in the World Cup in Turkey in May.
Boxing officials have pinned their hopes on Commonwealth Games 54kg champion Akhil Kumar and Vijender Singh, who recently beat Olympic champion Bakhtiyar Artayev of Uzbekistan.
Kumar, asked if he could win a bronze here, said, “I am not so pessimistic. A bronze comes only if gold and silver are lost. You don’t win a medal if you aim for the bronze.”