Tokyo Olympics 2021: India Hangs on by a Slim Thread
Passion, patriotism, hope and desperation
While passion, patriotism, hope and desperation jostled for space on the Indian air waves one week into the Tokyo Olympics 2020, the air was also hanging heavy with a rather familiar déjà vu feeling about the whole exercise being largely a case of much ado about nothing yet again.
Late on a humid Friday evening at the Olympics, world champion Sifan Hassan, representing the Netherlands, appeared to be out of contention and altogether disinterested as she started and remained at the back of the field for the first half of the 5000m women’s heat in the track and field events. But a very subtle gear shift almost went unnoticed past the 2500m mark as she slowly made her way up midfield before appearing resigned to settle for seventh place until the penultimate lap.
On the seventh and final lap though, while her Kenyan and Ethiopian counterparts held steady ground at the front, Hassan quietly made her pitch for first and the finish line in such sublime fashion that they could only look on shocked, disgusted and most importantly, exhausted, as she gracefully moved past them and then into a league of her own.
Hassan, it turned out, had quietly executed a very stealthy and rather deceptive plan, building steadily and sure footedly, slowly at first and then with consistency, pushing past when it was time. This was only the first heat as she is expected to take part across three events.
As exhilarating as it was to watch, it was not easy to shake off the lingering feeling that India were continuing to miss a beat.
After all, what happened to the P.T. Usha’s of the country? What has happened to the next great hope? Where is the build up, the foundation, the steadiness, the consistency and the core, and the bench strength? The ceiling barriers are yet to be broken, once and for all and comprehensively at that as far as India at the Olympics are concerned.
This is not a dampener. This is a reality check.
When USA lost one of the world’s greatest gymnasts in Simone Biles at the last minute in the all round team gymnastics event, they found a new champion in Suni Lee who claimed gold in the individual event to add to USA’s prowess as the fifth successive champion to take the gold at the Olympics. Great Britain were rewarded for staying with Tom Daley and his ten year Olympics history of medals finally yielding him a gold in the 10m platform men’s synchronized diving. Michael Phelps’s Olympics record is being challenged as is Mark Spritz’, unbelievably so, by Caeleb Dressler in the swimming events.
One could not help but cut back to the picture earlier in the morning as Hassan silently disappeared into the background as did Dutee from Indian minds.
At the fifth heat of the women’s 100m, a relatively diminutive woman lined up at the very end in lane 9. More exalted champions such as Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce took their place in the middle. The commentator on air did not even bother to go to the end of the field to introduce the athletes and Dutee Chand remained largely incognito, finishing a rather lacklustre seventh in an eight women race and much behind her national record time. Finishing 45 out of 54 participants reminded one of the shoddy affair that passed for sports events at many a school.
Still Chand was at the Olympics. Getting here was a Herculean effort and could not draw comparison. But that summed up India’s campaign in a nutshell.
Getting here is everything and then being here is automatically translated to medal hope in the minds of a billion. Never mind the mental challenge of watching athletes around the world show up with a larger support staff and a more rounded practice and facilities behind them. Hurdles are often overlooked in the public eye.
After all, while the likes of Anurag Thakur and Kiran Rijuju can sing laurels of our athletes when they make progress, it could be argued that like India’s lamentably bleak Olympics history, much of India’s untapped sporting talent continues to remain hidden.
It can also explain the almost monotonous voice in which the electronic media were already talking medal even as family members of P.V. Sindhu and Lovlina Borgohain encouraged cautious optimism. “Going for gold” screamed the headlines even though both women were still only into the semi finals in their respective disciplines of boxing and badminton respectively and had to still get past one more opponent to throw the final gauntlet for gold.
Once over the euphoria on a rather quiet, less newsworthy Friday where the farmers protest and the opposition took a backseat, the overwhelming feeling returned once more at the end of another epic day at the Tokyo Olympics that it was better to read the list of who had made the leap ahead rather than read out the long list of Indian athletes who didn’t.
Why are India’s medal hopefuls over hyped before the Olympics and then reduced to less than a handful midway through the two week celebration of sport only for India to be able to count on one hand the number of medals returning home? What is wrong with this picture?
Consider the déjà vu. There lies the answer.
Consider this for comparison.
A billion plus strong nation and 128 athletes represent India. Australia boasts a train of over 450 athletes at the Tokyo Olympics and only has a population that is about 25 million. Yet Australia are sitting pretty at no.6 behind the Russian Olympics Committee with nine gold medals to their name against the leader China who have now leaped over Japan with eighteen gold medals. Australia have 22 medals by the end of a hot and muggy night at the Olympics. India, still just the one.
