India at the Olympics: Women do the nation proud at Rio 2016

India’s women made the nation proud by returning with two medals.

The 2016 Olympics at Rio was a watershed one for India as for the first time in Olympic history, their medal haul was enriched only by its female athletes with PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik claiming historic podiums on their Games debut.

The two medals were the only returns for India at Rio 2016 among 117 athletes, its largest contingent for any single Olympics, ensuring that the nation did not return empty-handed for the first time since Barcelona 1992. It was a scare that looked very much possible until the last few days of the Games.

Some other athletes did come close, reaching the semi-finals or quarter-finals, narrowly missing out on the podium.

The medalists

India’s first medal at Rio 2016 came through the unfancied Sakshi Malik, a youngster who was not in contention for the Olympics until very late when the famed Geeta Phogat could not quite nail down a quota.

Even then, Vinesh Phogat was the one Indian wrestler among the women who everyone had trained their gazes on but when she walked off injured in a heart-wrenching debut, up stepped Sakshi Malik in the 58kg.

Sakshi MALIK (IND) df. Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ), 8-5

Sakshi MALIK (IND) df. Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ), 8-5

She stuck it out in the initial stages despite her inexperience showing and finally fell in the quarter-finals to Valeria Koblova. However, the repechage rounds offered her another shot at a medal and she made the most of it, beating Asian champion Aisuluu Tynybekova in the bronze medal match to script a memorable story.

The second medal came when PV Sindhu grabbed silver after a tough fight in the final against first-seeded Spaniard Carolina Marin, stretching the match to three games to display incredible resolve before finally giving in at the world’s biggest stage.

However, the Indian badminton star’s run to the final was hugely impressive nonetheless as she got past Michele Li, Tai Tzu Ying, Wang Yihan and Nozomi Okuhara in the group stages and elimination rounds.

Ironically, PV Sindhu struggled only against Michele Li, winning in three games as she steamed past the others (read tougher) opponents in straight games. And the fact that she did it as a 21-year-old under the shadow of the more accomplished and fellow Olympic medallist Saina Nehwal made it a feat of epic proportions.

The tournament sparked off an enduring rivalry with Nozomi Okuhara, whom she has both won against and fallen to in major events since, and needless to say, also saw her emergence as the next bona fide star and the face of Indian badminton.

The ones who almost made it

India fell one match short of winning five more medals at Rio 2016 with Sania Mirza, Rohan Bopanna, Dipa Karmakar, Vikas Krishan, Kidambi Srikanth and the Indian hockey men’s team all falling at the quarter-final stage.

Former world no.1 Kidambi Srikanth took advantage of a relatively easy draw to make his way to face off against the man who had won golds at both the previous Olympics, Lin Dan and even though the Indian badminton player managed to win the second game, the Chinese shuttler was too powerful an opponent to overcome.

Dipa Karmakar, who entered the gymnastics field as the first Indian in 52 years and stunned the world with a perfectly executed ‘Produnova’, making her only the fifth female gymnast in history to do so but it was only good for a fourth-place finish.

Similarly, Indian boxer Vikas Krishan won his first two bouts with unanimous decisions before falling to eventual silver medallist Bektemir Melikuziev of Uzbekistan.

The Indian hockey men’s team, once the most dominating Olympic team and still the most successful one at the Games, sweated it out in the group stages to grab the last quarter-final spot. But they fell to Belgium despite Akashdeep Singh giving them an early lead as the future world champions continued their march to becoming the new force in men’s hockey.

The closest any athlete(s) came to landing another medal were Indian tennis duo Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna, who won their first two doubles matches before losing in three sets to USA’s Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram in the semis.

They had another opportunity to win bronze but the Indian tennis stars suffered a straight-sets loss to Czech Republic’s Radek Stepanek and Lucie Hradecka in the third-place match-up.

How the big names fared at Rio 2016

The 117-member contingent contained quite a few big names and some of their performances in the lead up to Rio 2016 boded well for the country’s expectations but the quality of the opposition got the better of them.

Indian badminton star Saina Nehwal, who had won bronze at London 2012 and had managed to fight her way through to the world no. 1 ranking in 2015 after a long spell at second spot won a match before her loss to Ukraine’s Marija Ultinia ended hopes of a second-consecutive medal at the Games.

Indian badminton had further heartbreak at Rio 2016 when the experienced women’s doubles duo of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa lost their three matches in the group stage and featured last in their group.

Veteran players Achanta Sharath Kamal and Indian tennis duo Rohan Bopanna and Leander Paes also could not progress past the first round in their respective disciplines.

The Indian table tennis star fell to Romanian Adrian Crisan in the men’s singles while the Paes/Bopanna pair lost to the Polish duo of Lukasz Kubot and Marcin Matkowski in the men’s doubles.

Indian wrestler, Yogeshwar Dutt*,* a bronze medallist at London 2012, endured a similar result in the 65kg category to Mongolia’s Ganzorigiin Mandakhnaran in his first-round match.

The Indian shooters were expected to bring home a couple of medals at Rio 2016, especially as they boasted of Beijing 2008 gold medallist Abhinav Bindra, London 2012 bronze winner Gagan Narang and the highly-rated Jitu Rai and Heena Sidhu*,* the latter two having risen to world no. 1 in the 10m air pistol rankings among the men and women respectively just two years prior.

However, Gagan Narang and Heena Sidhu were unable to make the semi-finals in their events and though Abhinav Bindra and Jitu Rai sneaked through to the final, they ended up fourth and last respectively in the 10m air rifle and 10m air pistol events.

But what these performances hid was the effort behind it given by the Indian athletes, as Abhinav Bindra succinctly summed up.

"Out of my five Olympics appearances my absolute favourite is Rio because I gave everything to it in terms of preparation," he said. "I gave it all what I had on that day. I prepared to the best of my ability.

"That gives me a lot of satisfaction," he said.

Expectations at Tokyo 2020

With a little more than 70 Indian athletes already confirming their place at the Tokyo Olympics, the one-year postponement offers a new lease life for some others who were doubtful or were struggling to qualify this year, which could potentially make it India’s largest contingent at the Olympics.

The likes of Vinesh Phogat, PV Sindhu, Bajrang Punia, Amit Panghal, Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary start as the medal favourites this time around and the nation will hope they fulfil expectations and begin a legacy that could sustain for generations to come.

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