Biggest Indian contingent eyes richest medal haul
Dope scandals marred what was turning out to be a euphoric build-up but India's biggest ever contingent would nonetheless be eyeing a historic medal haul when the 31st Olympic Games – the first ever in South America – get underway with the opening ceremony here on Saturday.
The Indians are eyeing their first ever double-digit medal haul riding on the sheer number of qualifiers this time, standing at 118 now after sprinter Dharambir Singh and shot-putter Inderjeet Singh were told to stay back after being caught in the dope net.
Not to forget, the drama that chased wrestler Narsingh Yadav ever since he was selected ahead of double Olympic-medallist Sushil Kumar. Narsingh was caught in the dope storm as well but managed to clear his name after convincing NADA that he was victim of conspiracy and sabotage.
But despite all the controversies that plagued the Olympic build-up, what cannot be overlooked is the improved performances of Indian athletes which makes them strong medal contenders.
On the first day of competitions on Saturday, India can eye a medal from Jitu Rai, the pint-sized star whose pistol has been shooting medals at almost every event he has participated in.
Competing in both the events, the Nepalese-origin shooter is undoubtedly the favourite for a top finish in a star-studded 12-member team.
In his fifth and final appearance, Abhinav Bindra, who would be India's flag-bearer at tomorrow's opening ceremony, would look to end his career on a high even though he has not been in his top form.
Bindra will be joined by London Olympics bronze-medallist Gagan Narang, who will compete in three events, in his fourth appearance.
Focus will also be on the likes of Heena Sidhu, Ayonika Paul, Apurvi Chandela – the three women shooters.
Another big medal prospect for India would be wrestling. While it remains to be seen how Narsingh (74kg freestyle) overcomes the tumultuous build-up he endured, London Olympics bronze-medallist Yogeshwar Dutt (65kg freestyle) would be expected to do an encore or even better his feat.
Inside the boxing ring, a squad of three will carry India's hopes. For a discipline, that had a record eight entries in 2012, this time it will be under-represented with three men in the ring.
Of the three, there are high hopes from the duo of Shiva Thapa (56kg) and Vikas Krishan (75kg), both of whom are World Championship bronze-medallists and are ranked sixth in the world.
Then there's the senior-most member of the team, Manoj Kumar (64kg), the 2010 Commonwealth Games champion who will be the dark-horse.
Having failed to live up to the hype four years ago, the Indian archers have arrived about 15 days early to acclimatise themselves as they hope to make their mark by clinching at least one medal in the women's team event.
Tennis too had a controversial Road-to-Rio when Rohan Bopanna preferred lower-ranked Saketh Myneni over the senior-most Leander Paes before AITA's intervention stopped a repeat of London-like skirmish.
But it is the duo of Bopanna and Sania Mirza in the mixed doubles where India have a better medal chance as they can complement their game styles to match each other's abilities.
Badminton too is seen as a medal prospect for India where London bronze-medallist Saina Nehwal and the promising PV Sindhu, who won two World Championship bronze medals in 2013 and 2014.
Gymnastics also holds some promise where 22-year-old Tripura girl Dipa Karmakar became the first female gymnast from India to qualify for the quadrennial event.
Having secured the Olympic berth from the same place, Dipa is confident of doing well and has an edge in the Produnova – a double frontal vault – with a difficulty rating of 7.0.
The record entry of Indians in this edition has been due to the qualification of the men's and women hockey teams.