India's campaign for excellence in the Paris Olympic Games next year faces some crucial tests starting from Saturday when the 19th Asian Games officially kick off in Hangzhou, China.
India has set itself an ambitious target of achieving medals in double digits for the first time in the Paris Olympic Games in 2024 and the 19th Asian Games not only present an opportunity to assess the preparation of its athletes but also provide Olympic qualification quotas in some sports.Postponed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic that swept across China last year, the 2022 Asian Games are being conducted within the qualifying period for Olympic Games in all sports and thus provide opportunities for sportspersons to book their berths to France.
Indian sportspersons in many sports including men's and women's hockey, table tennis and boxing will get a chance to qualify for the Olympics at Hangzhou.
With the Central Government pumping in huge sums to fulfil its dream of Olympic excellence, India is expecting to achieve its best-ever medal haul in the Asian Games at Hangzhou. India's previous best medal haul in the Continental Jamboree has been the 70 medals bagged in Indonesia four years back in 2018.
Its campaign spearheaded by the likes of Olympic and World Championship gold medallist javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, two-time World Champion boxer Nikhat Zareen, Olympic bronze medallist boxer Lovlina Borgohain, men's doubles tennis legend Rohan Bopanna, chess champs Koneru Humpy, D Gukesh, R Praggnanandhaa, two-time Olympic medallist PV Sindhu in badminton and table tennis legend Achanta Sharath Kamal, India go into the Hangzhou Asian Games in bullish mood, hoping to challenge the Asian superpowers China, Japan, South Korea and Iran and finish fifth or above.
Besides hoping to win its first gold medal since 2014, the Indian men's hockey team will be hoping to clinch a direct berth in the Paris Olympics by winning the gold medal in Hangzhou. The women's hockey team led by goalkeeper Savita Punia has landed in China to not only clinch its berth for Paris 2024 but also bag its first gold medal in the Asian Games since 1982 when women's hockey made its debut in the continental extravaganza.
The women's hockey team led by Rajbir Kaur won the title at home in New Delhi and since then India have claimed silver medal twice -- in 1998 and 2018 -- and bronze medal thrice -- in 1986, 2006 and 2014. The team has finished fourth on four occasions.
Overall India have won 671 medals in the 19 editions of the Asian Games so far -- 155 gold, 200 silver and 316 bronze medals. The Ministry of Youth Affairs, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) are hoping to add a substantial chunk of medals to the kitty at Hangzhou and maybe cross the 100-medal mark. Though that may look like a tall order considering the country's best effort so far has been 70 in 2018, it does not sound like an impossible target considering the recent performances by the Indian sportspersons in recent times and the new sports that have been added to the programme here at Hangzhou.
India hopes to garner most of its medals from athletics, its bread-and-butter sport at the Asian level, shooting, boxing, wrestling, tennis, rowing and sailing.
With esports making its debut as a medal sport in Hangzhou and chess returning to the Games for the first time since 2010, India will also be hoping to bag some medals in badminton, squash, table tennis, taekwondo, judo, wushu and equestrian.
The country has sent in a huge Contingent of 921 which includes 655 athletes and 260 coaches and support staff.
Competitions have already started in men's and women's football, sailing, rowing, cricket, table tennis, volleyball and beach volleyball. The medal hunt will start on September 24, the day after the Games are officially declared open, with shooters providing the first medal for
Another reason for aiming for a rich medal haul at Hangzhou is that India hopes to organise the Asian Games for the third time in the next few years. A rich medal haul at Hangzhou will also boost the country's image and get support for hosting the event for the third time after 1951 and 1982.
Can Hangzhou be a stepping stone for Indian sports on way to excelling at Paris 2024 and organising the Asian Games soon? The result will be out on October 8, when the 19th Asian Games will come to a close.