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Wednesday, October 27, 2021


Neither Glitter, Nor Gold!


India posted one of its most dismal shows in the last decade or two at the Rio Olympics. A solitary silver and a bronze by female athletes were the only silver lining in the all too familiar gloomy saga. Harpal Singh Bedi takes stock
HARPAL SINGH BEDI | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi
Tags : PV Sindhu | Sakhshi Malik | Rio Olympics | Dipa Karmakar | SAI | Avtar Singh | SAF Games | S.Mirabai Chanu |

You don’t win Silver, you lose the Gold. This is a very popular maxim used among Olympians. Yet, India’s near hysterical response to shuttler PV Sindhu’s Silver and wrestler Sakhshi Malik’s Bronze medal winning performances, which has surprised and bemused the international sports fraternity, won't disturb us too much.

Where there was none, there were two – medals, if you may. No doubt it was a sigh of relief when Sakshi Malik won the first medal for India after 12 days of ‘nearly there’ performances. Andcelebrations were in orderwhenSindhu earnedthe second medal, aSilver, subsequently. While all that is very well, and absolutely so, the crux of the problem lies in the over expectations from averagely trained athletes just when Olympics arrive.

But for a few women (and perhaps Abhinav Bindra, who gave his best but finished fourth), Rio Olympics was nothing but disaster for India. India sent its largest ever Olympic contingent of 120 sportspersons to Rio. This was hailed as a big leap forward for sports in the country. They insisted that qualifying for the games is itself a big achievement. Federation officials, former Olympians and Sports Authority of India (SAI) officials were repeatedly quoted as saying that this time “we will have a double digit” medal tally.

Significantly, they ignored the fact that most of the athletes had made the cut because many International Sports Federations had deliberately lowered the qualification mark to attract more participation in their events.

Judo is one example. Avtar Singh won a gold medal in SAF Games and made the cut for the Olympics. Same was the case with table tennis, weightlifting, rowing and swimming. Barring Rower Baban Dattu Bhokanal, who stayed in the contention by making it to the second round, all others disappeared without any trace.

The four–member table tennis team went through the motions of participation, lost their first round match on the opening and second day of the competition, stayed in Rio for a few more days of sightseeing and eventually came back. Weightlifter S.Mirabai Chanu did not even complete her 48 kg category event as she fouled all her three attempts in clean and jerk.

At the Games, Sindhu emerged as the brightest star with a Silver medal around her neck and wrestler Sakshi Malik will be remembered as the one who helped break India’s medal jinx at Rio more than 10 days after the competition began.

Those 12 days were an excruciating wait for the Indian fans as from shooters to archers and hockey team to boxers, all failed to deliver. The Haryana girl Sakshi became an instant hit after she wrested the first medal for India, a bronze that earned her the honour to carry India’s flag at the closing ceremony.

Gymnast Dipa Karmakar, who made it to the vault final, and distance runner Lalita Babar, who became the only Indian athlete after PT Usha to make it to the athletics track final in Olympics, were the two other women who gave it a good fight. Satara girl Lalita did her career best in the 3000m steeplechase and finished 10th, bettering her national record by three seconds.

The talk of touching double digits in the medal haul went up in flames when first archers, and then shooters, made sorry exits with only two—Abhinav Bindra and Jitu Rai—reaching the finals of their respective events. That Bindra finished fourth and Jitu eighth was no consolation as much was expected from the 12-member strong shooting team. Jitu was expected to win a medal in one of the two events he took part in, but ended up eighth in the 10m air pistol final after playing brilliantly throughout the qualifying round. He then crashed out of his pet 50m air pistol event, perhaps misjudging the wind in the last few shots. Gurmeet Singh showed a bit of spirit in the 25m rapid fire pistol event, but eventually was left behind. Mairaj Ahmad Khan ended ninth in the men's skeet event after missing three shots in the final round in a shoot-out. In the rarefied atmosphere of medal contenders, mistakes are not tolerated.

Aditi Ashok was yet another heartbreak as she showed a rare patch of brilliance in the first two days of golf, only to end up 41st on the final day. Indian boxers too crashed out of Olympics with Vikas Krishan taking a major pound from his Uzbek opponent in the 75kg bout. Shiva Thapa and Manoj Kumar too disappointed.

The much hyped Indian men’s hockey failed in the quarter finals against Belgium. The most travelled team across the globe, the team which had finished runners-up in the prestigious Champions Trophy, failed to cross the hurdle when it mattered the most.

The women's hockey team which qualified for the Olympics after 36 years, finished last in the group in the league.

The talked about tennis pair of Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna after two easy wins in the mixed doubles were thrashed by their strong opponents twice: first in the semi-final and then for the third place. In men and women’s doubles, Bopanna/Leander Paes and Sania/Prarathana made first round exits. The most puzzling and intriguing show was that of the big track and field squad. Prior to the start of the games, the athletes raised hope of millions of fans. During the qualification meets, a few of them even managed to feature among the best performances in the world in the month of July. As the athletics events of Olympics were still a month away, many questioned early peak performance of athletes. However, buoyed by a record number of athletes making the cut, top officials assured stakeholders of even greater peaks during the Olympic Games where it all matters.

