Amid loud cheers, claps and plenty of good wishes at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, athletes from the eight disciplines of archery, badminton, table tennis, hockey, judo, gymnastics, swimming and weightlifting boarded the flight to Tokyo.
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Notwithstanding the gloom surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the IGI witnessed unprecedented scenes and the hockey teams, arriving from Bengaluru, and the table tennis contingent led by A Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra, were accorded a warm reception on entering the terminal, with the airport staff lining up on both sides as they walked through.
Such was the euphoria surrounding the send-off, that the Government of India arranged for a special Olympic Contingent Clearance immigration line for the Tokyo-bound members.
Beside Thakur, the send-off ceremony was attended by Minister of State for Sports, Nisith Pramanik, Sports Authority of India Director General Sandip Pradhan and Indian Olympic Association (IOA) officials, including President Narinder Batra and Secretary General Rajeev Mehta.
A contingent of 88 members, which includes 54 athletes besides support staff and IOA representatives, departed for the Japanese capital on Saturday night to participate in the COVID-hit Tokyo Games, which will begin in a week’s time on July 23.
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Hockey, consisting of both the men’s and women’s teams, is the largest among all disciplines.
“How’s the josh? It should be high and that should be the spirit of Indian athletes,” Thakur said.
“There are 135 crore Indians and you are blessed to be representing the country, you should be proud. The blessing of the entire nation is with you and everyone is hoping for your success.”
Reiterating the message of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Thakur said the athletes shouldn’t take any pressure while representing the nation at the showpiece.
“As the PM said, please go with a free mind and don’t take stress. It is the mental toughness, how strong you are here at the time of your event, it’s a battle of nerves. If you are strong enough you are going to perform stronger,” he said.
“135 crore Indians are with you, just remember this. Go with a big heart and wherever you go try to unfurl the tricolour and come out victorious.”
“I would also like to say that this is not the end of the road. There are many more tests in life waiting for you. The entire country is looking at you and the entire world is looking at you.”
The sports minister further said the government tried its best to provide support to the athletes in their Olympic endeavour and if any shortcoming is still there, he would apologise for that and resurrect it in the future.
Batra promised the Olympic-bound athletes due recognition if they come out victorious in Tokyo.
“When you come back victorious, you will get what you deserve. All the best.”
Some of the Indian athletes have already reached Tokyo from their respective training bases abroad.
India’s lone weightlifter in fray, Mirabai Chanu, reached Tokyo on Friday from her training base in St Louis, USA.
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Chanu was accompanied by national coach Vijay Sharma and assistant coach Sandip Kumar, while another assistant coach Pramod Sharma left from the national capital along with the first batch.
The boxers left from Italy while the shooters reached Tokyo on Saturday, after completing a long training-cum-competition stint in Croatia.
India will be represented by a 228-strong contingent, including 119 athletes, at the Tokyo Olympics, which will be held under strict health protocols and without spectators in the wake of the raging pandemic.
Four Indian sailors — Nethra Kumanan and Vishnu Saravanan (laser class), KC Ganapathy and Varun Thakkar (49er class) — were the first from the country to reach Tokyo from their training bases in Europe. They started training on Thursday.
The Indian shooting contingent checked in at the Games Village on Saturday.
Besides, the rowing team has also reached Tokyo, while the boxing contingent has left from its training base in Italy and is scheduled to reach the Japanese capital via Amsterdam on Sunday morning.
While those Indian athletes entering Tokyo from other parts of the world may have avoided the stricter COVID-19 restrictions on reaching the host city, for sure they have missed out on the rousing farewell their compatriots received at IGI.