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Aiming For Rich Haul Of Medals, Neeraj Chopra-Led India Set To Begin Athletics Campaign

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Hangzhou, Sept 28 (PTI) Olympic champion javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra will be the cynosure of all eyes as India begins its athletics campaign in the Asian Games here on Friday, targeting to surpass last edition’s 20 medals.

Chopra will lead a 65-strong team, with the Athletics Federation of India (AFI)  hoping to win at least 25 medals. Three athletes from the original 68, the largest in the Indian contingent, were left out due to injuries.

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As usual, athletics is likely to account for the the lion’s share of India’s total medal count. In the 2018 Asian Games, athletics had contributed 20 medals (8 gold, 9 silver, 3 bronze) out of India’s total of 70.

“The target is minimum 25 medals. Anything more is a bonus,” an AFI official said.

It may, however, be difficult to match the eight gold the country had won in the 2018 Asian Games.

Chopra, shot putter Tajinderpal Singh Toor, 3000m steeplechaser Avinash Sable, the men’s and women’s 4x400m relay teams are strong gold medal contenders. Toor and the men’s 4x400m relay team are Asian record holders.

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The 25-year-old Chopra, who recently became world champion in addition to his Olympic gold, is the best bet for a gold in athletics. He is defending his gold he won in 2018.

Pakistan’s World Championships silver medallist Arshad Nadeem, who claimed a bronze in the 2018 Asian Games, will be his main rival here.

With a personal best throw of 84.77m while finishing a creditable fifth in his maiden World Championships last month, 28-year-old Kishore Jena is also a medal contender in men’s javelin. He has the third-best throw among Asians this season.

The 28-year-old Toor is the favourite to defend the gold medal he won in 2018. He is the lone Indian Asian record holder in individual events. Toor’s only concern is that he has been injury prone in the last few years.

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The burly Punjab athlete re-wrote his own Asian record by hurling the iron ball to a distance of 21.77m while winning gold in the National Inter-State Championships in June.

Sable can be considered a sure-shot medal contender. The 2022 Commonwealth Games silver medallist holds the national record of 8 minutes 11.20 seconds. His season’s best time is 8:11.63, placing him in second position among Asians behind Miura Ryuji (Season’s Best: 8:09.91) of Japan.

In men’s long jump, Murali Sreeshankar will be aiming to redeem himself after his disappointing show at the World Championships. His personal and season’s best of 8.41m puts him in the fourth spot in the world and second among Asians behind compatriot Jeswin Aldrin.

Chinese Taipei’s Asian champion Lin Yu-Tang (SB: 8.40m) and China’s Wang Jianan (8.34m) will be his main rivals, besides Aldrin.

Aldrin was the world season leader before the World Championships with his national record jump of 8.41m early in the season. But he was inconsistent throughout the season with fitness issues also dogging him, due to which he pulled out of the Asian Championships. He is still the season leader among Asians and third in the world.

With the Asian record time of 2 minutes 59.05 seconds in the qualification round of the World Championships in August, India is a gold medal contender in the men’s 4x400m relay.

The Indian quartet’s time is also the eighth best in the world this season. The country finished second behind Sri Lanka in the Asian Championships in July with a time of 3:01.80.

Gold winner in the 2018 Asian Games, India is again title contender in mixed 4x400m relay after winning the event in the Asian Championships in July with a time of 3 minutes 14.70 seconds, the best in the continent this season.

Praveen Chitravel is a medal contender in men’s triple jump as he is the season leader among Asians and number 6 in the world with his national record 17.37m jump. But he has not touched 17m in his last three events, including the World Championships in August where he failed to make it to the finals, with a disappointing 16.38m jump in the qualification round.

Reigning men’s 1500m Asian champion Ajay Kumar Saroj is also the second best timer in the continent this season. He clocked a personal best of 3 minutes 38.24 seconds in the World Championships in August.

Among women, 100m hurdler Jyothi Yarraji is a sure-shot bet for a medal. The country’s first ever Asian champion in 100m hurdles, Yarraji won the Asian Championships gold in July with a time of 13.09 seconds.

The 24-year-old national record holder — with 12.78 seconds — is Asian number 2 this season, behind Wu Yanni of China, whose season best timing is 12.76s.

In women’s 400m hurdles, Vithya Ramraj will also be vying for a medal. Ramraj is number 2 among Asians in the season’s best time chart. She recorded her season’s best time of 55.43 seconds earlier this month, one-hundredth of a second less than the legendary P T Usha’s national record.

Other medal contenders among women are Shaili Singh (long jump), Parul Chaudhary (3000m steeplechase), heptathlete Swapna Barman and the women’s 4x400m relay team.

Sandeep Kumar and Vikash Singh will begin India’s campaign in the men’s 20km race walk event in the morning on Friday, but their medal prospects are not high.

Priyanka Goswami will compete in the women’s 20km race walk and she can be in medal contention if she produces her best.

Rachna Kumari and Tanya Chaudhary are the two Indians who will feature in the women’s hammer throw final on Friday while Manpreet Kaur and Kiran Baliyan can hope for minor medals if they produce their best.

A total of 48 gold medals will be at stake during seven days of competition. Hosts China have topped the athletics medal tally at every Asian Games since 1986.

Besides Chopra, Qatari high jumper Mutaz Barshim is another Olympic gold medallist. Woo Sanghyeok of Korea, the 2022 world championships silver medallist, will likely be Barshim’s main rival for the gold.

Ernest John Obiena of the Philippines will also be one to watch in the men’s pole vault. He equalled his own Asian record of 6.00m to claim the world championships silver in August, behind world record holder Armand ‘Mondo’ Duplantis of Sweden.

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