Olympics check: Breaking into the champions league

India’s record haul of seven medals at Tokyo 2020, and the wins at the Paralympics, were a fraction of what was on offer. Wknd takes the long view, crunching the numbers to learn what might help us go higher, faster, stronger at future Games.
We have one-sixth of the world’s people. Yet our haul, our best ever, accounted for less than 0.7% of the 1,000 medals up for grabs at the Tokyo Olympics. (Imaging: Puneet Verma) PREMIUM
We have one-sixth of the world’s people. Yet our haul, our best ever, accounted for less than 0.7% of the 1,000 medals up for grabs at the Tokyo Olympics. (Imaging: Puneet Verma)
Updated on Sep 04, 2021 03:27 PM IST
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ByDilip D’Souza

Seven medals. One gold, two silver, four bronze. That’s India’s haul from the just-concluded Tokyo Olympics. By that count, it’s our best-ever Olympics, that total of seven just pipping the six medals India’s athletes brought back from London in 2012.

So yes, naturally there was euphoria after Tokyo – over Neeraj Chopra’s gold, Mirabai Chanu’s silver, the men’s hockey team’s bronze, PV Sindhu’s bronze – indeed, all seven medals.Yet, when the dust settles, there remains a strange and familiar disquiet. You’ve heard, I’m sure, all the arguments – laments, more like it – about our performance at the Games over the years.

In the end, it boils down to this: India has the second-largest collection of people in the world, about a sixth of humanity as a whole. We sent our biggest-ever contingent this year, 126 athletes. So why didn’t we come home with a sixth of the medals on offer in Tokyo? Instead, our seven is a tiny fraction of the over 1,000 medals that were won at the Olympics: less than 0.7%.

There are other laments too: We have the resources. We produce world-class cricketers by the bushelful. Why not Olympic athletes? But laments only go so far and are frustrating and unsatisfying, anyway.

So let’s take a closer look at the medal counts and see if there are lessons we can learn instead.

First, yes: There were indeed over 1,000 medals on offer. 340 gold medals were awarded, so there were at least that many silver and bronze. I say “at least” because there were some events (for example, boxing) in which two athletes won bronze. Of course, there was at least one in which two athletes won gold – the men’s high jump, in which Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim agreed to share the gold medal, though no silver was awarded there. Still, let’s use 1,000 as a nice round figure of the medal count.

Those 1,000 were spread across a wide range of disciplines. From badminton to diving to sport climbing, rhythmic gymnastics to surfing to handball and many more, there are 40 sports listed on the Olympics website. But 40 is a misleading number. First, all of those have separate tracks for men and women, so it’s effectively 80 separate categories we’re talking about. But more than that, several of those sports have several separate events, each of which awards a medal.

Take a dive into diving, for example. There’s synchronised 3m springboard, synchronised 10m platform, 3m springboard and 10m platform – four different medal events. Or consider swimming. I won’t list the 35 different medal events, just these three: 50m freestyle, 200m backstroke, 4x100m medley relay. I haven’t even mentioned artistic and marathon swimming, both listed separately from swimming. And take a look at athletics: 48 medal events that played out on the track and field inside that Olympic stadium. (Well, except the marathons that meandered outside the stadium.)

From the 87 events alluded to in that last paragraph, India brought home precisely one medal: Neeraj Chopra’s gold in throwing the javelin.

Wrestler Ravi Kumar after winning silver at the Tokyo Olympics. (Reuters)
Wrestler Ravi Kumar after winning silver at the Tokyo Olympics. (Reuters)

What are we missing?

I’m not saying India did not enter in the other 86 events. We did, with our highest-ever participation.

Take athletics: We had Kamalpreet Kaur throwing the discus, Dutee Chand in the 100m. In the javelin event, Shivpal Singh was India’s other competitor, though he failed to make the final. Muhammad Anas Yahiya, Noah Nirmal Tom, Arokia Rajiv and Amoj Jacob ran a super 4x400m heat and came agonisingly close to qualifying for the final. We had a total of 25 entries – 8 women, 17 men – in the athletics events.

Take swimming: India’s Sajan Prakash swam in the second heat of both the 100m and 200m butterfly event. There are 8 heats, and the best 16 times qualify for the semi-final. In the 100m, Prakash knew by the fifth heat that he would not qualify: 22 swimmers were faster. In the 200m, 16 were faster by the fourth heat. Maana Patel swam in the first heat of the 100m backstroke; by the 4th, she knew she would not progress. Similarly for Srihari Nataraj in the 100m backstroke.

Take diving: India had no diving entries to begin with. Oops.

The point here is not to mourn the lack of success of all these athletes; by my reckoning, their very qualification for the Olympics is remarkable and they deserve our respect. Instead, I’ve been wondering why India has negligible or no presence in so many Olympic events.

It’s true that no Indian qualified in several events. But what if there were Indians who did qualify?

Leave aside the regular Olympic powerhouse countries like the USA, China and Great Britain – they have years of Olympic success to draw on. Take just the other countries that won 7 medals in Tokyo, like us: Iran, Belgium, Belarus, Austria and Azerbaijan. In fact, Iran and Belgium won more gold medals, and Belarus more silver, than India. All have much smaller populations than India’s (combined, they have 123 million, less than a tenth of India). Just going by that population difference, why didn’t we bring home more medals than they did?

