Reaching the dream

To win 25 Olympic medals by 2020, India will need to learn as much about sport as about effort. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Aug 15, 2012 22:31 IST
Anand Mahindra,Samar Halarnkar,Olympics

As the 30th Olympiad closed, Anand Mahindra, head of the Mahindra conglomerate, tweeted: "We are proud of our Olympic medallists, but enough of this humiliation of 6 medals amongst 1.2 bn people."

It is a familiar Indian refrain. A global giant, dwarfed by sporting inability, finishes 55th in the medal rankings. The next superpower, humbled by quasi-nations small enough to be swallowed by south Delhi. As India celebrates its biggest Olympic haul, comparative reality is inescapable. Six medals is half the tally of a sunny, violent island of 2.5 million people, Jamaica, home to a certain Usain Bolt, who got as many medals as India.

Such comparisons are misleading, erroneous and unfair. They do not reflect the extraordinary, additional struggles that the Indian athlete - who is not a cricketer - must endure in a nation where sporting glory is now the preserve of women and men from places called Kangethei, Baprola and Hamirpur. The 1.2-billion number is a myth.

It is true that India's Olympic medal tally, per capita or otherwise, is one of the world's lowest. It is also true that India has more malnourished, poor, illiterate people than any other country. For hundreds of millions of Indians, sport is irrelevant. For the rest, it isn't for them. As Gagan Narang, bronze-medal winning shooter, said on a chat show this week: "About 0.00001% of Indians play sport seriously. If we can raise that to 0.1%, that will be big."

Unknown to most Indians, a modest effort to back sport began earlier this decade. It has been good enough to double the medal tally from Beijing. India's six medals were not a fluke. Although they were born of uncommon individual persistence, they were, equally, the product of systematic support from government, a couple of trusts and a few former champions who sweated it out with their wards, not under the lights of television studios.

Consider Yogeshwar Dutt, whose unshaven and puffy eyed face marked India's wrestling bronze in London. His sporting career almost ended in September 2008 when three knee ligaments tore. This is when the Mittal Champions Trust - established in 2005 by billionaire Lakshmi Mittal to nurture potential Olympic talent - stepped in, funding a knee-reconstruction surgery in South Africa and a year-long recovery. Of course, there would be no medal without Dutt's personal fortitude and single-minded determination, which included celibacy. "Nobody gets ahead in life because there are women hanging around him," he told my colleague Sukhwant Basra earlier this week. "One gets ahead because of one's deeds."

No deeds are more remarkable than those of Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom, or Mary Kom, as India knows the boxer best. You could call her, as some now do, Mother India or Mother Mary, and learn what it takes to be her: To rise from a life in poverty, hoeing farms; to secretly learn a sport of flattened noses, in a society that now celebrates her but is glad she is not of their family; to train obsessively, while being a mother of two boys, in an unstable land; to become, without your country knowing it, a five-time world champion; to be taunted, "ching, ching, ching", on the streets of the capital city of that country, yet drape its flag around your shoulders.

Mary Kom got critical support from the government, nearly Rs. 1 crore on a special coach, training facilities in Pune and travel. Much support also came from Olympic Gold Quest, a private initiative founded in 2001 by former billiards world champion Geet Sethi and former badminton champion Prakash Padukone.

So, too, in badminton where the great wall of India, Saina Nehwal, attributes her bronze medal and ability to stand against the Chinese to the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. "I was thinking of the work Gopi sir and I put in to get here, and I started crying," Nehwal told Mint after the medal. She refers to Pullela Gopi Chand, former All-England champion, who reached the courts at 4.30 am everyday and also trained Parupalli Kashyap, the first Indian man to reach the quarter finals. In 2003, after persuading the state government to give him land, "Gopi Sir" needed Rs. 10 crore to build his temple. He raised Rs. 7 crore, then bridged the deficit by mortgaging his house.

Governments and companies realise there could be more to Indian sport than cricket, and that if there is to be more, there must be long-term support to tap the growing wellspring of determination. That support is still a trickle, but every bit helps.

By sun-down on Sunday, after the medal ceremony, wrestler Sushil Kumar - downcast after his silver, three bouts of vomiting and a London belly - found himself richer by nearly Rs. 2 crore, awarded to him by the Haryana government and the Indian Railways. He will continue to live in a cramped single room in a Delhi stadium, but the bus conductor's son will know his family is provided for.

Sporting success isn't only about a medal. India must understand what it takes to reach an Olympic final, as discus thrower Krishna Poonia and shot-putter Vikas Gowda did, the first time an Indian man entered an Olympic final in field events since 1948. Gowda was placed eighth in a final field of eight, but he got there by beating 33 others. Poonia finished seventh of seven in the final, the first Indian woman to get this far. Yet, as sportswriter Sharda Ugra writes in a blog, the media had dismissive scorn for those who finished "last". India must also learn to stand by those who do actually finish last, such as the once-great hockey team.

Sports minister Ajay Maken now says India can win 25 medals by 2020. That's possible - if India truly learns the lessons of 2012.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Aug 15, 2012 22:24 IST