Indian athletes were among the first ones to check-in to the Olympic Village with an aim to get acclimatised with Rio’s weather and to maintain training volume to achieve another peak performance in the athletics events. On very first day of athletics, nine Indian athletes took part in the qualification round, and to everyone’s surprise, none qualified for the final. The most notable was the highly decorated world championship and Olympic finalist Vikas Gowda, whose performance and honours graph was on the rise since his podium position in Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010 followed by 7th place in World championship in 2011, 8th in London 2012, 7th in the 2013 World championship and finally Gold medal in Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014 and twice Asian championship gold medal in 2013 and 2015 in the discus throw.

Vikas, now 34 years old, threw the discus to a distance of 58.99m, his shortest throw in 12 years, to finish at 28th place. It was evident that he was not fit to throw with his best of ability. His knees were badly injured, which made him impossible to train fully. That explains his no show in any of the meets in 2016. Many fans were disappointed with Vikas for his below par performance but more for not informing his true state of his health to the athletics officials, which raises question of lack of monitoring of athlete’s competitive conditions and physical status.

Since Harminder Singh’s bronze medal in Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010 and Irfan Thodi’s top 10 finish position in the London 2012 Olympic Games, walkers has been receiving special attention in training.

Our group of walkers trained in Portugal and Poland as part of preparation for Rio and as a result, as many as nine walkers achieved Rio Olympic qualification. To select the best 3 walkers for Rio, was a tough decision.

Unlike Vikas, training and performance of walkers were regularly monitored by the Federation. Rio’s heat during the final of 20 km walk pushed athletes to the limit and in such conditions Manish Singh took 1:21:21 time to finish in 13th place out of 63 finishers. Gurmeet Singh and Gapathi Krishnan, visibly exhausted, fell behind the leading group and on top of that they received warnings before getting disqualified.

To add to this misery, the Indian contingent had to face the ignominy of one of its members being disqualified from Olympics after the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) went on an appeal against National Anti-Doping Agency's clean chit to Narsingh Yadav. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) sitting in Rio slapped a four-year ban on Narsingh a day before his scheduled bout, overlooking the “conspiracy angle" in the doping test failure.

Indian athletes aspired to reach Olympics heights, but ended up falling short. On the last day of the greatest sporting show on Earth, India's Yogeshwar Dutt lost out tamely to his Mongolian rival in the 65-kg freestyle wrestling.

India spent much more than many African and some European countries over their athletes, but when it came to medal count, it stood poorly at the 67th position.

The rot lies in the system wherein serious money is spent only on elite athletes not giving any thoughts to strengthen the grassroots. Then again, it is a big surprise that those who qualify for the Olympics with performances matching the world qualifying standards fail to repeat those marks on the Olympic stage. Critics would say that Indian athletes peak at the wrong time, but that is a lame excuse. Our strength is spent squarely on getting to the Olympic Games, which itself is considered an achievement. Why can't a politician in power face up and promise to his electorate that he would personally ensure that during the next Olympics (or the one after that), India would come back with double digit medals?

The reason that's not going to happen is because the importance of winning a medal at the Olympics is relatively non-existent in India, compared to the Western nations and the nouveau leaders like China. The positive test of hammer thrower Indrajeet Singh and Narsingh Yadav are symbolic of the dismal situation. In this backdrop, critics are trying to compare India’s spend on sports to a country such as Great Britain, which finished second in the medals tally. One would do well to see how much countries such as Kenya, Jamaica or Ethiopia spend on their athletes and how many medals do they win. Money spent cannot be directly proportional to medals won. If that would have been the case, then oil rich nations would have beaten the best in the business. That doesn’t happen because money doesn’t always buy medals.

What Saudi Arabia can spend, maybe Great Britain cannot, but Britain is a nation with a sporting culture just like the United States, Australia, France and China, who have finished amongst the top of the medals table.

Jamaica was placed 15th in the medal tally, followed by Kenya (16th), Croatia (17th) and Cuba (18th). These countries spent far less than India but were ahead of affluent countries like New Zealand (19th) and Canada (20th). Fiji won its first ever Olympic Gold in Rugby. City state Singapore won its first ever gold and that too in swimming. Other first time gold medal winning countries included Jordon and Ivory Coast (Taekwondo) Kosovo (women Judo), and Purto Rico (women tennis).

The budget to prepare the players for Olympics of above countries is far less than that of India for the same purpose. India’s performance hence calls for a lot of soul-searching on why Rio was a practical failure for a country of more than a billion people. Tokyo is only four years away; but Tokyo is already lost. If India has to plan, it has to be at least 8 to 12 years in the making.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017