Part of the answer to that, I believe, is in our participation itself. To the athletics competition alone, consider that to compare with India’s 25, Belarus sent 30 men and women, Greece 20, Kenya 40, Turkey 24 and Ukraine 40. Even Romania sent 9. Again, all are much smaller countries than India. Yet they had clearly focused enough on athletics to have those kinds of numbers qualify for the Olympics.

What if India had managed twice or thrice the qualifications – 50 to 75 athletes – than we did? That is, what if we had focused enough on athletics over the last several years to earn that many qualifications, across several different track and field events, perhaps even all 48? In addition to Neeraj Chopra’s gold, how many of those 144 medals (48 x 3) might have come our way? As things stand, 143 certainly didn’t come our way.

Maybe you’re not persuaded by this. Our athletics squad of 25 was not a trivial number, after all. But maybe three is; meaning, our three swimmers. Well, to the swimming competition alone, Argentina sent 4 men and women, Serbia 7, Austria 7, Mexico 3, Lithuania 6. Yes, even Romania sent 4 and Madagascar 2. (And yes, I’ve not mentioned the dozens of swimmers from swimming powers like the USA, Australia and China.) When even Madagascar can find two swimmers of Olympic class, why is India unable to find more than three? Think of the number of swimming medals India did not win, not just because our swimmers finished fourth or lower, but also and largely because we didn’t have a swimmer in the pool at all. That number is 105.

And again, we didn’t have a diver on the boards at all in the four diving events. 12 diving medals, altogether out of India’s reach.

Add those numbers up: 260 medals that India missed, mostly because we didn’t have the athletes to vie for them. 260, out of 1000: over 25%. Or again, if you think India did have a reasonable presence in athletics, stick to just swimming and diving: 113 medals which we stood no chance of winning because we didn’t have swimmers and divers competing. Over 10 % of the kitty.

From analysing just those three categories of events, it’s as if India set off for Tokyo with somewhere between 10% and 25% of a metaphorical leg shot off. So even before our athletes could test themselves against the world’s best, that many of the prizes, practically by definition, were out of India’s reach.

At the Tokyo Paralympics, Sumit Antil won gold and set a new world record. (Reuters)
At the Tokyo Paralympics, Sumit Antil won gold and set a new world record. (Reuters)

That metaphorical leg was actually even shorter. Much shorter. India had zero athletes in Tokyo in every one of these Olympic disciplines:

* Basketball and 3x3 basketball (12 medals)

* Artistic swimming (6)

* Baseball and softball (6)

* Volleyball and beach Volleyball (12)

* Canoe slalom (12)

* Canoe sprint (36)

* Cycling events (66)

* Football (6)

* Handball (6)

* Karate (24)

* Marathon swimming (6)

* Modern Pentathlon (6)

* Rhythmic Gymnastics (6)

* Rugby Sevens (6)

* Skateboarding (12)

* Sport Climbing (6)

* Surfing (6)

* Taekwondo (24)

* Trampoline Gymnastics (6)

* Triathlon (9)

* Water Polo (6)

That’s 279 more medals, nearly 28% of the total, that India could not have won, simply because we did not have anyone representing us in that competition. So you see, we actually went to Tokyo with somewhere between 38% and 53% of that metaphorical leg shot off. Let’s just say, pretty much half a leg.

Neeraj Chopra won gold with his javelin at the Tokyo Olympics. Countries with far smaller populations matched our tally. Iran, Belgium, Belarus, Austria and Azerbaijan all won seven medals each. (AP)
Neeraj Chopra won gold with his javelin at the Tokyo Olympics. Countries with far smaller populations matched our tally. Iran, Belgium, Belarus, Austria and Azerbaijan all won seven medals each. (AP)

Running the numbers

The point of all this? One, that we should evaluate the seven medals India won in this light. We actually competed not for 1,000 medals, but for about 500.

But two, if we want greater Olympic success in the future, why not put some or all of these other Olympic sports on our radar too? For example, plenty of Indians already play rugby and volleyball, water polo and basketball at the tournament level; many learn karate and taekwondo; serious cycling is visibly on the increase in our cities, as is skateboarding (the recent film, Skater Girl, is even loosely based on the life of a village girl who takes to skateboarding). Handball and climbing should be relatively easy to set up facilities for. The pentathlon comprises fencing, equestrian show jumping, swimming, shooting and running – all of which we had athletes competing in, in Tokyo. We also had rowing entries in Tokyo, so you’d think canoeing is not a huge stretch. In gymnastics, we remember Dipa Karmakar competing in the Rio Olympics in 2016, so there’s at least that experience to draw on, if we want to nurture more world-class gymnasts.

In other words, when it comes to producing Olympic athletes in all the sports we currently have no presence in, it’s hard to see what other obstacle stands in the way of this vast country, except the will and the backing such athletes will need.

Those are obstacles, come to think of it. Still, it’s time, I’d say, to stop shooting off parts of that metaphorical leg.

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Sunday, January 23, 2022