Rio Olympics didn’t turn out to be as bad as we thought. Yes, we did not win a medal early but quite a few came extremely close. It is really unfortunate we did not win a medal at the start. Had that happened, the mood in the camp would have been better.
There are many things that go into achieving success in Olympics. One of the most important is the quality of training. We can’t cut corners there. You have to work really, really hard. The Olympics come once in four years, but for the athlete it is about every single day in terms of pushing himself to the limit. Without that you can’t achieve anything.
To succeed in any sport, to have a long career, you have to be persistent. There will be more failures than victories, unless you are Usain Bolt. But you should never give up, keep putting the best foot forward all the time and keep trying.
We need a long term vision to achieve what we aspire for. We must try and create a synergy between what the country aspires for and what it creates. There have been a lot of positive changes. It’s wrong to say everything has gone wrong.
Firstly, we had 118 athletes, our largest ever Olympic contingent. It’s not that you get an air ticket to Rio and compete there. You have to be at a world level to get there. We must acknowledge that we have made an improvement. Having reached that level itself is an achievement. Of course, we want to win more medals.
We should be working for 2024 already. Producing an Olympic champion requires seven-eight years. And we have to nurture and support talent for a sustained period — from the grassroots, one step at a time, to the top. That requires time, experts from various fields, which is not just about performance in skill, it is about physical preparation, mental preparation, recovery, planning the athlete’s programme… Everything requires experts, it has to be holistic.
A strong foundation
Perhaps in the last couple of years we have given better facilities to our athletes. But the vision has been short-term. Say for Rio, in the last two-three years, our athletes have got support. But perhaps that is not enough. What is happening now is we do not have systems in place at home and athletes have to travel overseas. I think badminton is the only exception. We need to create all those facilities within our country. At the moment we don’t have the best coaches, best sports scientists, best physiotherapists in India. Once that happens, the grassroots will be able to access these things. Only then can we expect medals in multiple digits, or whatever we aspire for.
I will give my own example. I kept going overseas all these years for preparation. That is not Plan A because I can’t live overseas for four years. I go there for three weeks, come back, go there again, in stints. That is Plan B.
In contrast, the American athletes have all those facilities available at home. That makes a big difference. Training has to be sustained and so it is very important to create those facilities in-house.
But that is not easy. It requires a huge investment and you need the best expertise in the world because unfortunately we don’t have that available within.
There is a huge backlog, there are huge challenges. We are working well and trying our best, but in Plan B. We are not competing against five or six countries. We are competing against 200 nations, of which some have extraordinary amount of resources. Here I don’t mean just in terms of money. I’m talking in terms of systems, know-how and expertise available to the athletes. So Plan B may not be enough.
Set our targets
We as a nation must define our aspirations. It’s not fair to have an uproar every four years, and if we don’t win a medal start comparing ourselves to North Korea, Kenya and Ethiopia.
We have to look deep within to see why that is happening. As a nation we have to see if this is important to us, if it is a matter of prestige, whether we want to reach a stage where we come in the top five in the medals tally.
India has numerous challenges. We are a developing country, we have poverty. So we have to define whether Olympics are a higher priority. But if we want our athletes to win, we need long-term investment. It’s complicated.
Government support has improved. I won’t say it’s ideal, but it is definitely a step forward. In the last five-six months, there is huge amount of activity. But five-six months are not going to get you there. You need that same will, that same desire, same energy for years.
The current programmes will get you four-five medals, not more. You want to focus on that, I’m fine with that. Then let us not complain. You have private organisations like the Olympic Gold Quest and Jindal (JSW) and the government’s TOPS; these are nice but are not the way to get sustained medals. These are filling the gap. But if we desire to win 30 medals, then it requires a sustained amount of investment for many years.
Let us set our goals for 2020 Tokyo within the next four weeks. Let us not just five weeks before the Games start predicting we will win five medals. At the moment, there is no clarity.
There is disappointment, but emotion won’t give us perspective. Is our goal in 2020 to win 10 medals? Then let us define it. Why four weeks, let us define within the next 10 days and set a plan and work towards it. Then see how much we are putting into it in terms of support, training and define all those roles and go after it.
Personally, over the last 20 years, I’ve put my heart and soul into preparation, into being the best I can be. At the end of the journey, the medals are what you want. I have no regrets because I put everything I had into it. You are not in control of everything. It also depends on how the others are doing. But I put everything into it. That is what gives me satisfaction. I came very, very close to a second medal at the Olympics. I can’t blame myself because I cut no corners and put my best into it.
In India, putting medals ahead of performances might not be completely fair, but definitely understandable. External expectations are part of an athlete’s life and an athlete will have to deal with it. Yes, sometimes the expectations may not be in the right perspective but the athlete has to cut all these things away.
For an athlete, the most important thing is his or her internal expectations. That is all about winning. You don’t just want to compete. But then it is the Olympic Games. Around 11,000 athletes have taken part in Rio, and there will be only 300 champions. That is a very, very small number.
Now, on doping. I think there is doping firstly because we do not have all the facilities for the athletes in India that would legally allow them to reach the desired performance levels. Then they want to cut corners and go the wrong way. But that is not going to get you there. We have to create champions by providing the right expertise, cutting edge ways of training. If that is available, athletes can then go and reach that level without all these. I am sure a lot of young people are inspired by the whole Olympic movement. I would implore them to take up Olympic sports. Sport is perhaps the best learning that they could get for life, it is a huge adventure and it is something which is very fulfilling.
I will tell the country to get involved in sport. It doesn’t mean we should all take up competitive sport. Let’s make sport a very important factor in our lives. It has to become a social activity for us to grow into sporting country.