A total of 26 athletes will represent India in the track and field competition at the Olympics but the medal hopes rest on star javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra and the 4x400m mixed relay squad.
The rest will look to reach the final in their respective disciplines or improve upon their personal best. For the first time, three Indians have qualified for the 20k race walk with experienced Sandeep Kumar leading the way.
Athletics has been a focus area for Indians at the Olympics for decades and some have missed medals by a whisker. Like the late Milkha Singh, who finished fourth in 400m at the 1960 Rome Olympics, losing to Malcolm Spence of South Africa in a photo-finish, or PT Usha, who missed the bronze by 1/100th of a second in 400m hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Gurbachan Singh Randhawa also came close to winning a medal but finishing fifth in 110 metres hurdles at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
As the Olympics return to Tokyo after 57 years, the focus will be on Chopra, who recently set the national record of 88.07 during the Indian Grand Prix 3 at Patiala, and has maintained his position among the top-four javelin throwers in the world this season.
Germany’s Johannes Vetter, who hurled the spear to 96.29 metres in May and registered the top-seven distances in javelin this season, is streets ahead of the competition as none of his competitors have gone past 90 metres.
Vetter is the overwhelming favourite for the gold and the fight for the remaining medals could be between Marcin Krukowski of Poland and Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad and Tobago, who bagged gold in 2012 London Games and bronze at 2016 Rio.
While Krukowski had a throw of 89.55m last month and Walcott has produced 89.12 this season, Chopra is placed fourth on the list.
The 23-year-old from Panipat, Haryana hurled the spear to a distance of 88.78 metres, his season’s best at the Indian Grand Prix 3, and followed it up with 86.07 metres at the Kuortane Games in Finland.
He also had efforts of 83.18m in Lisbon, which fetched him gold, and a below-par 80.96m at the Karlstad Grand Prix in Sweden in June.
So, can the 23-year-old bear the burden of the mammoth expectations?
Chopra is not worried about his fluctuating form. He said that such inconsistencies have happened to Krukowski and Walcott as well. “It doesn’t matter what you have done in the past, what matters most is what you do on that particular day. That will decide your fate. I am confident that my preparation has gone well — it was not ideal as we had planned because I could not participate in many events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, I am hoping to do my best in Tokyo,” Chopra said during an interaction with the media on July 12.
Though compatriot Shivpal Singh has also qualified in the javelin throw, he is ranked 28th in the list of top performers for this season. In the women’s section, Annu Rani is 12th with an effort of 63.24m among the season’s best performers, led by Maria Andrejcxyk of Poland who has a best of 71.40m.
While the focus has been on Chopra, the 4 x 400m mixed relay team — which includes two male and two female runners — has raised hopes by qualifying for the Olympics by maintaining a top-16 ranking.
The team comprising of Muhammed Anas, VK Vismaya, Nirmal Noah and Jisna Mathew finished third in their heats, recording a time of 3:16.14 at the World Championships in Doha.
But the selectors were forced to pick a new quartet for the mixed relay due to injuries (Vismaya) and poor form. The final four for the mixed relay will pair Sarthak Bhambri and Alex Anthony with two female runners from among, Revathi Veeramani, Subha Venkatesan and Dhanalakshmi Sekar.