More sidelights than spotlights!

India still has quite a bit of catching up to do to be counted among the leading countries in the world of Olympic sports. Through these 40 years, India has won just 13 medals in the Olympics, the same number that Uzbekistan had recorded in the Rio Olympics to be ranked 21st on the medals table two years ago.

Sushil Kumar is the only Indian athlete to win two individual medals in the Olympics. The wrestler bagged a silver in London 2012 and a bronze in Beijing 2008.   -  PTI

How far has India travelled through the multi-discipline trail through the past 40 years? Quite far but it is still struggling to reach its avowed destination among the sports powers even at the Asian level. That is not a comfortable position to be in, though the last Asian Games in Indonesia has led to a never-before celebratory mood in the country, expectedly raising hopes for the 2020 Olympic Games and beyond.

When reality hits hard, we realise we still have quite a bit of catching up to do to be counted among the leading countries in the world of Olympic sports. Through these 40 years, India has won just 15 medals in the Olympics. Among those 15 were two gold medals, one by the Indian team in a devalued hockey competition at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and the other, India’s first individual gold medal, by rifle shooter Abhinav Bindra in Beijing 28 years later.

Bindra’s single-minded approach to his Olympic success after having come agonisingly close to a medal in the previous edition has been well chronicled through the past decade. He had qualified in fourth place in the air rifle final in Beijing with a score of 596/600, two points behind Finn Henri Hakkinen.

Eventually, Chinese Zhu Qinan, the defending champion and Olympic record holder, was second and Hakkinen took the bronze as Bindra reeled off an immaculate series including a 10.8 score in the final.

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Weightlifter Karnam Malleswari became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal when she claimed a bronze in Sydney 2000.   -  REUTERS

 

“I sincerely hope that it changes the face of Olympic sport in the country. For me, life will go on,” said the soft-spoken champion shooter.

Bindra’s landmark achievement seemed to have opened up the doors to Olympic glory for Indian sportspersons. Boxer Vijender Singh (middleweight) and wrestler Sushil Kumar (66kg) supplemented Bindra’s glorious feat with a bronze each in Beijing and by the time the London Games came around, hopes for a better medal haul were justified.

London in 2012 exceeded expectations though a gold eluded the country. Sushil Kumar added a silver medal to his Beijing bronze and to date he remains the only Indian to have won two individual Olympic medals. Shooter Vijay Kumar won a silver in the rapid-fire pistol event while four bronze medals came through shooter Gagan Narang (10m air rifle), wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt (freestyle 60kg), badminton star Saina Nehwal (women’s singles) and boxer M. C. Mary Kom (flyweight).

The Beijing and London success did contribute to a better awareness of Olympic sports in the country as Bindra had visualised. There was greater government and private support, but individual sportspersons still suffered either because of a lack of funds or lack of exposure or sheer apathy of the administrators.

Bindra himself was in an Olympic Task Force that submitted a report to the Union government about Olympics preparations in the years ahead after India finished rather disappointingly with two medals in the last Olympics in Rio, a silver by badminton player P. V. Sindhu and a bronze by freestyle wrestler Sakshi Malik.

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Leander Paes pocketed a bronze in tennis at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The previous individual medal by an Indian had been won in Helsinki 1952 by wrestler K. D. Jadhav. Leander’s companions in the picture are Andre Agassi (gold) and Sergi Bruguera (silver).   -  VINO JOHN

 

Today there are several government schemes to promote sports, sizeable incentive awards to attract the youth towards Olympic sports, there is a ₹50,000-per-month stipend for top-level sportspersons over and above liberal funding for camps, hiring of foreign coaches, exposure trips, equipment etc. Added to this is the support extended by non-governmental organisations.

Bindra’s golden moment was easily the proudest that the country enjoyed in sports since Independence. However, through the next two Olympics, India has not been able to add to that golden tally. Place the five gold medals that Croatia, a country of 4.1 million, won at the Rio Olympics opposite that of India’s solitary gold and we get an idea where our country stands. That kind of record will continue to rankle, no matter that we can today proudly talk of a clutch of world-class performers in shooting or emerging talent in athletics.

For decades, we were all too familiar with the Olympic script that invariably ended “so near, yet so far.”

That it took 44 years for India to add to the lone bronze that K. D. Jadhav had won in wrestling in 1952 should portray the plight of Indian sports in the Olympics through the 1980s. Leander Paes broke the sequence of blanks with the bronze in tennis in Atlanta in 1996. In another four years, weightlifter Karnam Malleswari would add to that tally by becoming the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, a bronze in Sydney. Athens brought to the fore a determined Rajyvardhan Singh Rathore and his silver medal in the double trap. Today Rathore holds the reins of the Union sports ministry and is working hard towards further sporting success for a country of 1.3 billion.

