“Oh! look at our Olympians. All of them are failures. The same story repeats every year.”
“Our sports facilities and infrastructure are the worst in the world. The fact that we compete in such a situation is an achievement in itself.”
“The biggest problem in India is that parents always expect their children to study as much as they can. No one encourages youngsters to take up sports.”
“What a disappointment this Olympic campaign has been for us after all our expectations of a lot many medals.”
So many of us must have heard, read, discussed and even cribbed about India’s performance every Olympics including the current one. Do the above sentences sound familiar? Maybe you must have cribbed or would have heard others talking about our performance at the world stage. What’s the difference anyway? Every four years we go with big contingents and great expectations but come back empty handed. This is the sad story of a country with a population of 1 billion but with the capability to produce just a few world class athletes. But this time things are different. Do I hear you ask why? Let’s see it in more detail.
With 83 athletes, this is the largest contingent we have ever sent to any Olympics. Now the fact that so many of our athletes have qualified is an achievement in itself. That at least goes to show that they are at par with the best in the world. And they are trying hard!
And then, lets move to the medal hopes or so the media had predicted. Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang, Deepika Kumari, Vijender Singh, Mary Kom, Sushil Kumar, Saina Nehwal among others. Now this list itself consists of athletes across five different sports – Shooting, Archery, Badminton, Boxing and Wrestling. I don’t really remember the last time India ever had such a good group of athletes across various sports. Isn’t that something to be proud of? It’s not that they have had an easy journey. Mary Kom is a mom of two who wasn’t encouraged to pursue boxing at all. Saina’s grandmom wanted a boy when she was born. These guys aren’t even in a sport which pays you big bucks. Yes, they have done well at the Commonwealth Games, World Championships etc. but the money isn’t anything close to what our cricketers earn. But they have fought against all odds.
And then, we have the unheralded group of athletes who have risen from an underdog status to let people take notice of their abilities and the fact that they exist. Irfan Thodi, a 22 yr old armyman and a son of a daily wager didn’t even have running or walking shoes before Mohanlal, the Kerala film industry superstar decided to support him. And lo and behold, he finished a creditable 10th in the 20km race walk creating a national record in only his second international level competition. Krishna Poonia, a mother who hasn’t met her child for the past 4 months because she was practising became the first ever Indian woman to reach the finals of the discuss throw event. The fact that she was adjudged as the 7th best discuss thrower on the planet is surely an achievement to be proud of. Joydeep Karmakar, a 32 year old railway employee narrowly missed out on a bronze in the 50m Rifle event. Our boxing contingent which includes Devendro Laishram, Vikas Krishnan, Shiva Thapa, Manoj Kumar, Jai Bhagwan and Sumit Sangwan have all done fantastically in their respective events though they may have lost.
We haven’t won many medals. But when have we had so many contenders across events? For years since the 1980 Olympics we were happy to just ‘participate’ and make up the numbers. Even when Leander Paes won in Atlanta or Karnam Malleshwari won in Sydney or Rajyavardhan Rathore won in Athens, we weren’t too confident or looking forward to more medals. But this time if Saina went down, there was Vijender in the boxing ring. If Leander and Vishnu lost their tennis match, there was Gagan Narang to look forward to in the Shooting event. Maybe for the first time as far as Indian athletes are concerned, when Deepika Kumari crashed out being the world no 1 in archery, it was termed as shock win for her British opponent. She may have crashed out more because of the pressure of being no 1 rather than anything. At 18 years, age is surely on her side to come back in Rio 2016.
So how have we improved? The best thing to have happened is the Olympic Gold Quest scheme started by Geet Sethi and Prakash Padukone to support upcoming stars in athletics, badminton, boxing and shooting. This is the support athletes have been crying for years and they are finally getting it. Pullela Gopichand’s & Prakash Padukone’s academy have done wonders for badminton with many up and coming players. With Vijender and Akhil Kumar’s success over the years, boxing has suddenly become a rage at least in Punjab with so many boxers lining up to be the next Vijender.
But then there’s still lots to be done. Our hockey team has plunged to new depths with four straight humiliating losses for the first time ever in the Olympics. In tennis after all the hullabaloo of who would pair whom, we finally returned empty handed. And for the next Olympics in Rio we wouldn’t have Bhupathi, Paes and maybe even Sania. Bopanna and Vishnu are good but nothing to rave about. And beyond them the tennis cupboard looks bare.
Our athletes are winning. And finally they are getting support. Yes, a lot needs to be done about infrastructure and what not. We said that they need to win to stay in the news. They have done that. What we can do to support them is to follow such sports beyond the Olympics as well and cheer their successes.
These guys have sacrificed a lot to be on the big stage! And they are performing better than ever. If we don’t recognize and praise them now, no one ever will! And then, we wouldn’t have any right to crib and criticize!
PS – For those asking, there are many others like Ronjan Sodhi, Parupalli Kashyap, Tarundeep Rai, Rahul Banerjee, Vijay Kumar etc. some of whom performed commendably while others failed despite huge expectations.