The Paris Olympics, the Euros and the T20 World Cup are just three of some big sporting events this year. Here’s the Lounge preview
Athletes are experts at hitting the reset button. Between points, during matches, through the ebbs and flow of the season, after injuries. They assess, gather themselves and step up to the plate. As 2024 begins, they would have jotted down their goals, drawn up battle plans and calculated when to peak. For 2024 is another packed year in sport, with the Paris Olympics as the piece de resistance.
The Paris test: After a deferred and spectator-less Olympics in Tokyo, the quadrennial event will be held at full blast this time around. It will give Indian sport a chance to measure just how they match up to the world after the remarkable strides of the past few years. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics turned out to be the most successful Summer Games for India, as the country won a record seven medals, including a gleaming gold in track and field by Neeraj Chopra. Since then, they have won world championships in women’s boxing and archery, peaked at No. 1 in badminton, and claimed a record 107 medals at the Asian Games. The Paris Olympics, which will take place from 26 July to 11 August, will be the ultimate test.
Since India’s multiple-medal haul at the 2008 Beijing Games—when Abhinav Bindra won the country’s first individual gold in Olympics and wrestler Sushil Kumar and boxer Vijender Singh won bronze—each subsequent Olympics have begun with promise. Don’t be surprised if experts chime in with a double-digit prediction for Paris too. This should be tempered by the fact that historically, reality has rarely matched up to the hype.
So far, 29 Indians have either qualified or won a quota place for the country for the Olympics. In Chopra, they have an athlete who is at the absolute top of his game and has delivered on the biggest stage. The javelin star has been staggeringly consistent at world events: Following his Olympics gold in 2021, he won the Diamond League final in 2022 and then completed the trophy sweep with a World Championship gold in 2023. While he entered the Tokyo Olympics as a promising star, Chopra will arrive in Paris as a world class champion and will be expected to win a medal. The javelin star has only exceeded expectations so far. Crossing the 90m mark is still a big goal for the 26-year-old, but as he learnt this year, for a country so starved of athletics success, the clink of medal is meatier.
Expect Nikhat Zareen to hit new heights in international boxing.
Apart from Chopra, India’s women’s boxing contingent make for the most exciting prospect in Paris. While Lovlina Borgohain will be looking to improve on her bronze finish in Tokyo, Nikhat Zareen will be raring to go on her Olympic debut. Ever since she missed out on the Tokyo Olympics berth to M.C. Mary Kom, who competed in the same weight category as her, Zareen has been been counting down the months, weeks and days. Having dropped down to the 50 kg category, she secured a quota for India at the Asian Games.
For India, the race to the Olympics will begin just a few days into the new year as the women’s hockey team, one of the best stories of the Tokyo Games, seeks qualification. The men’s team already booked a berth for Paris by winning gold at the 2023 Hangzhou Asian Games. India will be hoping to make the cut in women’s hockey for the third Olympics running, when they compete in in the FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers tournament, which will be held in Ranchi from 13-19 January.
The beautiful game: There was some cheer for Indian football fans, with the national team’s impressive performances at home. The Indian team won Tri-Nation Cup, Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship in 2023, and got some much-needed international exposure as they played a few international friendlies in Southeast Asia. All of it, however, was tuned towards assembling a better squad for the AFC Asian Cup, which will be held in Doha, Qatar from 12 January. An equivalent to the Euros or Copa America, the Asian Cup is the biggest tournament the Indian team competes in.
Sunil Chhetri will be leading India into the Asian Cup this year.
India, whose best performance at the event was a runners-up finish in 1964, have been drawn in Group B along with Syria, Uzbekistan and continental heavyweights Australia. It could also be the last Asian Cup for India’s talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri, who is leading the team from the front at the age of 39.
For the football world at large though, Euro 2024 in Germany will be the marquee event of the year. After failing to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, defending champions Italy will make comeback to the majors. France striker Kylian Mbappe, who nearly took his team to victory against Argentina in the 2022 World Cup final, and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo are likely to headline the tournament, which will be held in Germany from 14 June to 14 July.
Battle of the greats: Will 2024 be Rafael Nadal’s final year on tour? He certainly believes so. At 37 years of age, his battered body may not be able to take many more blows. He missed out most of last year nursing a foot injury and declared before the US Open that 2024 could well be his last season. But Nadal will return to action in January 2024 and will be hoping to go out kicking and screaming.
He may not have the time, or the legs, to overtake Novak Djokovic in the race to the most Grand Slam titles—Nadal has 22 and Djokovic 24—but the Spaniard may look for a fairytale finish at the French Open. A 14-time champion at the clay-court Grand Slam, Nadal may make yet another run for the title.
Will this be Rafael Nadal’s final year on the tour?
Meanwhile, Djokovic sounded another warning as the 2023 season came to an end. When asked how he could improve on an already impressive year, where he reached finals of all four majors, won three of them and won the ATP World Tour Finals, the Serb said, “Well, you can win four Slams and Olympic gold.” If he wins the first two Slams of the year, Djokovic will chase that target hard. Only one person has achieved a Golden Grand Slam in tennis history—Steffi Graf in 1988—and Djokovic has developed a particular fondness of snatching all records for himself. The Grand Slam season will start with the Australian Open, which begins on 14 January.
T20 vision: The scars of defeat in a World Cup final are still fresh, but the Indian team is already looking forward to another world event. The men’s 2024 T20 World Cup will be held from 4-30 June in the West Indies and the US, with a possible India vs. Pakistan clash in a temporary cricket stadium in New York.
Winners of the inaugural T20 world championship in 2007, India have never won it since. They last reached the final of the tournament in 2014, when they lost to Sri Lanka. At this year’s World Cup, India will once again be the crowd pullers, but whether they have the firepower or the fortitude to contend for the title remains to be seen.
The women’s T20 World Cup will also take place later in the year. Indian women’s cricket team have also had their share of heartbreaks in the knockout stages of the world event. They lost in the semi-finals of the 2023 edition, and in the final in 2020. But having beaten Australia and England at home in Tests at the end of 2023, the Harmanpreet Kaur-led side is likely to take on the challenge with renewed confidence.
Year of comebacks? Of the Indians who have qualified for the Paris Olympics, the biggest missing names are P.V. Sindhu, Mirabai Chanu, Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat. The star athletes have dealt with demons of their own in the past year.
This will be an important year for badminton star PV Sindhu.
While Mirabai Chanu, who won India’s first medal in Tokyo, has been laid low by a hip injury, Sindhu is struggling for form. After clinching bronze in Tokyo, Sindhu had become the first Indian woman to win multiple Olympic medals. But the former world champion had a forgettable 2023, failing to win a single tour title.
Despite all their achievements on the wrestling mat, Tokyo bronze medallist Punia and Phogat should be better known as athletes who stood up to an oppressive system in 2023. They spent most of last year fighting a losing battle against the former Wrestling Federation of India chief, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Punia, Phogat and former Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik—she quit the sport in protest in December—put their career on hold last year. It remains to be seen if they will make, or even want to make, a comeback and qualify for another Olympics. The symbolism of national honours like the Padma Shri and Khel Ratna—Punia and Phogat returned these awards—is meaningless for them now. Will the lure of an Olympic medal, a tangible reward for their life’s work, bring them back?
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.