Decades of lamenting ended in 2008 when Bindra won an individual gold medal, the first by an Indian, at the Beijing Games. Given the travails that the shooter had to go through, it almost didn’t happen. In the same Games, boxer Vijender Singh and wrestler Sushil Kumar won bronze medals to make it the most
productive Olympics yet for India.
The Hockey players
Since India has won eight gold medals in hockey, the last in 1980, it is difficult to single out one team. But it would be fair to say that those who played between 1928 and 1956 made Indian hockey the best in the world, with the skills of players like Dhyan Chand and Bobbie Claudius, among others, attracting widespread encomiums from aficionados till date.
A hardy wrestler from Satara district, Jadhav won the first individual medal for India with a bronze in the 52kg category at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. He almost did not make it thanks to nepotism in the federation. But people from his village pooled in the R7,000 he needed to get to the Games. Alas, his splendid achievement was soon forgotten and Jadhav died in penury in 1984.
The never-say-die man of Indian sport, the tennis ace got an unexpected medal at the 1996 Games in Atlanta; the first by an individual after Khashaba Jadhav. Ranked 126 in the world in singles, Paes, as always, was a player transformed when wearing the Indian colours. He almost got the better of top-notcher Andre Agassi in the semi-finals, losing 6-7, 3-6, but was not to be denied a bronze.
The weight-lifter became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal by clinching a bronze in the clean, snatch and jerk at the Millennium Games in Sydney (2000). Born in Andhra Pradesh, Malleswari gave a new dimension to women athletes in India by showing her prowess in a discipline that was believed to be an exclusively male territory.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore
The shooter became the first silver medal-winning Indian Olympian since Norman Pritchard, an Englishman, who won two silvers at the Paris Olympics in 1900 representing India. From the army, and now a colonel, Rathore’s silver at the Athens Games in 2004 came in the double trap event against heavy odds. But his performance set up a lineage of fine Indian shooters who are now recognised as world beaters.
Milkha Singh and PT Usha
Neither won an Olympic medal, but they helped establish a legacy. Milkha, an army jawan, who trained barefoot because he couldn’t afford shoes, finished fourth by a whisker in 1960 in the 400m run in Rome despite breaking the then existing world record. In 1984, at the Los Angeles Games, PT Usha, who has inspired several generations of women athletes, missed a bronze in the 400m hurdles by 1/100th of a second. It is a moot point what these two could have achieved with better training facilities and support.