For a nation of billion plus, India's Olympic record has been so abysmal it can only be matched by our public health record and our 'ease of doing business' ranking.
From the late 80s when we returned empty-handed to Atlanta when Leander's heroics saved us to 2008 when we won three medals, it was a slight upward curve nonetheless. The London Olympics were a surprise when we won six medals – it proved that Beijing was no aberration and we may still continue to watch that glimmer of hope grow a tiny bit every four years. London also was the stage that showed the fighting spirit of Indians that we were always accused of lacking – more of those medals were won by sheer grit and a big heart than by a pure display of skills.
1. Gagan Narang
Gagan Narang's was a tale of much promise but little to show, at least until the London Olympics. Overshadowed by this more illustrious compatriot Abhinav Bindra, Gagan had failed to live up to expectations in the previous two Olympics. At 29, this may have been his last, and he seemed to realize that fact very well. Medals in the Commonwealth and Asian Games were crowding his cabinet, but the one medal that mattered the most had proved elusive.
But on that day, defending champion Abhinav Bindra failed to even qualify for the finals leaving Gagan to hold India's hopes. He shot 598 in the qualification and then held his nerve in a neck-to-neck contest to take the bronze – India's first medal in Rio that began its biggest-ever hunt at the Olympics.
2. Mary Kom
Much has been made of Mary Kom's career after her 2012 medal – Priyanka Chopra probably made more money from that one movie than Mary did in her entire career, but the boxer has been a household name even before that since her 2012 exploits. But she was nowhere close to a medal prospect when the Olympics came around.
Great (wo)men step up when the greatest of challenges come in their path, but Mary's career has been one of stepping up. World amateur boxer in the 45kg category when she was just 19 years old, she had to shift to the 46kg soon. After the 46kg was stopped by the AIBA, Mary shifted to the 48 kg in 2010 and won the Amateur World championship again. In 2012, AIBA scrapped the 48 kg as well, and Mary now had to step into the 51 kg category against opponents bigger in size. At the World Championships, Mary lost in the quarters to Nicola Adams of UK but she earned an Olympic quota.
The feisty boxer from Manipur punched her way to the semis at London but once again encountered Nicola, the eventual gold medalist and lost 6-11 to settle for a bronze.
It is unfortunate that Mary could not get through to Rio. Who knows what the 33-year-old would have done if only she had a second shot at it! But she is making it count even now - in the Parliament. No sooner was she nominated to the Rajya Sabha, she has raised up the issue of the sad state of support to Indian sportsmen on August 2. Beware you Parliamentarians, this one will not be pulling her punches!
3. Vijay Kumar
A Subedar Major in the Indian Army now, Vijay Kumar had had a long career until 2012 when he had been close to the top but never really at the top. Bronze medals at the Asian Games and Gold at the Commonwealth Games came, but he finished only 11th in the 25m rapid fire pistol event in the 2010 World Championships.
Vijay qualified to the finals but shot only 585 out of 600 in the preliminary round and knew he had to come back strongly and shoot better for a medal. He did exactly that with ice cool nerves as he dueled with eventual gold medalist Cuba's Leuris Pepo before settling for silver.
"I must tell you this is a sport all about how focused you can stay. I have been preparing for years for the Olympics and it's a sacrifice well worth it. I dedicate this medal to my father Bankur Ram Sharma and my mother," said the 26-year-old silver medallist.
And the champion was quick to add "I am what I am because of the Indian Army and this medal is for my countrymen," said Vijay, a havildar then in the Dogra Regiment to India Today.
4. Saina Nehwal
Seeded fourth in the tournament, Saina had had a good run-up to the Olympics. She had defeated her long-time rival Wang Shixian to defend her Swiss Open title, and defeated teen sensation Ratchanok Intanon to win the Thailand Open. At London, she had an easy route to the semifinals but ran into the Chinese wall. She lost to Wang Yihan and came on court for to face another Chinese Wang Xin for the bronze-medal match.
Saina started well to go 3-0 up but the Chinese attacked well to surge forward. Saina's erratic net play did not help as she was on the brink of losing the first game at 14-20. But she saved four dramatic game points before Xin twisted her knee while going for an aggressive smash. She returned to court heavily bandaged but gave up the match to Saina and with it the bronze medal. The 22-year old was composed even in her victory as she watched out her opponent leave in misery before the celebrations took over.
5. Yogeshwar Dutt
Yogeshwar had lost in the quarterfinal in the Beijing Olympics four years back, and it was history all over again as he lost, this time in the pre-quarterfinal bout at London. But he got a lifeline when his opponent reached the final through the repechage rounds that allow opponents of finalists a second chance, and what a second chance Dutt made out of it!
London was Yogeshwar's highest moment and exemplified the wrestler's never-say-die attitude. In the bronze-medal play-off, Dutt lost the first round to his technically superior opponent. But with his big heart, Dutt turned the match on its back and wrestled his through to a well-deserved medal.
As legendary American Olympic wrestler Dan Gable once said – “The 1st period is won by the best technician. The 2nd period is won by the kid in the best shape. The 3rd period is won by the kid with the biggest heart”.
Now 33 years old, Yogeshwar is back for his third Olympics. Older but wiser, he is India's senior-most wrestler and the young contingent would look up to him as he looks to go out on a high.
6. Sushil Kumar
Sushil was a veteran by the time he returned to the Olympic arena in 2012 – he had won bronze in 2008. In fact, he revealed this year that he was advised to retire on a high right after Beijing. "I returned to India (after the Beijing Games) and was told by my well-wishers to bow out on a high and retire. I was flabbergasted,” he wrote later. We are lucky he did not heed the “well-meaning” advice.
Sushil returned and started working on his game even more than before. “It was only after winning the Olympic bronze that I grasped the finer points of wrestling, such as how to hold an opponent, various techniques, and strategies for different fights. It was the start, not the end.”
He reached the final at London, but the wrestler was once again left in the lurch by Indian sports' deplorable lack of support for its athletes. He talked with evident pain about how he did not have even a masseur as he fought bout after bout at London and was on the brink when the final approached.
"I had a chance at winning the gold but my body had all but given up on me. I had coaxed every last bit of energy from my dehydrated body that morning and every one of my bouts had gone the distance. There was a break for a few hours before the gold medal match. I could not recover. I was continuously running to the bathroom and was very weak. I knew I had to fight as this was the biggest fight of my life.
"The entire Indian team was egging me on, but there was also help from unexpected quarters," he recollected. He, however, gave his all but eventually settled for silver.
India will miss one of its biggest Olympians after Sushil failed to qualify this time having been laid low by injuries for the last two years. The wrestler also went through a long legal battle with Narsingh Yadav, but now that it's all over, he has extended his hand to his old friend and training partner as he looks to keep India's streak in wrestling going.
As the Indian contingent lands in Rio in search of glory, some of these veterans will be among them, while some will cheer on from back home. But, 2012, however, small it is, was a year that Indian Olympic fans will not forget. We only hope 2016 does one better over that. All the best, India!