Missing the top spot in the headlines were the archery duo of Deepika Kumari and Atanu Das who were holding their respective ground in the women’s individual archery event and men’s recursive individual archery, heading into the quarterfinals. While their efforts are commendable, they still represent a tiny fraction of India’s athletes who made it to the Olympics which is a great feat in itself but also, an even more miniscule percentage of the population, which is blasphemous to say the least.
Women’s hockey also provided some hope and as rightly pointed out, a semi final place is a great place to be in a ten year development. The emphasis has to be on development.
On a day when the likes of P.V. Sindhu were being hailed, there was an out-of-touch-with-reality moment when actor R. Madhavan posted this reply to a picture of the Tokyo Olympics silver medalist Mirabai Chanu having food on the floor of her humble home back in Manipur:
“Hey this cannot be true. I am at a complete loss of words.”
Why, Madhavan? First of all, it has to be pointed out, there is nothing wrong with having one’s lunch on the floor. To put things in context here though, he should know better the plight of Indian sportspersons given that he has played a coach to one in one of his movies.
It certainly puts playing for honour and pride of the country in perspective. That is a school of thought that has been given much lip service but not much credence in the wake of introduction of a sporting culture such as the Indian Premier League.
But it highlights not just the humble conditions from which these sportspersons come from but also, of the great demands on them, sometimes on their own two legs and on their meagre resources to get as far as they do. Showering laurels when medals are won is easy. In that sense, walking that opening ceremony in Tokyo was already a dream too high but achieved. But what about those who made it on their own merit and great hard work but didn’t get far, like Dutee?
Often this is not a rags-to-riches story for many of these sports persons who achieve elite Olympics medal levels. Promises made to them – not incentives but rewards after they hit the spotlight – are not kept. Homes are denied, jobs going a-begging, their talent, experience and wisdom untapped as the governments fail to use their success as a slipstream to build a steady stream of athletes inspired in the wake of their accomplishments.
Then four years later, it appears the names once again come out of the woodworks, the politicians bring out their patriotic Indian montages and the fans their tricolour and march alongside the sportspersons to unrealistic dreams and expectations.
The dismay is obvious.
The handful of aspiring shooters have had enough turmoil on the results board and back in the dressing room with enough ruffles over rifts between shooters and coaches. Manu Bhaker, who was expected to be the flag bearer in the end leading the medals tally, had a run in with her coach, Jaspal Rana, and thereafter with a rare malfunctioning pistol that hurt her chances in the 10m air pistol qualification event.
As news headlines kept screaming… “so-and-so crashes out,” “so-and-so crashes out”, and “so-and-so crashes out”, once again it highlighted the great disparity of how sports like cricket are given deliberate vantage point and therefore, focus, while it is hard even for seasoned journalists to extrapolate on the goings-on back in Tokyo simply because they have been fed and raised on a consumption of mainly one sport and also, then forced into specialized fields that earn their employers and themselves bread-and-butter. This is simply a fact of life, which some journalists have been candid and also, brave enough to admit openly.
One had to go deeper and read in order to learn why the nineteen year old Bhaker “crashed out” (visuals were not made available at the time). Not mentioned were her still impressive scores while she lost time while her pistol was being repaired as opposed to replaced with a spare because of the time it would take to make adjustments.
While the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) stated that India’s performance at the Tokyo Olympics was “inexplicable” and the sports authority talking about an overhaul, what is not easily forgiven is the repeated manner in which sportspersons find themselves in needless tangles, whether off the field like Mary Kom is in her final Olympics showdown, calling out the IOC over unfair judging, or the “usual suspects” (for want of a better term) of the likes of Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza calling foul of the AITA over selection muddles and confusion.
Where is the next generation? And where is the accountability? Where is the quiet pacing from the back of the field to make track steadily and then to take the finish line?
To think India lacks talent is appalling given that despite this sudden euphoria that comes out of the closets every four years – from the government and sports aficionados alike – India, despite its vast wealth, has very little infrastructure to show why there is no great grassroot level at which India’s budding talent is given ground on which to train.
Budget reels every February rarely do the untapped and underprivileged talent in the country little justice, leaving sports on the backburner. Between politics, nepotism and corruption, even existing infrastructure is elusive to these athletes in their four year long training that demands endurance and commitment of an extraordinary nature. The Olympics highlights this fact amply.
It is not enough that somehow, Dutee Chand is India’s only athlete in the track and field with hope and even she finishes at the end of the tail. While India’s hopes now rest on Sindhu and Lovlina and on the archers to wipe out the dim spotlight over the coming weekend, something is wrong with this picture and has been for a very long time.