In a much-anticipated sporting spectacle, the 19th Asian Games are set to kick off in Hangzhou, China, this Saturday, following a one-year delay due to COVID-19 restrictions. Dating back to its inaugural edition in Delhi in 1951, this iteration promises to be the most significant yet, boasting a staggering contingent of nearly 12,500 athletes, surpassing even the Tokyo Olympics of 2021, which featured around 11,000 participants. Hangzhou will play host to an impressive array of 40 sports, including groundbreaking additions like breakdancing and esports, making their highly-anticipated debut in this illustrious 16-day event. Among the mix are also traditional sports such as xiangqi and go, which may well send sports enthusiasts scrambling to internet search engines for insights.
Crucially, the 19th Asian Games present an opportunity for athletes to secure coveted Olympic qualification spots for Paris 2024, across various disciplines such as hockey, archery, tennis, and boxing. China, a perennial powerhouse, has consistently dominated the medal tally since 1982, when India last hosted the Games in Delhi. At the previous Asian Games held in Jakarta in 2018, China maintained its supremacy, clinching a remarkable 289 medals, including a staggering 132 gold, while Japan (205 medals) and South Korea (177 medals) closely followed.
For India, Jakarta 2018 was a monumental event, resulting in a record medal haul of 70, including 16 gold medals. This year, expectations are soaring high, with Union Sports Minister Anurag Singh Thakur setting a target of 100 medals. P.T. Usha, a legend in her own right and a medal sensation during the mid-1980s Asiad, has predicted that India is on track for its most successful Asian Games to date.
India's robust contingent of over 650 athletes, supported by government initiatives and enhanced training facilities, appears poised for glory. Once again, athletics shines as a beacon of hope, thanks to the presence of Olympic and World champion javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra. His impending showdown with Pakistan's World silver medalist Arshad Nadeem promises to be one of the marquee matchups of the Games. Chopra's remarkable feats have instilled confidence in the nation, reflected in three Indian javelin throwers securing top-six finishes at the Budapest World Championships. Furthermore, the Indian men's 4x400m relay team etched their name in history by clinching fifth place while bettering their own Asian record.
Recent accomplishments, including Jeswin Aldrin and M. Sreeshankar ranking first and second in the world long jump list, alongside the impressive Praveen Chithravel in triple jump, have raised expectations. Budapest may have witnessed some underwhelming performances from Indian athletes, but Hangzhou offers the perfect stage for redemption.
In terms of team sports, hockey stands tall as India's best hope, with both the men's and women's teams ranking as the highest-rated sides in the competition. Cricket, making its Asian Games debut, as well as disciplines like shooting and badminton, also instill optimism for a golden display.
As the world turns its gaze towards Hangzhou, the 19th Asian Games promise to deliver thrilling moments, potential records, and a celebration of sport that transcends borders. India, fueled by ambition and determination, is primed to script a historic chapter in its sporting journey.