The athletics and track and field events at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 are slated to begin on 30 July, and India will have a 26-athlete contingent participating in the competition.
By now, several sports have already begun proceedings at the Games, and of those sports, a few have already had their medal events. With just the one medal to India's name so far, there's massive pressure to perform on the shoulders of the track and field athletes, said former Olympian Anju Bobby George in an interaction with journalists on Thursday (29 July).
"Athletics always comes towards the end of the Olympics, and it definitely has an effect on the athletes. Like now, Mirabai Chanu has won a medal, and she's already back in India, but the athletics team is still yet to begin. They will probably have a bit more pressure now," said Anju.
"Personally, in 2004, when Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won a medal, I hadn't started competing yet. I had a lot of pressure on my shoulders, because he had already won. That pressure is beyond imagination, honestly, but as athletes, you just have to cope with it," she added.
When asked about what her thoughts were on India's performance so far in the early days of the Olympics, Anju said, "we expected a lot from wrestling, shooting and archery. Wrestling has not begun and the archers are doing well enough. But this time, despite doing well at shooting World Cup, when the real competition came around, it was a bit of a disappointment."
Mirabai Chanu became only the second Indian weightlifter to win an Olympic medal. AP
"So far we've got only one medal, which is Mirabai Chanu's silver. Still, we have a few more big hopes left. In boxing, there's Mary Kom and then in badminton, of course, PV Sindhu's still in the competition. We were maybe expecting a double-digit return, but at the moment it doesn't look like that will happen, so we're quite sad about that. Still, there's some time left," she added.
A lack of exposure to competition
While there's a lot of buzz around the athletics contingent, India has a decades-long history of narrow misses in the sport that they will have to overcome, with not a single Indian having ever won an Olympic medal in athletics. Anju stated that this inability to compete with the best of the best on the biggest stage in the world is down to a lack of exposure to top-level competition. "Athletes are able to go abroad, and train anywhere they want, thanks to support from the government. In spite of this, the problem is that most of our athletes are not interested in competing with top-level competitors," she said.
"It's possible for them to compete in Grand Prix competitions, but most of them just believe in training, and not in competing at the top-level. That exposure to tough competition is missing, which is why they don't do so well when it's most needed. We're throwing well, we're running fast and we're jumping high, but we're failing to do it at the top level. If we look at top athletes in other countries, they're always competing at the top level," she added.
Giving an example of her own preparation process for the 2004 Olympics, where she finished fifth in the long jump with an effort of 6.83m, Anju said, "when I was competing, in 2004, I did almost 16 events before the Olympic finals. I had experience then, and I think that's something that the current athletes are missing."
Anju stated that this advice was also applicable to younger, less accomplished athletes who were not eligible for top-level competitions, saying, "for lesser-ranking athletes, there are a number of B-level competitions as well. Athletes need to compete in these tournaments and work their way up the ladder towards the best competitions. We need to prepare well in advance, decide what competitions we're going to perform in and then go and do it.
Potential medal prospects
Anju spoke about a couple of potential medalists from track and field, saying, "Neeraj is World No 4, and he has a good chance to win a medal. I'm not saying he'll definitely finish first or second or even third, but I think that he has a good shot at a medal. As for Kamalpreet Kaur, with 66m, that should be enough to get into the finals of the discuss throw. In the finals, if she can come up with her best, she can be in the top six and in contention for medals."