India at Rio Olympics: From Dutee Chand to Shiva Thapa, here are the top 5 under spotlight

By: | Updated: July 29, 2016 11:36 AM

As India sends its largest-ever contingent of over 100 sportspersons to the Rio Olympics, which begin on August 5, we speak with some of the contestants to know their game plan...

As India sends its largest-ever contingent of over 100 sportspersons to the Rio Olympics, which begin on August 5, we speak with some of the contestants to know their game plan for the biggest sporting extravaganza in the world. Compiled by Nitin Sreedhar.

DUTEE CHAND, SPRINTER

Need for speed: IT HAS been quite a journey for Rio-bound sprinter Dutee Chand. Just two years ago, she was banned and dropped from the Commonwealth Games team after she was found to have a higher level of testosterone (a male hormone) than the permissible limit in a woman athlete, as per the hyperandrogenism policy of the International Association of Athletics Federations. But Chand didn’t give up. Her case was taken to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, an international quasi-judicial body established to settle disputes related to sports through arbitration, in Switzerland and, in July 2015, in a landmark verdict, the court partially upheld her appeal and allowed her to get back on the running track. “For one-and-a-half years, she did not have any training and was uncertain about her future. But she won the legal battle and came back to qualify for the Rio Olympics,” says N Ramesh, Chand’s coach.

Now, the sprinter from Odisha is working hard to ensure that she goes all the way at Rio. The 20-year-old has been working on improving her speed and endurance, so that she doesn’t taper off in the last 40 m of the 100-m event. “I am very good in the first 60 m, but my speed goes down in the last 40 m. I have to improve on that and my endurance… I am working on it,” she says.

At a recent sporting event in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Chand recorded a timing of 11.30 seconds in the heats. The qualification mark for Rio was 11.32 seconds. In the final, she clocked 11.24 seconds to win the silver (Kazakhstan’s Viktoriya Zyabkina won the gold with a timing of 11.15 seconds). In doing so, Chand became the first Indian woman athlete in 36 years to qualify for the 100-m race at the Olympics—the last to do so was the legendary PT Usha, who competed in the 1980 Moscow Games.

I am very good in the first 60 m, but my speed goes down in the last 40 m. I have to improve on that, as well as my endurance… I am working on it

Chand has previously competed in various domestic and international competitions, including the 2016 National Athletic Championships in Delhi, the 2013 World Youth Championships in Ukraine and the 2013 Asian Championships in Pune. But, she says, her rivalry with Zyabkina has done her a world of good ahead of Rio. “I did not face any competition from any sprinter from India. Running against Viktoriya has helped me a lot,” she says.

As per Ramesh, the Odisha sprinter is like a lioness. “She loves to compete rather than train. And that is her best quality. People may run for winning, but she runs for life. Wherever she goes, she fights like a lioness.”
(With inputs from PTI)

MEN’S HOCKEY TEAM

‘Stick’ing it out: THE LAST Olympic gold medal that the Indian hockey team won was in 1980 at the Moscow Olympics. It’s been a 36-year-long drought since. No wonder then that the team is super-charged for Rio and is undergoing rigorous practice, focusing on areas like physical, technical, specialist and mental training. In fact, in one week, the team had about 10 training sessions on the pitch, says coach Roelant Oltmans. To gain a tactical edge, the team has also been holding video sessions to discuss their game plan.

Former captain Sardara Singh, who usually plays at centre-half, says each player has been given a weekly plan, with three-four gym sessions. The team trains for two hours each in the evening and morning. This includes special penalty-corner modules. In physical training, emphasis is on improving speed and endurance. “Our training sessions are in full flow. All the players are giving their 100%,” says 29-year-old Singh, who has represented India in big tournaments like the 2010 and 2014 Commonwealth Games, 2015 Hockey World League and 2010 and 2014 Asian Games. “We finalised a proper (training) framework after winning the (2014) Asian Games. It covers everything, from the players’ diet plans to how much time they can spend on the phone or on the Internet. We have dedicated WhatsApp groups as well. First thing in the morning, we have to update the team on how we are feeling physically and how well we slept, among other things,” says Singh.

For the final team heading to Rio, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh has been named captain—taking over from Singh—while SV Sunil will be the vice-captain. Talking about the change in captaincy, 28-year-old Sreejesh says, “Being a captain is a big responsibility, but there is no pressure. I have so many people to help me. I will ensure that I give my 100%.”
On any tension in the team due to Singh’s replacement, he says: “Sardara is a mature professional. He understands why something of this kind has happened. He never brings his worries to the field.” Talking about his hopes for Rio, he adds, “There are several youngsters in the side and they have been responding well. We are now in the final stage of our preparations. Only some polishing is left. We all know how the last Games (in 2012) went. There were a lot of expectations, but we are much better prepared this time.”

