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Brace up for the acid test!

India’s achievements at the Commonwealth Games are worth celebrating but one should avoid being obsessed with these as the next two big-ticket events — Asian Games and the Olympics — will demand altogether different levels of grit and gumption

Brace up for the acid test!
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If the Commonwealth Games be treated as the mid-point between the last Olympics and Paris 2024, there were finite pointers to assess in which direction Indian sport is heading.

The highs of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are still fresh in memory, as the Games, originally to be held in 2020 were postponed to 2021, thanks to the pandemic. Given the difficulties for athletes training at that time and how hard the Bio Bubble was in Tokyo, competing in Birmingham has been very different.

Perhaps, the best part is, the presence of spectators in the arenas, something so important for the athletes to get that adrenaline flowing. One thought, the heat wave in Britain and Europe, a few weeks ago, could affect the Commonwealth Games. As Birmingham is in the British Midlands, the Indian athletes did not have to worry about the heat.

For that matter, even though the athletes were routinely tested for the dreaded Covid-19 virus, it was not as alarming as last year.

Yes, before the Indian women's team left the shores for the T20 event of the CWG in Birmingham, there were a few scares relating to Covid, most of the cases being asymptomatic. At the time of writing this article, the girls have made it to the semi-finals.

To be sure, watching Indian Athletes and Para athletes win a medley of medals in different disciplines has been promising. The average fan and even some officials go strictly by the number of medals won. Agreed, finishing high on the medal tally is determined by the number of gold medals won. It is also well-known that India had to accept the absence of shooting as a discipline which was going to hit the medal tally.

However, we have seen how in certain sports, where India never had any history, the athletes did well. Yes, the ladies winning the gold medal in lawn bowls made for compelling viewing. Before we jump to any conclusions of this sport being a "medal prospect" at the Asian Games, to be held next year in Hangzhou and the Paris 2024 Olympics, lawn bowls is an event just for the Commonwealth Games.

The gold medal won by Mirabai Chanu and Jeremy Lalrinnunga in weightlifting, the silver medal won by Murali Sreeshankar in long jump and the bronze medal effort from Tejaswin Shankar in high jump are excellent efforts.

The Indian grapplers showed strength and steel as they topped the charts by winning medals in all the categories at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham on Friday. The rich haul of three gold medals, with silver and bronze also coming, was much needed for the Indian camp, as the medal tally was looking anaemic.

Everyone knew favourite Bajrang Punia was going to win a gold medal even before the team left the Indian shores. The Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist dominated Canada's Lachlan McNeil 9-2 in the 65kg final.

Bajrang has been dealing with a few niggles in his career. For the 28-year-old man from Jhajjar in Haryana to win his third medal in the Commonwealth Games was a reflection of his supremacy and commitment. The face of male freestyle wrestling, Bajrang has been very conservative in his approach.

To be sure, the highlight of Friday evening was an emotional Sakshi Malik winning the gold medal. Tears flowed down the cheeks of the Rio Olympics bronze medallist, who is on a comeback trail. After the highs of the 2016 Rio Olympics, she had put on weight and lost focus. That she was getting beaten by younger opponents in trials was also a big source of worry.

It called for discipline and sustained efforts in training in wrestling to make a comeback. Sakshi did that and results are there to see. Sakshi pinned Canada's Ana Gonzalez in the final to win her first career Commonwealth Games gold medal in the 62 kg category. Both wrestlers fought hard to be 4-4 on points before Sakshi showed her true class.

Rising young star Deepak Punia also was in his element as he won a gold medal by overpowering Pakistan's Mohammad Inam in the men's 86kg final with a 3-0 scoreline.

Meanwhile, Anshu Malik won silver while Divya Kakran and Mohit Grewal won bronze medals to boost India's tally.

There are more bouts in store on Friday and all eyes will be focussed on Vinesh Phogat. She failed at two successive Olympics. In Rio she sustained a serious injury and had to be operated upon. In Tokyo, she failed to do well.

India, as a nation, still does not have a strong sporting culture. For all the money being spent/invested on athletes, we are very far from lofty standards which have been set by Australia. They win medals with minimum fuss and go about their job professionally.

We, in India, idolise our medal winners, praise them to sky high limits and then start to think they are going to win medals in the Olympics. The difference between the standard of competition in the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics is very different. It is like trying to race an old Amby car on a Formula One track. That is the reason dropping shooting as a sport in the Commonwealth Games is good as it has led to a false sense of our marksmen being world class.

That the shooters failed twice at the Olympics, in Rio 2016 and Tokyo last year, cannot be forgiven or forgotten. The acid test will be the Asian Games next year and how many shooters qualify for the Paris Olympics.

If it's a sin to assess Indian athletes' chances as medal winners at the Asian Games and the Olympics, so be it. The false sense of our athletes being world beaters, courtesy the medals won at the Commonwealth Games, has to end. Sure, celebrate the medals but do not go overboard.

Identifying medal prospects for the Olympics is a difficult job. The think-tank from the Indian government side and the now-diluted national sports federation is doing whatever it can to maximise the chances. That is why I would pick Mirabai Chanu, Jeremy and the track and field athletes as the ones who can go full tilt in Paris. One name which can obviously not be forgotten is that of Neeraj Chopra, gold medallist from the Tokyo Olympics.

All of us wanted Neeraj to fly to Birmingham and win a medal again at the Commonwealth Games! It was bad luck he sustained a hamstring injury and he has been advised to rest. India does not need to flog its favourite athletes.

In Murali Sreeshankar we have an athlete of high calibre. He knows he has to improve much as the standard in the Asian Games and the Paris Olympics will be vastly different. From the sylvan settings of Palakkad in Kerala to training in Bengaluru at the SAI campus and then going abroad for competitions, he has come a long way.

Next week, Sreeshankar will be competing in the elite Diamond League athletics event in Monaco. At the same time, the controversy generated over Tejaswin Shankar not being chosen initially for the Birmingham Games, was avoidable.

The 23-year-old from Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, who went to study in the US and scaled highs, did well to win bronze. Even he knows his chances in high jump are being hit as he has a condition called tendinitis in his knees. It is basically due to repetitive use of the knees. He needs rest, rehab, conservative treatment. Tejaswin has spoken of shifting to the decathlon event, which is extremely demanding. The point is, he has started planning.

It is not like going gaga over his medal won at the Commonwealth Games. The transition from high jump to decathlon will take time. Overnight, we cannot expect him to make a mark in the Asian Games or the Olympics. Despite all the hype, he stays grounded.

In weightlifting, too, India has potential. Everyone knows how hard Mirabai has worked on her fitness and the "snatch" technique which saw her perform like a giant at the Commonwealth Games. If she is talking about a gold in her next Olympics, she is dead serious about it.

Jeremy Lalrinnunga has the potential. On TV screens, it appeared he had busted his back during competition. The Indian Weightlifting Federation has already planned to increase his body weight and prepare him for the 73kg category.

We can drool over medals won in table tennis team events and badminton team events. The acid test is how the players will peak next year and climax in Paris 2024. Of course, in judo what Tulika Maan did, winning silver, was huge. This girl comes from a humble background and needs to be worked upon further.

Likewise, in boxing, wrestling, hockey and a few more priority sports, India needs to slog hard. Winning medals at the next two big ticket events in Hangzhou and Paris will not be a cakewalk.

And that is why the Commonwealth Games hangover should be arrested immediately!

Views expressed are personal

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