Gold and cash stir slumbering India

Bindra's breakthrough Beijing gold has fired optimism for London

India used to be content with a steady stream of Olympic hockey titles, but a first individual win - and millions of dollars in funding - may have prodded the Asian giant from its slumbers.

Indian sports leapt forward when bespectacled shooter Abhinav Bindra won the 10m air rifle at Beijing 2008, making history as the country's first individual Olympic gold-medallist.

Bronze medals for wrestler Sushil Kumar and boxer Vijender Singh made it India's most successful Games ever, beating the previous record of two medals at a single Olympics.

India's senior Olympic official Randhir Singh said the spark lit by Bindra's breakthrough gold has fuelled optimism that the country can push on to new heights in London.

"Beijing started it and London will carry the dream forward," Singh, a member of the International Olympic Committee and a former international shooter, told AFP.

Bindra, 29, training abroad to defend the gold medal in his fourth Olympic appearance, said the confidence of India's competitors gave him hope of a bright future.

"Indian athletes today have more self-belief," Bindra told the India Today magazine. "They've had more exposure, are more competitive."

The self-assurance stems from increased government and private funding that has given the top stars excellent training facilities, world-class competition abroad, personal physios and strict dietary regimes.

The government set aside $50 million - a 10-fold increase from 2000 - for preparing the contingent for the London Olympics under its 'Operation Excellence' programme.

Steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal's Mittal Champions Trust, and the Olympic Gold Quest, founded by badminton star Prakash Padukone and billiards great Geet Sethi, have pumped in millions for India's elite athletes.

A nation once known only for its eight hockey golds, before cricket became an obsession, is finally producing world-beating athletes.

Bindra's toughest rival in the 10m air rifle will be compatriot Gagan Narang, who holds the world record for the event and helped himself to four Commonwealth Games titles in New Delhi in 2010.

"One can never predict how a shooting event will go, but I am confident of doing well in London," said Narang, 28, who was honoured with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, India's highest sporting honour, last year.

Ronjan Sodhi, 31, is the world record-holder in the double-trap event and won the Asian Games gold medal in Guangzhou, China in 2010 and the World Cup finals twice in 2010 and 2011.

Sodhi, who trains in Italy for six months a year, sees London as his last chance to win an Olympic medal before he takes time off to spend time with his wife and four-year-old son.

"It has not been easy for them," the soft-spoken Sikh said. "I want to give my best shot in London and then take a break. This is the most crucial period of my career."

Five-time world champion Mary Kom remains a medal hopeful when women's boxing makes its Olympic debut in London, despite being ousted in the quarter-finals at the world championships in China in May.

The 29-year-old, who moved up to the 51kg category this year because her pet 48kg event is not an Olympic weight, made the grade for London as a lucky loser.

"That is not the way I wanted to qualify, but now that I have, I will make sure the opportunity is not wasted," the feisty mother of two said. "I know I am good enough to win an Olympic medal."

Other contenders by virtue of being in the world's top five are women's badminton star Saina Nehwal, Asian Games boxing gold medallist Vikas Krishan and men's discus-thrower Vikas Gowda.

At the other end of the scale is wrestler Narsingh Yadav, the son of a milk-vendor father, who won the Commonwealth Games gold in the 74-kilo category two years ago.

"Medal? Let's see. But I am sure he will surprise many in London," said Yadav's coach Jagmal Singh.

Sadly for India, their Olympic build-up was overshadowed by the ugly selection row engulfing the tennis squad which saw Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna insisting they will play doubles together which led to a spat with fellow professional Leander Paes.


 

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