One hundred medals. That is the target the government has set for the Indian Olympic Association at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. The event, starting September 23, will feature India’s largest-ever contingent―655 athletes. The country had sent 570 to the previous games in Jakarta and had won 70 medals.
There are high expectations from the 68-member athletics contingent, as also from the two cricket teams and the 33-member shooting contingent, which was third behind China and Ukraine in the recent World Shooting Championships. The hockey team, too, goes in on a high after winning the Asian Champions Trophy at home.
Here’s a look at some of the top contenders for a podium finish:
* NEERAJ CHOPRA (JAVELIN)
The 25-year-old is the current world and Olympic champion, and will defend his Asian Games title in Hangzhou. The fact that he came second in the Diamond League final on September 16, behind the Czech Republic’s Jakub Vadlejch, would only spur him on to clinch gold. “In big competitions, I think it is about the mindset,” he said after the Diamond League final. “In big competitions we do not need to prepare ourselves. When we enter the stadium, our mind and body are ready for the competition.”
Chopra’s main challenge will come from Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem, who threw 87.82m for a silver behind Chopra at the Budapest World Athletics. Oh, and Nadeem has breached 90m; Chopra is yet to do so.
* KISHORE JENA (JAVELIN)
Another medal in javelin? Why not. That’s the impact Chopra has had on the sport in India. And now, Kishore Jena―from Odisha’s Puri district―will look to emulate his compatriot and aim for the podium at the Asian Games. He exceeded expectations in Budapest with a throw of 84.77m, which put him in fifth place. A medal in Hangzhou will be the 28-year-old’s coming of age party.
* MURALI SREESHANKAR AND JESWIN ALDRIN (LONG JUMP)
Sreeshankar had a forgettable World Athletics Championships; his best of 7.74m saw him finish 12th. It was a blemish on what has been a good few seasons―the 24-year-old Kerala jumper was part of the Tokyo Olympics, won silver at the 2022 Commonwealth Games and the 2023 Asian Athletics in August, and has been consistently crossing 8.15m.
As for the 21-year-old Aldrin, his best of 7.77m placed him 11th in the World Athletics Championships. He holds the national record with a jump of 8.42m, and will be one of the main challengers to Sreeshankar, along with Chinese Taipei’s Lin Yu-Tang (season best of 8.40m) and China’s Wang Jianan (8.34m).
* ABDULLA ABOOBACKER AND PRAVEEN CHITHRAVEL (TRIPLE JUMP)
Abdulla Aboobacker from Kerala has every reason to be bullish about his chances. Having won the silver at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, the 27-year-old followed up with gold at this year’s Asian Athletics in Bangkok.
The other Indian in the fray is 22-year-old Chithravel, whose national record-breaking jump of 17.37m saw him enter the world’s top 10. However, the past three events have been subpar; he has been unable to clear 17m. He also failed to make it to the finals of the World Athletics, but that would only fuel the fire.
* AMLAN BORGOHAIN (200M)
The 25-year-old from Jorhat is currently the fastest Indian, having clocked 10.25s in 100m. Welsh coach James Hillier spotted the 6’4” sprinter at the Reliance Foundation Odisha Athletics High-Performance Centre in 2020. His breakout year was 2022, where he won several national and international meets, but his biggest achievement was the 200m bronze medal at the FISU World University Games in 2023. A huge anime fan, especially of Dragon Ball Z, Borgohain takes inspiration from Goku for his on-field feats.
* AVINASH SABLE (3000M STEEPLECHASE)
Having failed to qualify for the previous games in Jakarta, the 29-year-old from Beed, Maharashtra, was extra motivated to not only make it to Hangzhou, but to also finish on the podium. The 2022 Commonwealth Games silver medallist holds the national record of 8:11.20s. His season best is 8:11.63, placing him second in Asia, only behind Miura Ryuji (8:09.91) of Japan.
* SHAILI SINGH (LONG JUMP)
Born and brought up in Jhansi, Singh moved to long jump legend Anju Bobby George’s academy in Bengaluru at the age of 14. In 2021, she jumped 6.59m to clinch the silver medal at the 2021 World Athletics U20 Championships. The 19-year-old then won silver at the Asian Athletics in 2023. The ascent continued, with Singh getting a personal best of 6.76m to win gold at the Indian Grand Prix 2023.
* JYOTHI YARRAJI (100M HURDLES)
This 24-year-old hurdler from Visakhapatnam has broken the national record multiple times. Spotted by a teacher who saw raw potential in her, Yarraji took up sports to earn money―her father Suryanarayana is a security guard and her mother works as a domestic help. After stints at the Sports Authority of India centre in Hyderabad, she moved to the Odisha Reliance Foundation Athletics High-Performance Centre in Bhubaneswar in 2019. She showed remarkable improvement under coach Hillier.
Her form this year has been good―in 100m hurdles, she won silver at the Asian Indoor Athletics Championships in Nur-Sultan and gold at the Asian Athletics. She also won silver in the women’s 200m.
Winning badminton medals at the Asian Games is as tough as getting them at the Olympics. Saina Nehwal (bronze) and P.V. Sindhu (silver) did so in 2018, but now the men have started pulling their weight. This time, the expectations are from H.S. Prannoy and, more so, the doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty. They won gold at the Badminton Asia Championships and are ranked third in the Badminton World Federation rankings.
The concern is Sindhu’s form. She is currently ranked 15th in the world and has made just one final, two quarterfinals and two semifinals in 17 tournaments this year. Then again, Sindhu is a big-event player and is expected to pull off some magic. She has parted ways with her Korean coach Park Tae Sang and is training with Malaysia’s Hafiz Hashim.
* NIKHAT ZAREEN
The two-time world champion has forced the world to look beyond M.C. Mary Kom when it comes to Indian boxing. The reigning world and Commonwealth champion in the women’s 50kg category is the favourite for gold, even though she has never competed at the Asian Games. If the 27-year-old from Nizamabad wins, she will directly qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
R. Praggnanandhaa and Koneru Humpy will head a 10-member team (five men, five women). Humpy, a two-time Asian Games gold medallist, will compete in the individual women’s event alongside Harika Dronavalli, who won bronze in 2010. Vidit Gujrathi and Arjun Erigaisi will do so in the individual men’s event.
Vaishali Rameshbabu, Savitha Shri B. and Vantika Agrawal will compete in the women’s team event; Gukesh D., Gujrathi, Pentala Harikrishna, Erigaisi and Praggnanandhaa will form the men’s team.
While the individual event will use the rapid format, the team events will follow the standard format.