The government’s support has also been consistent, says Oltmans. The Sports Authority of India’s (SAI’s) Bengaluru facility, the team’s base camp, has been fine-tuned to meet the team’s requirements. Oltmans says there have been marked improvements in medical and gym facilities as well. The team also has a match analysis and GPS system, which helps them examine their fitness and stamina. In short, Oltmans says, the team has no excuse to not perform well. “One of the best things is that, for practice, Hockey India (the governing body of field hockey in India) and the SAI have provided us with AstroTurf, which is what we will get in Rio. That is really important. Medical facilities are also up to the mark,” says Singh.

Recent performance in Olympics
* Finished seventh in the 2004 Athens Olympics
* Failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics
* Finished 12th in the 2012 London Olympics

Agrees Sreejesh, “We are getting good facilities. In Bengaluru, we have got two new turfs. One of these is AstroTurf, similar to Rio. Nowadays, whenever there are any major tournaments like the Olympics, the government is really keen to help.”

With big tournaments come bigger expectations, but Oltmans believes it is difficult to predict what will transpire on the pitch. The players, he says, will need to make sure that they bring their best to every match. “We will go step by step. Our first aim is to make it to the quarter-finals. The next aim will be the semi-finals. And if we reach the semis, the next stage is the final,” Oltmans says.

Clearly, the pressure will be intense and the task daunting. But the sanguine Dutchman has only one message for his team: “I always tell them that I will take the pressure, you just play.”

SHIVA THAPA, BOXER, BANTAMWEIGHT CATEGORY

Packing a punch: IN 2012, when 18-year-old Shiva Thapa represented India at the London Olympics, he became the youngest Indian boxer to qualify for the Olympics. He, however, lost in the first round. Now, four years later, the Guwahati-born pugilist will again be heading to Rio to take part in the bantamweight category. Thapa sealed his qualification for the Rio Olympics in April this year when he finished second at the Asia and Oceania Olympic qualifiers in China. “I have been training really hard to qualify. It started from the 2015 World Championships in Doha, the first qualifier. I came really close to qualifying there, but couldn’t,” he says. At the China qualifiers, Thapa fought some of the best boxers from Asia who were also looking for a ticket to Rio. “It was a tough contest, but I qualified with a silver medal,” he says.

Talking about his training schedule—under chief coach Gurbax Singh Sandhu—Thapa says he is trying to adapt a more ‘aggressive’ style. “The focus is on building more endurance and strength, and to get tougher. We usually work on speed, but, right now, we are focusing on my strength and power,” Thapa says. Different training sessions are planned every day, he says. For instance, Mondays are for endurance training, while Tuesdays focus on core strength. This is followed by two-three sparring sessions per week. There’s also a lot of strength training. So how does he keep up with it? “The toughest challenge is maintaining your weight. I try to keep myself in shape by skipping junk food and getting the best nutrition from my diet (which includes fruits and no oily food). I also avoid heavy meals before bedtime,” Thapa says.

Talking about the support from the government, Thapa says, be it the Sports Authority of India or the Olympic Gold Quest, a not-for-profit foundation, which supports India’s top athletes, there has been no shortfall in the facilities provided. Thapa is also part of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme, which was announced by the ministry of youth affairs and sports in May 2015 to cater to the individualised needs of sportspersons for the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games. Under the scheme, sportspersons like Thapa have been selected for customised training with world-class facilities under the guidance of their coaches.

Past participation in Olympics : 2012 London Olympics

However, what can’t be denied is that the lack of a boxing federation in India has seen the country’s boxers miss out on some plum competitions. “Having a federation would have been a big support. There are a lot of competitions Indian boxers can compete in. No matter how much you train, you need to go to different countries and train with different boxers. That’s how you grow,” says Thapa, adding that it’s important that athletes get facilities and support throughout rather than just before the Olympics or any big tournament. This is where, he believes, international athletes have an edge over their Indian counterparts.

Talking about his journey to the Olympics, Thapa, in a recent column for The Indian Express, said, “When I think about it, the countdown to the Olympics started when I walked into a boxing gym  for the first time. I was nine years old then.”

As far as the Rio games are concerned, Thapa says, he will let his performance talk. “I am a person who takes a step and then talks about it. That another step for me is the Olympics. I like to talk with my punches, rather than words.”

HEENA SIDHU, SHOOTER

Gunning for glory: FROM KOREA to Kuwait and then finally to New Delhi, Heena Sidhu travelled far and wide to book her place at Rio this year. She participated in the ISSF World Cup in Changwon, Korea, in April 2015, but missed out narrowly from qualifying for the Olympics. Then, in November 2015, she won gold at the Asian Shooting Championships in Kuwait, but, unfortunately, the event lost its Rio Olympics qualifier status.

But Sidhu didn’t lose hope. In January this year, she won gold in the 10-m air pistol women’s event at the Asian Olympic qualifiers held in New Delhi’s Karni Singh Shooting Range. With that win, Sidhu finally got her ticket to Rio. At the qualifiers, the 26-year-old lost her lead just once, only to take it back, finishing with a final score of 199.4 points.

