Soon after ending India’s embarrassing wait by winning the first medal at the Rio Games, woman wrestler Sakshi Malik declared that she was confident of her ability. She had even visualised how she would celebrate. Sakshi said claiming the bronze tasted more like victory than the silver, as that would have come after losing in the final. In wrestling, all those who had lost to the eventual finalists are put in the mix again and fight till the bronze medalist is decided. It reminded me of the famous Iranian film Children of Heaven, directed by Majid Majidi and nominated for the best foreign language film at the 1998 Oscars.
The film narrates a poignant story of a young boy’s affection for his sister. Feeling guilty after his sister loses her shoes while in his possession, he is desperate to come third in a road race because the prize is a pair of shoes. But somehow he finishes first and is unhappy though he gets hold of a much better prize.
Often, in the nationwide clamour for a rare Olympic medal, we don’t realise what goes in the mind of a competitor, what makes him or her tick.
As the curtain comes down on the Rio Olympics, we have some reason for cheer with the ballerina of the badminton court, PV Sindhu, bringing in a silver. India is often teased as a nation of one billion that manages only very few medals. The progress made over the last two Games, three medals with shooter Abhinav Bindra’s first-ever individual gold at the 2008 Beijing Games followed by six in London, had raised hopes that India would somehow hit double figures.
But India was in danger of finishing empty-handed until Sakshi Malik’s courageous display, becoming only the fourth woman to win an Olympic medal for India. And then came Sindhu’s silver. India had not won a medal in three successive Olympics, in 1984 (Los Angeles), 1988 (Seoul) and 1992 (Barcelona).
The sorry medal tally is not entirely shocking. The Chinese media gave a blunt assessment of India’s performances, though it was something we already knew --- lack of planning, athletes being relegated to second class as sports officials jockey for limelight, politicians meddling in sports administration, lack of planning, inadequate funds and the absence of scientific training and nutrition.
Ahead of the Games, one could sense the frenzy among sports officials and the government to push the size of the contingent past 100 for the first time. In the end, India sent 118 athletes to Rio, but did it reflect the state of the country’s sporting standards? No.
The Sports Authority of India’s coaching programme is seen as outdated. In many disciplines, particularly track and field and shooting, foreign experts have to be hired but not too many stay on, thanks to the incessant politicking in the sports administration.
Gymnast Dipa Karmakar has become the darling of India after reaching the final of the women’s vault. The 22-year-old from Tripura just missed a historic medal while finishing fourth, but achieved the unthinkable --- finishing ahead of China’s Wang Yan.
Although gymnastics is suddenly the buzzword, reality bites at home. I find the gymnastics coach in Delhi has been tasked with supervising the Sports Authority of India hostel. Forget cutting edge training, let’s have leg-up for professionalism first.
In track and field, we had a big squad of 30-odd, but none came close to a medal. Lalita Babar was a creditable 10th in the women’s steeplechase final, after breaking the national record in the heats. But the focus was on doping with a sprinter, thrower and a women’s 4x400m relay squad member dropped from the side for doping offences.
The federation has for years bunched elite athletes together, be it in the national camp in the country, or in exposure trips. The destination used to be Ukraine until the government barred the destination due to concerns over doping. In doping, all the focus is on Russia – its athletics squad was banned from Rio for state-backed doping --- but India is not far off. India was third in the list of worst offenders in the 2013 list released by the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA). Only Russia and Turkey have poorer records.
The doping concern rises when triple-jumper Renjith Maheshwary, who has been caught in the past, jumps 17.30m at home in July --- the world’s third-best for 2016 --- but flops in Rio with a best of 16.13m. Seema Antil, the discus thrower who was also mired in doping, trained in Russia ahead of the Games and defended her decision.
The government spent a lot of money under its Target Olympic Podium scheme (TOPs), at least Rs 50 crore to support athletes in advanced training and to improve skills. This aid is over and above the money spent by the government on regular training.
Wrestling apart – the Narsingh Yadav saga ran well into the Games and ended badly --- weightlifting has produced many positive results, in doping. And like the Narsingh-Sushil Kumar fight for the 74 kg freestyle berth, tennis medal hopes too were done in by infighting for the second Games in a row.
Unlike in the past, the government does not stand in the way of sending those who meet the qualifying mark but don’t stand a chance. But a lack of oversight by the government is hurting Indian sport. For example, wrestlers threatened and chased away anti-doping officials who went to the SAI’s Sonepat centre to collect urine samples. No action was taken.
Then, India drew a blank in boxing, which had produced medals in the two previous Olympics. The boxers have suffered due to infighting among officials, and there has been no national federation for over two years. In badminton though India can hold its head high; performances have been consistent and India is now among the sport’s leading nations.
But India is really spreading itself too thin by participating in too many events. At Rio, Indian athletes were entered in as many as 15 disciplines. They didn’t stand a chance in at least five.
Indian athletes are often run down for not winning medals. The demand is born out of a fad in a nation of leagues where sporting victory is seen as adding to the feel good factor. There is little debate on sport. Medal-winning talent is not available in plenty. It will take years of hard work, talent-spotting, and constant upgrading of coaching and effort by federations. Regional coaching centres should become hubs again, and that would make sure there are enough players to foster competition first.
It is time experts imbibed specific inputs from countries running successful sports programmes. There are enough world-class facilities in India, especially those built in Delhi for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. They should be put to proper use.
Shortlist sports with medal potential and ensure continuity in training. The Tokyo 2020 vision may still not be perfect, but results will come if there is a sense of purpose.