Neeraj Chopra didn’t compete on the international stage for 17 months, between January 2020 and June 2021.
Saikhom Mirabai Chanu went without competition from December 2019 to April 2021.
PV Sindhu featured in five tournaments from March 2020 till the start of the Olympic Games.
During the same period, Lovlina Borgohain used the money she received as part of her Arjuna Award – the second-highest state honour for Indian sportspersons – for the treatment of her mother’s kidney ailment.
While Ravi Kumar Dahiya grappled on the mats in Tokyo, the local administration in his village in Haryana had to make special arrangements to ensure his parents could tune into the action without any electricity cuts.
Bajrang Punia had to forfeit a match a month ago after injuring his right knee, which would remain strapped through most of his contests in Tokyo.
The Indian men’s hockey team had spent most of the last one and a half years locked down at a national training facility in Bengaluru. In the six months leading up to the Tokyo Games, they had spent a total of four days at their respective homes.
In the best of times, it takes the struggle of a lifetime to deliver the holy grail of an Olympic medal. As India reeled under the disastrous first and second waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the worst of times to exist – leave alone train for sporting glory.
And yet, the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 conclude as the most successful in India’s 120-year history of competition.
These seven champions have travelled far and wide to make that happen. This is their story, recapped.
Medal #1: Mirabai Chanu
Silver, women’s 49 kg weightlifting
For the first time ever, India won a medal on day one of an Olympic Games. It came from Saikhom Mirabai Chanu – who scripted a remarkable redemption from Rio 2016.
Five years ago, on her Olympic debut, Mirabai stepped up for her last attempt (a 106 kg clean and jerk lift) with a bronze medal in sight – but couldn’t complete what was a regulation lift for her.
The journey towards mending a broken dream – and heart – began right away. Before the end of 2017, she was a world champion; one year later, she was a Commonwealth Games gold medallist.
Having established herself as one of the world’s top-five weightlifters in her 49 kg category, Mirabai entered Tokyo 2020 ranked third in the world, and as a genuine medal contender. She didn’t disappoint.
With an 87 kg lift in the snatch, and a 115 kg lift in the clean and jerk, she made the silver medal hers – bettered only by HOU Zhihui of the People’s Republic China, who went on an Olympic record-smashing run in the final.
Medal #2: PV Sindhu
Bronze, women’s singles badminton
PV Sindhu’s bid to better, or match, her Rio 2016 silver was halted by eventual silver medallist Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei in the semifinals. But that did not stop India’s serial winner from adding a historic second Olympic medal to her burgeoning trophy cabinet.
Shunning the disappointment of the defeat from 24 hours earlier, Sindhu secured the bronze medal with a 21-13, 21-15 win against HE Bing Jiao of the People’s Republic of China.
It gave her the distinction of becoming the only Indian female athlete to win multiple Olympic medals, and only the second Indian – female or male – to medal twice in individual events at the Olympic Games.
Sindhu also became only the fifth female shuttler to win two Olympic singles medals.
The 26-year-old has now won a combined seven medals at the Olympics and the world championships since 2013.
Medal #3: Lovlina Borgohain
Bronze, women’s welterweight boxing
Lovlina Borgohain wasn't the most spoken about name in the nine-member Indian boxing contingent that made the trip to Tokyo. Given the presence of the legendary MC Mary Kom, that wasn’t a huge surprise.
But the 23-year-old welterweight boxer wasn’t short on credentials: she had medalled at the last two world championships, as well as at two Asian championships, including the most recent edition earlier this year.
At Tokyo 2020, she would emulate her and her country’s icon – joining Mary Kom as India’s second female boxer to win an Olympic medal.
Borgohain earned her medal by defeating 2018 world champion Chen Nien-Chin in the quarterfinals, prevailing 4-1 on points against the pugilist from Chinese Taipei.
Her bid to become India’s first Olympic finallist in boxing was only denied by 2019 world champion and eventual gold medallist Busenaz Surmeneli of Turkey.