She has had many other accolades in her shooting career, including a gold at the 10-m air pistol women’s event at the ISSF World Cup finals in Munich, Germany, three years ago. She also won gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. “Technique is important for all sports. It’s the crux. Then come mental and physical training. No matter how mentally or physically strong you are, if your technique is not right, you will not be able to execute a shot properly. Every sport is about movement, angles, speed and velocity,” she says.

Sidhu’s training for the Olympics includes a mix of rest and shooting. She wakes up at 7 am. By 9 am, she is at the shooting range, where she practices till 12.30 pm. This is followed by lunch and a short nap after which she resumes practice and keeps at it till 5 pm. Depending on how she is feeling in the evening, Sidhu works out in the gym for an hour. If she trains for three days continuously, she takes the fourth day off. And if fatigue strikes, she trains for just two days, taking an off on the third day.

Sidhu says she is going to approach Rio just like any other tournament. “I have been training for so many years… I have a fixed plan that I follow before every match. I am not going to be attaching any extra importance to Rio because it just puts a lot of pressure and I don’t want that,” says Sidhu, who had achieved a career high ranking of world number one in 2014. This strategy is because of her experience at the 2012 London Olympics, where huge expectations riding on her put her under a lot of pressure—she finished 12th with 382 points in the qualification round.

Past participation   in Olympics: 2012 London Olympics

I am going with an open mind. Expectations give you pressure. An open mind helps. I am just going to repeat what I have been doing for all my matches

Equipment has a massive role to play in shooting, as a shooter must feel comfortable with his/her rifle or pistol. Europe is the hub for shooting equipment and while international shooters have access to the best gear, the same can’t be said for Indian shooters, Sidhu says. “Athletes in Europe don’t need a visa to go to another country to get their equipment fixed. They can address the situation without hampering their training. But if something goes wrong for us, it takes a lot of time to get it fixed,” says Sidhu, adding, “India doesn’t manufacture arms and ammunition.

Whatever we have, has to be imported, so the cost is higher. This is something that needs to change in the long run not just for shooting, but for every sport. India should start manufacturing sports equipment.”

Apart from that, she says, there’s a lot of encouragement from the National Rifle Association of India and the Olympic Gold Quest. As Rio edges closer, Sidhu believes going with the flow will be the best policy. “I am going there with an open mind. Expectations give you pressure. An open mind helps. I am just going to repeat there what I have been doing for all my matches,” she says.

LALITA BABAR, LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER, 3,000-M STEEPLECHASE

The race of her life: LALITA BABAR has had a whirlwind last two years. In 2014, she won a bronze in the 3,000-m steeplechase event at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. Then, in 2015, she clocked a time of 9:34.13 in the 3,000-m steeplechase event at the Asian Athletics Championships in Wuhan, China, to win the gold. That win ensured her qualification for Rio Olympics, her first rendezvous with the event. “My preparations for Rio are going well. I started training in 2014. The training happened side by side with my preparations for the (2014) Asian Games in Incheon,” says the 27-year-old, who switched to the 3,000-m steeplechase category from marathons and long-distance running two years back.

Past participation in Olympics: This will be her first appearance at the Games

Preparations are going well. I started training in 2014. I want to do my best for India and win a medal

Under the watchful eye of Belarusian coach Nikolai Snesarev, Babar starts a normal training day with endurance work, which is followed by steeplechase practice. She has also been doing marathon running. “On Sundays, we run for at least 25-30 km,” she says. The 3,000-m steeplechase that Babar will be participating in at Rio is, essentially, an obstacle race that involves barriers and a water pit. What makes the event precarious is that, unlike hurdling, the barriers in the 3,000-m steeplechase don’t fall over when athletes come in contact with them. Naturally then, a good-quality track plays a significant role in training because if the track is not even, athletes find it difficult to run and clear obstacles. But sadly, this is a problem area for Babar. “There’s a lot of difficulty in finding good tracks for practice. We often have to run on roads. Sometimes, we use tracks in schools for practice,” says Babar, who belongs to Satara district in Maharashtra.

Another big problem, she says, is that Indian athletes don’t get enough exposure, as there are very few competitions in Asia. She believes this might pose a problem in the long run. “If we don’t have enough experience, participating in big competitions can be a tough task. We will never get to know how to compete with international athletes. A lot of us also face technical problems. If we get the chance to compete in some more international competitions, that fear will go away,” she says. Other than that, she says, the government has been supportive, be it the athletes’ stay in hotels or their transportation costs.

Ultimately, Babar says, she will be running for two reasons at Rio. “There is no doubt that I am going to run for my country, but I will also be running for my family because I wouldn’t have been here without their support. I want to do my best for India and win a medal at the Olympics,” she says.

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