When the Indian contingent last travelled to London for the Olympics in 1948, all hopes of a nascent nation were on the hockey squad. Thrice champions in a row before World War II intervened, they again swept to victory, accounting for independent India’s first gold medal. The heroics were provided by the footballers, who enthralled the audience of a war-ravaged nation by taking the lead against France, playing barefoot no less, although a missed penalty, the cold and damp weather and a superior opposition had the final say.
Sixty-four years later, as Indian archers kicked off action on Friday in London, there is transformation and hope in the air. Pretty much the fallen heroes, the hockey team, will have to play at an unbelievable level if they are to even reach the semi-finals; after the free fall for most of the last two decades, they are very much a team in transition on their return to the Olympic fold, having failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.
Instead, India, dismissed as third class around this time every four years, have risen to world class in many other sports as reflected by its 81-member contingent. In Athens, Rajyava-rdhan Rathore won a silver medal in double trap shooting to pull India a rung up after the solo bronzes they had managed in the previous two Games. Abhinav Bindra then showed in Beijing how it is done, becoming India’s first individual Olympic champion. Boxer Vijender Singh and freestyle wrestler Sushil Kumar won bronze medals to wipe out, to a great extent, any inferiority complex Indians had when it came to contact sports.
The mood has changed to such an extent in the Indian camp that in London, Chinese badminton players won’t be spoken of in hushed tones while discussing Saina Nehwal’s chances. Bindra, Vijender and Sushil are there while Leander Paes, the 1996 singles bronze medalist, also knows how to win on the hallowed Wimbledon courts. Starting with the 1952 Helsinki Games, independent India has managed just seven individual medals. In London, don’t be surprised if India find itself in seventh heaven.
If that happens, that would be because unlike in the past when squabbling was the norm before departure, there seems to be a fresh unity and bounce after the victories at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games. The government has provided financial support and the athletes have also got extra help from private foundations. If three medals can stir the nation’s sporting conscience, a few more this time have the potential to change the sporting ethos of the country.