The 2016 Summer Olympics at Rio de Janeiro came to a spectacular end recently. India had sent its biggest squad till date, of 119 athletes and sportsmen. We were widely expected to do much better than our performance at the last Olympic Games at London in 2012. You may recall that we had won 6 medals then, 2 silver and 4 bronze medals. Our Silver winners were Sushil Kumar in wrestling and Vijay Kumar in shooting, with Bronze medals being won by Gagan Narang in shooting, Mary Kom in boxing, Saina Nehwal in badminton, and Yogeshwar Dutt in wrestling. In 2016, most of us were disappointed when India got just 2 medals, a Silver in Women’s Badminton from P V Sindhu, and a Bronze in wrestling from Sakshi Malik. This leads to the endless rounds of introspection, criticism and agony on how is it we can perform no better than many nations even smaller than ours. For the statistically inclined, with a tally of 2 medals we were placed 67 th out of over 200 countries that took part. We can derive some consolation from the fact that as many as 120 countries went without getting any medal at all!
At one point fairly late in the Games, there were fears whether we would get any medals at all! The big stars on whom we had placed our hopes had all got swept away by their competitors by then. Indian sporting heroes like Abhinav Bindra, Sania Mirza, Rohan Bopanna, Saina Nehwal, Jitu Rai, Gagan Narang, and Deepika Kumari were amongst these casualties. It fell to a young girl from Rohtak, Haryana, 23 year old Sakshi Malik to bring some cheer when she won the bronze in the 58 kg free style wrestling for women. Haryana is a State infamous for its bias against the girl child and it was a spectacular achievement on her part to win a medal at this high level, that too in a sport which has traditionally been the domain of men.
More good news was to follow, P V Sindhu became the Super Star of the country when she gave a stupendous fight to the World No. 1, Carolina Marin before losing the finals of the Women’s Badminton. The 10 th ranked Sindhu showed exemplary spirit in this match, clearly marking herself as a star for the future.
The third lady to take the country by storm, sadly did not win a medal but she did come agonisingly close to grabbing one. Dipa Karmakar brought laurels to the country by becoming the first Indian woman ever to participate the finals of a gymnastics event. She too showed tremendous spirit in competing amongst the best in the world in a sport which is hardly ever followed in India. More importantly she chose to do the difficult Produnova a high- risk vault which earned her a huge amount of respect from around the world. Another game which is relatively seldom followed in India is golf. Here too a young lady showed the way. 18-year old Aditi Ashok playing in her first Olympics was eventually was placed 41 but she too seems to have great potential which can be shaped over the years.
As always, there will be recriminations. There will be debates and endless discussions on what we need to do more to develop into a sports oriented nation. It is clear that for the large majority of parents in India especially amongst the middle and upper middle classes, sports as a career is low priority. The risks are too great and they opt for the safer path of a more secured future through giving their children a “good education”. There is a huge amount of politics in our Sports federations and associations. Lastly, let’s face it. Our best performances are way below the Olympic and World standards. We tend to hype the performance of some of our sportsmen and women often building expectations that are extremely difficult to live up to.
We shouldn’t lose hope though. It is not right to say that there was a steep fall in performance overall. To put things in perspective, in the last few Olympics we got 1 Bronze in Atlanta in 1996 (through Leander Paes for tennis), 1 Bronze in Sydney in 2000 (through K Malleswari for weight lifting), 1 Silver in Athens in 2004 (through Rajyavardhan Rathore for shooting) 1 Gold and 2 Bronze in 2008 in Beijing, (through Abhinav Bindra in shooting, Sushil Kumar in wrestling, and Vijendar in boxing) and 2 Silvers and 4 Bronze in London in 2012 before the recent games in Rio.
There are many lessons to be learnt from the Rio Olympics. The question is will we face up to reality and learn them? One thing is for sure. We certainly need to do far better in the next Olympics at Tokyo in 2020. I, for one, am confident that we will!