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Olympics: India's ultimate escapist fare

The real Olympic stories for India in the past often came off the field and made a laughing stock of the medal-starved nation. N Ananthanarayanan recalls a few.

india Updated: Jul 19, 2012 13:03 IST
N Ananthanarayanan
N Ananthanarayanan
Hindustan Times

Veteran Olympic watchers were getting bored and impatient as they were left muttering to themselves: "What has this country come to". Their complaint was that they were being denied their usual quota of fireworks in the corridors of Indian sports that precede every trip to the quadrennial extravaganza. It was rather too quiet and the athletes for a change were preparing in a far too serious manner, with eyes strictly on the medal.

Just as our sports and gossip faithful were losing hope, our tennis stalwarts came to the rescue, quarrelling and calling each other 'back-stabbers'. Although the war of words has abated for now, the fight has definitely whetted the appetite of the observers, who are now waiting for any fresh explosion when India's tennis exertions wind down at the Games.

India has had a rich tradition of controversies heading into major games, especially the Olympics. If other countries stretched every sinew to win that extra medal, or China held back its athletes until they were ready to be set loose on the Olympics, as they did at Los Angeles in 1984, it was their problem. The Games motto may be 'Faster, Higher, Stronger' but a good number of Indian aspirants stuck to the more convenient line of participation over victory; most of India's 'decorated' sports officials - pins of various countries on their hats and coat lapels - and athletes were not going to let professionalism or serious contests for medals come in the way of a fun-filled fortnight.
HT looks back at some of the light-hearted and serious issues that have fuelled debates on India's participation in multi-discipline sporting competitions, particularly the Olympics, in the past.

Shortest relay

Now, for sheer innovation, the International Olympic Committee should have conferred a medal to India in 2000. The men's 4 x 100 metres relay quartet did not appear like coming anywhere near achieving the 'B' qualifying norm, the basic requirement for qualification to the Sydney Games. The athletics federation announced the Olympic trials at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium one afternoon. But someone wise had advised the athletes that to clock a fast time, they should start on an outer lane and go on cutting to the inner lane every time they exchanged the baton. Unfortunately for them, reporters at the venue got wind of the initiative, positioned themselves around the track, and got to witness the jaw-dropping spectacle! The athletics body quickly washed its hand off the sprinters after the media raised a hue and cry and banished the relay squad. But days later, the relay team still made it to Australia, having spent most of their waking for the next week or so pleading to the federation bosses!

First hurdle

In the good old days when hockey was a surefire medal prospect, the rest of the contingent pretty much made up the numbers, often in liberal doses. There were stories of the list continuing to grow till the last moment, of officials and athletes indulging in a free-for-all to somehow get on the plane to the Olympics, state governments sending their own 'observers' alongside central government officials and an assortment of people turning up for the opening ceremony.

If India's most-decorated tennis stalwart Leander Paes was left fuming over the team composition this time, track legend PT Usha, who missed the 400 metres hurdles bronze medal by a whisker at Los Angeles in 1984, had to contend with a sulking group of fellow athletes to even qualify for the home.

Finding that Usha, way ahead of the rest as a sprinter, had been entered in the intermediate hurdles at the inter-state meet, the first Olympic trial, the rest of the runners, including then Asian champion and her Kerala team mate, MD Valsamma, threatened not to race. Usha eventually pulled out to end the 'sit-in' before winning the subsequent Open Nationals with a new record to qualify.

Fight club
The build-up to the 1996 Atlanta Games was even better. There was only one wrestling slot available for the country, in the 48 kg Greco-Roman class, but there were two contenders - Kaka Pawar and Pappu Yadav. Pawar, a 51 kg class grappler, had to lose a lot of weight for the high-profile trial bout at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, with political bigwigs in attendance. In the end, the effort to shed weight left Pawar too weak and Yadav, having won the virtual no-contest, was chaired by his supporters like he had already won a medal.

But the final twist to the story was to come. Once in Atlanta, Yadav, instead of going for the weigh-in, vanished! Ironically, he was overweight and instead of making it to the starting list, he was still in the sauna sweating it out to shed those vital grams! In the end, he was reportedly entered in the 52 kg class, only to be thrashed.

The previews
Then there was the case of the 'Galloping Major', Inderjeet Singh Lamba. The government refused to clear the Services rider, but the Indian Olympic Association and the equestrian federation sent his mount, groom and coach at a cost of Rs 30 lakh. They left 10 days before the opening ceremony but could barely train and it came as no wonder that Lamba finished last in dressage in the 35-rider field to be eliminated in the three-day event, a tough endurance test for man and animal.

There was enough drama in the run-up to the 2004 Athens Games as well. With less than a month to go, the hockey federation sacked chief coach Rajinder Singh, an Olympian, and appointed German Gerhard Rach as the eight-time Olympic champions' first foreign coach. The result: seventh in the competition. That was at least after competing.

With action still to unfurl in the Greece capital, woman lifter Sanamacha Chanu was among those caught in pre-Games dope testing. Sydney bronze medallist Karnam Malleswari entered the competition but walked away without recording a lift, citing a back problem.

The drama

Although Abhinav Bindra nailed down India's first individual gold medal at the Beijing Games in 2008, there was high drama even before the competitions began. Indian sports officials removed woman lifter Monika Devi from competition and virtually pulled her off the flight, citing a positive result from the National Dope Laboratory. Monika, kicking and screaming, denied the charge, and was eventually cleared by the national federation.

But it was too late by then to reach Beijing for the weigh-in! There were street protests in her home state Manipur, the sports ministry ordered an inquiry, but it was all came too late. And Monika had been picked after a selection controversy and bribery allegations in the first place!
At the Games, it was the amusing picture of many in the Indian contingent at the opening ceremony marching to ill-fitting and far-from-trendy sherwanis and sarees, with star tennis player Sania Mirza turning up in her tracksuit! There were many stories floating around, that the dress did not fit and that she landed at the opening ceremony from a training session! At least, it wasn't a Made-in-China row, like in the U.S. this time!

First Published: Jul 18, 2012 23:57 IST

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