Road to Rio: The great Indian dream

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Road to Rio: The great Indian dream

It was sheer fortuity that my stepping into the teens coincided with India ceasing to exist as a nation of great intrigue with its door closed on the world. Slowly but surely, a Pepsi or a Coke became not as precious as ‘Ganga Jal’; more and more Indian feet started romancing Nike and Reebok; a Hyundai or a Daewoo comfortably standing next to an Amby and Lamby became a common sight at traffic signals, the Indian digestive system started to feel comfortable with a Mcburger as it did with an aloo paratha, and the television remote control which was almost redundant till then, suddenly started to take control of our lives. Clearly, India was changing. India was undoubtedly getting bigger and perhaps, better!

My heart swelled with pride with every achievement the ‘New India’ registered at the global stage. But to someone like me, who breathes sports, one thing was deprived—occasions to celebrate the nation’s sporting success at the global level. There were moments, when a soft spoken Chennai boy quietly went on to create history by ‘checkmating’ some of the world’s greatest, when a certain Leander pushed his limits as a singles player and became a giant killer whenever he played for the country, but they were few and far between. And for a major part of the 90’s my sporting pride as an Indian resided in a 5 ft 5 inches tall Mumbaikar. But cricket, I feel, should be treated in isolation for multiple reasons. And let’s park it for some other time.

I felt the ‘Olympic effect’ early on in my childhood, thanks to my mother. I grew up listening to stories of great sporting icons from her. She painted beautiful sporting pictures on the canvas of my young mind, of the great Jesse Owens’ incomparable achievements, of the incredible Carl Lewis, of how modesty didn’t come in the way of a certain Muhammad Ali declaring himself as “the greatest”, how a teenaged Nadia Comaneci stunned the world with a perfect ten. While the tales of the champions inspired me, there were stories of disappointments, near misses and heart breaks too! I also learnt that my country had never won an individual gold, and hockey had been the only sport which had fetched India an Olympic gold. I visualised how Milkha walked into the list of the greatest athletes to have never won an Olympic medal, and the story of how PT Usha missed an Olympic medal by one hundredth of a second haunted my juvenile mind for a long time!

The folks of my generation realised quite early in our lives that we needed to be very moderate in our expectations as Indian sports fans. We were too young for the LA games. While Seoul and Barcelona took us through some stupendous sporting action and introduced some fabulous athletes to us, our country was nowhere on the map! Winning a medal seemed a distant dream. And that was why the teenagers in us celebrated for days together, when Leander put us on the sporting map again in ’96 with a bronze. In 2012, it went one step further when Mary Kom apologised to the nation for not winning a gold with an Olympic bronze medal around her neck. Initially it came across as a culture shock but then the dawn of a new era in the Indian sporting landscape was more evident than ever! Such was the jubilation and optimism floating in the air, that it made all of us wonder that finally we might have reached somewhere and are heading in the right direction. Or are we?

With India sending its largest-ever Olympic contingent to London four years ago, the expectations were high from the start, but not many would have predicted the outcome correctly beforehand. Goldman Sachs, with its abstruse calculations, had predicted India to win 5 medals in London. But India would go one better. Half a dozen medals were more than enough to quench our Olympic thirst, temporarily! With that raising of the bar, the expectations and aspirations of the average Indian sports fan had sky-rocketed as well. It’s clearly a case of “yeh dil maange more”. Despite the euphoria that followed, a deeper analysis of India’s performance in London reveals that it was pretty much a mixed bag.

The Indian contingent boarded its flight to London with hopes heavily pinned on the boxers, archers and the shooters. There was good reason for that too with India fielding a young and highly talented men’s boxing team riding high on Vijender’s bronze from the Beijing edition, while Col. Rathore’s Silver in Athens followed by Abhinav Bindra’s gold in Beijing had given Indian shooting a new address. World no. 1 Deepika Kumari led the Indian archery charge, and with the world cup silver-winning men’s recurve team in its ranks, the archery team looked strong! Surely India could have brought home more medals than six?

Vijender & co couldn’t live up to the expectations, and India’s only joy from the boxing ring came when Mary Kom punched above her weight (quite literally, as she had to fight in a heavier weight category than her usual) to win India its solitary medal in boxing.

When the much-fancied archery team drew a blank, it further dented India’s expectations. India’s only ‘gold man’ Abhinav Bhindra couldn’t come anywhere close to his Beijing magic, but there was a ‘silver’ lining in the form of shooter Vijay Kumar, while veteran Gagan Narang’s bronze was the icing on the cake.

Wrestler Sushil Kumar created history by upgrading the colour of the medal he had won in Beijing, and Yogeswar Dutt added a bronze to it—India was having its best-ever Olympic outing. Saina Nehwal’s bronze in badminton meant that India signed off from London with its medal tally touching the half-dozen mark.

But that’s the past. How many medals can we expect, come Rio this August? Did London really mark the resurgence of Indian sports, or was it a flash in the pan? The bar of expectations has been raised, no doubt, and many believe Rio is going to be India’s best-ever Olympics. India managed to double its returns from Beijing to London, and many expect our medal tally to grow in that progression! But, is it a realistic goal or just wishful thinking? What all measures have we adopted to elevate India on the world sporting map?

Expecting the Indian sports authorities and administrative bodies to wake up and change radically is naive, to say the least! Many of the men governing Indian sports administrative bodies never had much to do with sports. Promoting Indian sport was the last thing on their agenda and it continues to be so. The few achievements of Indian sports have not been because of them, rather despite them!

