Tune out post-Tokyo festivities, reset now for Paris
- Indian sports is the marathon runner who after the first 30 minutes knows there are more than 30 kilometres to go—time to lengthen the stride and steel yourself for the long grind ahead.
When Shah Rukh Khan arches his back and stretches a romantic arm to say picture abhi baaki hai he isn’t pointing to the Olympics. Tokyo 2020 is over, the dust has settled and the spectacular drone laser show is archived on YouTube.
Much has happened in India since Tokyo. The past month has been a non-stop celebration of the seven medals and the fourth place near misses. In India, August was the time to disco with an unending circle of felicitations, functions and congratulatory events where athletes shared their glory with VIPs, images of which were prominently splashed on social media. Medal winners were showered with rewards and awards, given (and promised) crores and cars and treated to ice creams and pizzas, which doubtless tasted delicious because during training these were prohibited items.
The frantic pace of this congratulatory mood left the supremely fit Neeraj Chopra exhausted. So drained, that he had to take a strategic timeout in a Panipat hospital to rest and recover. Before that the physically sapped hero survived endless press interactions, meets and greets and a cringe-inducing moment when a radio jockey made a crass verbal/visual pass at him. Chopra earned a merit certificate to add to his Tokyo gold for handling this with composure that would have gladdened MS Dhoni, the master of cool.
Like a true champion, Chopra bounced back quickly to declare “one gold medal is not enough” for India. His other statement was more telling: He spoke about sport uniting people and respecting fellow competitors, even those from across the border. The significance of this wasn’t lost on anyone.
Besides joyous celebration, the post Tokyo month was marked by a furious sprint to grab credit. Corporates with marketing deals with athletes they “supported” pushed their PR agencies to highlight their “contribution” in nation building. When corporates with nil bata zero investment in sports joined the bandwagon by using images of athletes in “moment marketing” a miffed PV Sindhu sent legal notices to 11 offenders. This hardly restrained others—anyone who once shared coffee with Rani Rampal in the past four years claimed credit for her success.
To some, this publicity blitz was over the top but Indian sports benefitted from the attention. Because of the Tokyo hype, sports is now central, no more extra-curricular, and part of the larger national narrative. When the PM makes telephone calls, tweets, invites athletes to breakfast, it’s a lifelong memory for the athletes and an inspiration to many others. The multiplier effect of this for making sports more important is enormous.
There is a downside to the national celebration, that too for an “achievement” which is actually only modest. Beyond a point it is a distraction and, described in cricket terms, similar to taking your eye off the ball. We know Mirabai is back in the gym lifting weights two and a half times her body weight. Aditi Ashok is without corporate sponsorship despite making the cut at the British Open. The hockey women’s team is still hopping across India attending functions. Sindhu was spotted at the Suchitra academy in Hyderabad but we are not sure whether Bajrang Punia and Ravi Dahiya are back in the akhara.
Chopra skipped the Diamond League in Paris and continues to do ten media interviews a day. The TOPS scheme, the flagship programme for supporting elite athletes, is headless after the previous CEO’s term ended.
So, are we at the earth-shaking moment, the take-off stage where sports soars high and far like Chopra’s javelin? Far from it. We have made impressive strides but the journey ahead is long and tough. Indian sports is the marathon runner who after the first 30 minutes knows there are more than 30 kilometres to go—time to lengthen the stride and steel yourself for the long grind ahead.
The message from Tokyo, actually of the Olympics from the time the ancient Greeks started this in 776 BC, is this game is of millimetres and mega seconds. The margins are so slender the drag of shoe laces and the length of running spikes makes a material difference. For the national flag to rise and the national anthem to play, athletes must slice time and increase distance.
To win on the world stage, talent/skill/hard work/sweat and complete focus is non-negotiable. Tokyo is done, next stop Paris is almost around the corner, and there is no time to lose. Remember what Abhinav Bindra has said so often: Olympics is not every four years, it is every day.
In sports, yesterday is only memory and motivation, what matters is the present moment and the promise of the next morning.
And yes, SRK was right : picture abhi baaki hai.