Asian Games 2018: Focus on young stars as Indian contingent seeks to improve upon Incheon haul at Indonesia event

The Indian team’s travel kit was not the only thing that Sushil Kumar was not wearing as he waited to complete immigration and security at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. There was no hint of any complacency or arrogance that many may excuse the two-time Olympic medallist, easily one of India’s biggest sporting heroes.

Sushil Kumar did not look the 35 years as he prepared to board the flight to Singapore en route Jakarta. Unruffled by the negativity around his decision to train away from the national camp in Sonepat, he looked confident that his preparation was up to scratch and that he can bank on his fitness to win in the 74kg class at the upcoming event to add to the 66kg bronze he won in Doha in 2006.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Of course, he had not heard about Leander Paes’ decision to withdraw from the Asian Games team at the last moment. But the tennis legend’s action has left Sushil as one of the most experienced hands in the Indian contingent of around 570 athletes. There is no doubt that he will look to sign off from Asian Games in great style, leading India to a rich haul of medals.

Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president Narinder Batra has set the bar of expectations by saying that the contingent would return home with 65 to 70 medals. Indeed, India will be expecting medals in more than a dozen different sports as it seeks to improve its 37-medal collection that it had at Incheon four years ago.

If world rankings and form are any indication, the men and women’s hockey teams should both end up on top of the podium. Of course, there is so little room for error in any sport at this level, and hockey is no exception. The men’s team will not forget the competition that Pakistan presented in the FIH Champions Trophy in Breda, while the women will be aware that China and Korea can always mount stiff challenges.

Despite Iran’s rise as a competitive team, India’s kabaddi sides can be expected to keep winning. There has been some not too complimentary conversation about the selection of the teams, but India could retain its grip over both gold medals. Curiously, the players may find playing a trial match in Delhi after the Games — as ordained by the Delhi High Court — a bit more challenging.

Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra has been installed by not a few as a firm favourite for gold in Jakarta, while experienced boxers like Vikas Krishan and wrestler Vinesh Phogat will be among those hoping that the luck of the draw does not go against them in the early rounds.

Of course, the expectations from badminton star PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal to overcome the Japanese and Chinese challenge in women’s singles are also high. The compound archery teams can also make their presence felt, while Dattu Baban Bhokanal is expected to lead the rowing team’s surge to get more medals than the three bronze it managed in the Incheon Games.

There are a number of teenagers in the Indian contingent who can hold India’s banner aloft over the next few years. And it would be interesting to see how they cope with their maiden Asian Games experience. If they can handle this challenge well and emerge with their feet on ground, it will set them up nicely to compete with the best over a number of years.

The wise will insist that it is unfair to pile the pressure of expectations on the likes of pistol shooters Manu Bhaker and Anish Bhanwala, 10m air rifle shooter Elavenil Valarivan, 400m sprinter Hima Das, the talented second-generation badminton player Gayatri Gopichand, backstroke swimming specialist Srihari Nataraj and hockey striker Dilpreet Singh.

Yet, the Asian Games is a very important milestone in their evolution as world-class competitors. Each of these teenagers has earned his or her place in the Indian contingent with displays of class and consistency. They have already caught the imagination of the country’s sports fans and it is crucial that they familiarise themselves with the pressures that attention can bring along.

It will be no surprise if the national sports federations — at least the ones that have their vision and purpose right — and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) will be watching the young talent with eagle eyes to see if they have secured the future as well. Their performance will go a long way in confirming that India has fine-tuned its method of spotting and nurturing talent.

It has always been believed — perhaps a bit unfairly — that much of the talent surfaces despite the system and not because of the system. To my mind, it is a misconception that has been kept alive by many without basis in fact. There are a lot of Indian athletes who have drawn from National Sports Development Fund (and its more recent offspring Target Olympic Podium Scheme).

Undoubtedly, India has enhanced its methods over the past few years, especially in helping the young hone their talent. The enormous support that Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports rolls out in hosting training camps at SAI Centres — and in encouraging athletes find the right training for themselves overseas — has to be acknowledged.

It is just as well that most have already had a taste of being part of multi-discipline events at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast this year. Yet, their coaches and mentors will have sensitised them to the fact that the Asian Games will be a very different ballgame altogether, especially in shooting and badminton where the standard is higher in the continent than in the Commonwealth.

It is a pity that the youngsters in the Games Village in Palembang will miss out on picking Paes’ brains. His decision to pull out of the Games, apparently made in a huff after not being given a doubles partner of his choice, will leave the youngsters in the contingent no chance of spending evenings with him, listening to tales of valour and grit, pride and determination.

The Asian Games 2018 may well be their opportunity to script their own such stories.

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Updated Date: Aug 17, 2018 23:06:18 IST

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