Any genuine attempt to promote Indian sport should start with cleansing the system and getting the right people at the helm, driving the great Indian sporting ambition with a vision and focus which is non-negotiable. Meanwhile, it sounds silly when someone says cricket is killing every other sport in India! One sport can’t kill another one! No sport in India will be robbed off its space, following and money if it’s guided by people with vision, determination and selfless ambitions! The bottle neck, as they say, is at the top!

That doesn’t mean to suggest that there is no good work being done! The ‘Target Olympic Podium Scheme’ (TOP) is a scheme formulated by the Government of India with an objective to support the potential medal prospects for the 2016 and 2020 Olympics. The Scheme identifies and funds athletes pertaining to nine different disciplines, viz, archery, athletics, badminton, boxing, hockey, shooting, weightlifting and wrestling. Add tennis to it, and that completes India’s ‘expectation list’. There is also talk of India expecting a medal from Anirban Lahiri in Golf, a discipline which will make its Olympic debut in Rio. The scheme is not entirely immune to the usual controversies, but it’s definitely a step taken in the right direction with some degree of vision and ambition. Now that we have identified the core disciplines, and with the count-down to the biggest sporting extravaganza having already started, it’s imperative to see where we stand in each of those disciplines in terms of preparedness, form and challenges.

The Indian Archery team is still a force to reckon with, but there wouldn’t be too much hype about them this time around, given their performance four years back. That could just work in their favour.

There are talks of India pulling off some surprises in track-and-field with the discus thrower Vikas Gowda leading that pack of dark horses. Expecting a few of them to be in the medal zone is all right, but expecting a medal will be a touch too ambitious!

Shooting and wrestling look good enough for podium finishes and pinning some hopes on our weightlifters appears reasonable as well. It’s a time of confusion and chaos for Indian boxing, and all that is happening around it at the moment might seriously affect our medal prospects. It’s still not clear how many pugilists are going to represent India in Rio, and any more delay in addressing the issue might kill some serious prospects of a medal or two from the ring.

Then comes tennis. The issues with Indian tennis are well documented. From ego clashes to player revolts, from selection bans to forming new player associations, we have seen it all. Still, it’s a mystery to many as to how India failed to win a medal in tennis after Leander’s heroics in Atlanta twenty years ago! We had our brightest chances in Sydney in 2000 and in Athens four years later, with the ‘Lee-Hesh’ duo being one of the most formidable doubles pairs of that era. Indian tennis still has enough fire power to win an Olympic medal with Sania’s recent form and performances shining as the brightest spot!

If there is one discipline that has come up in leaps and bounds in the last four years, it is badminton. If the burden of expectations was heavily and solely on Saina four years ago, we have a few more players joining her to share that burden with realistic chances of a medal this time. India has emerged as one of the super powers in world badminton, and for us the Chinese are still a threat but not insurmountable any more. This is a team of Indian shuttlers who believe they can beat anyone in the world and right now Indian badminton is living a dream. Saina still leads the pack but has able support from some top notch players in PV Sindhu and Srikanth Kidambi. And not to forget the Jwala- Aswini duo, which is capable of beating any team on its day!

And finally, one can’t help getting a bit emotional, when one thinks of Hockey! India is still the most successful country in men’s Olympic hockey with eight gold medals, but we haven’t had a podium finish in almost four decades! At best we are on a path of revival at the moment and some massive work needs to be done to even partially restore the old glory. After failing to qualify for the Beijing edition of the games, the only time in history this has happened, and a forgettable outing in London where we finished at the bottom of the table, the early signs for Rio are good! Indian men were the first team to qualify for Rio and that augurs well.

The fall of Indian Hockey from dizzy heights to an unbelievable nadir has to be one the biggest tragedies of our times and a classic example of how the administration ruined a sport which was once India’s pride! Indian hockey for long has been like a helpless child whose parents were fighting in the court for its custody. It has been trampled mercilessly by the same people who were responsible for nurturing it. Instead of love, care, unity and good performances, there have been fragmentation, ego, evolvement of rival federations, disappointing performances and despair. But the recovery appears to have finally taken seed.

One strongly believes that for India to cease being a one-sport nation and to be a sporting super power, it is highly imperative that Indian hockey does well. Sardar and his boys would know that they are stepping out to the turf in Rio for not just an Olympic medal but to win back the lost pride and protect a rich tradition from any further damage, and the nation will be watching, holding its breath. A good performance here and it will be good enough to bring millions of youngsters back into the game.

And now going back to where we started, we can’t be a true global power with our largely invisible status in international sport, our outstanding achievements in other spheres not withstanding. Sport has the power to inspire, change the world and re-define the pride and worth of a nation. So what should we, the billion people whom the few selected and privileged ones will be representatives of in Rio, do now? Let’s take a break from fault-finding, pointing fingers, ruing the lack of visionaries in administration, fretting over the challenges and deficiencies.....No, it’s not the time to do that any more...not till the curtains are down in Rio! It’s the time for us to rally behind our athletes, to let them know that we are proud of them, that we have faith in them.

As a child I was given to believe that the Olympics were the ‘stadium of dreams’. And an athlete stepping into it knowing his countrymen are behind him is likely to be in the best possible frame of mind to give his best performance. And we need a string of such performances to discover India, the ‘New Sporting India’. It is my dream! It is our dream! It’s the great Indian dream! It’s the great Indian Olympic dream! And it just doesn’t get bigger than this!

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