Medal #4: Men’s Hockey Team
A long wait. A huge weight.
When India last won an Olympic medal in hockey, no member of their present team had been born, and their coach – Australian Graham Reid – was yet to begin his playing career.
The most successful nation in the history of the Olympic hockey competition had waited 41 years for a medal in the sport. The wait ended in sensational style.
After being defeated 5-2 by eventual champions Belgium in the semifinals, India’s medal hopes rested upon their bronze playoff against Germany. At 3-1 down with half-time approaching, the medal appeared to be eluding India again.
Four goals in the span of seven minutes, either side of the half-time hooter, and the dream was back on. The Germans – medallists at each of the last four editions of the Olympic Games – pulled one back at 5-4, and won a penalty corner with less than seven seconds left on the clock.
But goalkeeper PR Sreejesh stood his ground to deny an equaliser – and India had their 12th Olympic medal in men’s hockey.
Medal #5: Ravi Kumar Dahiya
Silver, men’s 57 kg wrestling
Speaking of dramatic turnarounds in medal-clinching contests…
With 90 seconds left to play in his semifinal clash with Nurislam Sanayev, Ravi Kumar Dahiya trailed 2-9. The Kazakh grappler, a medallist at the last two world championships, had the Indian right where we wanted him, on the mat. Or so he thought.
Dahiya – a bronze medallist himself at the 2019 world championships, in addition to holding the two latest Asian championship crowns – closed the gap to 5-9, and then turned things around – literally – to pin Sanayev and book himself a spot in the final.
The final, against two-time world champion Zavur Uguev (ROC) proved a bridge too far.
But on his Olympic debut, Dahiya had become only the second Indian wrestler to win an Olympic silver medal. He had also maintained Indian wrestling’s proud run of bringing back at least one medal from every Olympic Games since 2008.
Medal #6: Bajrang Punia
Bronze, men’s 65 kg wrestling
It didn’t stop at one for the wrestling contingent, as Bajrang Punia – named after the patron deity of ‘kushti’ in India – got himself a piece of the prize from the mat.
As the only Indian wrestler with three world championship medals to his name, Bajrang was a prime contender to be among the medals in Tokyo. But it was far from an easy ride.
After scraping through his first two contests, Bajrang was halted in his tracks by Azerbaijan’s Haji Aliyev in the semis. A Rio 2016 bronze medallist in the 57 kg event, Aliyev overpowered the Indian second seed 12-5.
That set Bajrang up for a bronze medal match against Daulet Niyazbekov, the Kazakhstan grappler who he had lost to in the 2019 world championship semifinals.
Far from showing any of the lingering signs of worry from the first day of competition, the 27-year-old was at his dominant best in an 8-0 victory that delivered India its sixth wrestling medal at the Olympics since 2008.
Medal #7: Neeraj Chopra
Gold, men’s javelin throw
Medal number seven at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 was seventh heaven for India.
Neeraj Chopra hurled the javelin into the sky – and it sent a nation to the moon, as India won an athletics gold medal at the Olympics for the first time.
The 23-year-old had needed barely a minute on his maiden Olympic outing to secure a spot in the final – which, in itself, was a first for India in this event – as he topped the qualification stage with his first throw of 86.65m.
In the final, Chopra was expected to be the closest challenger to the world-leading Johannes Vetter. But even as the fancied German slipped on a damp Tokyo evening, the Indian rookie had scaled his way to the summit.
Chopra’s first attempt in the final was marked at 87.03m, and his second flew 87.58m long. It comfortably cleared the rest of the field; his 87.03m attempt would have claimed silver on the day, as second-placed Jakub Vadlejch of Czech Republic landed a best throw of 86.67m.
It gave India only its second individual Olympic champion after Abhinav Bindra (2008, men’s air rifle 10m), and also ended a 121-year wait for an Olympic medal of any colour in athletics.
It was India’s last act of Tokyo 2020; it made it India’s most successful Olympic Games ever.