It’s the last day of the Olympics and all across our nation’s rolling tracks and fields, we are bursting with pre-ordered pride. The country has notched up its “best medal haul ever” — five! — and all those pointing out that one gold medal counts for more than a silver or bronze are fat, obese bums.
Over the last few weeks, a whole new generation of Indians got to witness the joys of sporting excellence that lie beyond the obvious realms of the Usain Bolts and the Michael Phelps as our medal-winning athletes — five! — held their heads high in London. Actually, as a nation of sportspersons as well as last-minute sporting enthusiasts, we have the remarkable ability of holding our heads high no matter what the results are.
Unlike the rest of the world which reckons that winning is all that matters — unless, of course, a double-amputee like South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius or Polish table-tennis player born without a right forearm Natalia Partyka catches the public imagination — we here in India prefer to make hay especially when the sun doesn’t shine.
What’s the fun in having an Olympic champion if he has access to all the amenities and a full support system? That’s like cheating or being on performance-enhancing drugs.
Even outside the sporting arena, we get turned on when success comes against all odds, preferably as a rags-to-riches story with the ‘rags’ bit being vital to the story. As we’ve learnt after reading those lovely, eye-watering New York Times articles, the humbler the background of the Indian sportsperson, the higher his chances of capturing the nation’s imagination. And capturing the nation’s imagination matters much more than notching up victories. Which is why all those stories about athletes from small towns and villages are enough to make us swell with pride.
If Mary Kom had been a boxer from Mumbai instead of a village in Manipur, and if she had picked up the sport from her days as a student in the Convent of Jesus and Mary after watching one of the Rocky movies instead of being inspired by Dingko Singh, would we have honestly found her so remarkable even if she had won gold for us at London? What if silver medallist Vijay Kumar had been a pal of Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra in St Stephen’s School Chandigarh instead of being a subedar in the Indian army ‘protecting our borders while we sleep’? Wouldn’t that have taken a bit of the shine off his silver medal?
Our athletes could have held their heads high and swept the medal chart if they had the opportunities those fratboys and fratgirls in America have. Or if they had to go through the torturous training the fun-hating Chinese make their athletes go through. But with our limited resources, degenerate sporting bodies and weekend non-cricketing enthusiasm, our Olympic medal haul — five! — has been fantastic. And that’s not even counting the astounding feat of shooter Jayanta Karmakar who grabbed the elusive ‘almost bronze’ medal, which in the quantum world of Indian sports coverage is actually better than getting a bronze medal as you join the ranks of the two ‘almost bronze’ medallist greats, Milkha Singh and PT Usha.
Frankly, I don’t give a flying Fosbury Flop about some nancy boys finding it shameful that a country of 1.2 billion people have won only five medals, none of them being gold. Even if you discount the case of Japan throwing a badminton match for the sole purpose of keeping the India pair out and the reversal of a decision that killed boxer Vikas Krishan’s medal chances, there were so many other signs of bias against our athletes.
Archer Deepika Kumari had to deal with a strange rush of wind each time she took aim before being eliminated in the first round. Shooter Ronjon Sodhi was distracted by the loud crowd before being knocked out in the qualification round. Our hockey team had to play on an astroturf that looked like a carpet made from flayed Teletubby skin whose unique Dhyanchand dribble-soaking abilities led to the record performance of five losses in a row. News from the Indian camp “suggested” that Mary Kom had to deal with menstrual cramps a day before her semi-final bout. Long jumper Renjith Maheshwary committed three consecutive fouls in the triple jump event, a feat probably caused by memories of hardship as a child growing up in the backwaters of Kottayam.
Once you keep all this in mind, it becomes obvious that India’s medal haul — five! — isn’t incredible but awe-inspiring. We are a permanently-potential sporting superpower. What matters is keeping the wonderful romance of our poor, resource-strapped, opportunity-starved athletes alive. It’s not about winning Olympic medals. Any rich country can do that. It’s about our athletes capturing our easily capturable imagination.