Delayed by a year owing to COVID-19 restrictions in China, the 19th Asian Games officially begin in Hangzhou on Saturday. First held in Delhi in 1951, the latest Asiad will have nearly 12,500 athletes, a lot more than the 11,000 at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Athletes in Hangzhou will be competing in 40 sports, including breakdancing and esports which will make their debut in the 16-day event. There are sports too such as xiangqi and go which could make many turn to search engines on the Internet. In a few sports, including hockey, archery, tennis and boxing, the Asiad will also offer Olympic qualification spots for Paris 2024. China is a giant, topping the medal table at the Games every time from 1982 when India hosted it for the second time, again in Delhi. At the last Asiad, in Jakarta 2018, China finished on top with 289 medals, including 132 gold, while Japan (205 medals) and South Korea (177) took the next two spots. Jakarta was a very fruitful Asiad for India as it finished with a record medal haul of 70 medals which included 16 gold. Expectations are high this time too with the Union Sports Minister Anurag Singh Thakur hoping for 100 medals and Indian Olympic Association President P.T. Usha — a medal machine herself at these Games in the mid-1980s — predicting a best-ever Asiad for the country.
With adequate government support, better facilities and many exposure trips abroad, India, with more than 650 athletes, does look strong. Athletics is the big hope once again. For the first time, India will go into an Asiad with an Olympic and World champion in javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, and his battle with Pakistan’s Worlds silver medallist Arshad Nadeem could be one of the highlights. Neeraj has made Indians believe that they could conquer the world and this could be the reason for three javelin throwers finishing among the top six at the Budapest Worlds where the Indian men’s 4x400m relay team also made history by finishing fifth and bettering its own Asian record. A few weeks ago, Jeswin Aldrin and M. Sreeshankar were the number one and two in this year’s world long jump list while triple jumper Praveen Chithravel was also on an impressive rung. But many of the Indian athletes did not live up to expectations in Budapest, and Hangzhou offers a chance for redemption. Hockey, where the Indian men and women’s teams are the Asiad’s highest ranked sides, offers hopes of bringing gold while cricket, where India is making its Asiad debut, shooting and badminton are among the sports that have raised hopes of a golden show.