The weightlifting success story that Malleswari and Kunjarani Devi penned at the world level in the 1990s never really blossomed into Olympic medals bar the former’s Sydney bronze. Nor did it help produce a string of gold medals in the Asian Games. Malleswari had a silver each at the 1994 and 1998 Asian Games while Kunjarani, suspended once for doping, had a bronze each in 1990 and 1994.

Weightlifting does provide a bagful of medals to India in the Commonwealth Games, but there is nothing much to crow about since the Commonwealth standards are mediocre.

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P.T. Usha (No. 67) pounds into the curve on the way to the women’s 200m gold during the Asian Games in Seoul in October 1986. The Kerala lass picked up four golds, three of them individual in the event.   -  D. KRISHNAN

 

Since the days of Milkha Singh in the 1960s, athletics has promised much without being able to get the one medal that matters. There were gallant efforts, though, like P. T. Usha’s in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Even today, Usha regrets not having dipped at the finish. That cost her what could have been a historic bronze medal in the 400m hurdles. One-hundredth of a second separated her from Romanian Cristina Cojocaru. Her national record of 55.42s still stands.

Since Usha, long jumper Anju George (fifth in Athens 2004, national record 6.83m), discus thrower Vikas Gowda (CWG gold in 2014 and eighth in London 2012), discus thrower Krishna Poonia (sixth in London) and steeplechaser Lalita Babar (10th in Rio) are the only other Indian athletes to have made the Olympic finals. The Indian women’s 4x400m relay team also made the finals in 1984 and 2004.

Even though Los Angeles was Usha’s most memorable moment in a career spanning close to two decades, her best medal haul in a multi-discipline meet came at the Seoul Asian Games in 1986 when she accounted for all the three individual athletics gold medals that the country won. She was also part of the 4x400m relay team that won a fourth gold for India in athletics. The only other gold that India won in Seoul came from freestyle wrestler Kartar Singh (100kg). That was Kartar’s second gold at the Asian Games, the first having come in Bangkok in 1978. He was to later become the secretary of the Wrestling Federation of India. In the last two editions of the Asiad, Yogeshwar Dutt, Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat have swelled the Indian gold tally.

Bangkok 1978 was also the first time India won a shooting gold at the Asian Games. Randhir Singh nailed the trap gold medal to improve upon his senior, Dr Karni Singh’s silver in 1974. Randhir, six-time Olympian, was to later become the Secretary-General of the Indian Olympic Association and an International Olympic Committee member, apart from secretary-general of the Olympic Council of Asia.

Bangkok in 1978 also happened to be one of the best for Indian athletes. Led by Hari Chand’s distance double, India bagged eight gold medals in athletics, its second-best haul after the inaugural edition in Delhi in 1951. The Indian athletes also bagged seven silver and three bronze medals. In Jakarta this year, Indian athletes took home seven gold in a total of 19 medals.

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Shooter Jaspal Rana plays with his child on arrival from the Doha Asian Games in 2006. Rana shot two individual golds in Doha. His earlier one had come in Hiroshima 1994.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

 

Through the 1980s, Usha dominated the headlines. She had started with the Moscow Olympics in 1980 where she competed in the 100m heats as a 16-year-old, won two silver medals in the New Delhi Asiad two years later in sprints, raised great hopes in the boycott-ridden Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and then came that awesome four-gold feat at the 1986 Asian Games. She could not repeat her performance through 1990 to the 1998 Asian Games, adding one more individual medal, a silver in 400m in Beijing, plus three relay silver medals. Her swan song in Bangkok in 1998 ended in tears as she was excluded from the 4x400m relay team.

Despite her great run from the 1980s, Usha never competed in the Commonwealth Games. The one opportunity that came with the Edinburgh Games of 1986 fizzled out as India joined an African boycott against Britain’s South Africa policy.

Athletics provided poor returns to India at the Commonwealth Games unlike the Asian Games. After the legendary Milkha Singh won the 440 yards at the British Empire Games (as the Games were known then) in Cardiff in 1958, it was only in 2010 at home that India won another gold. That came through discus thrower Krishna Poonia who led an Indian sweep with Harwant Kaur and Seema Antil filling up the podium.

The women’s 4x400m relay team won the gold in front of a wildly cheering home crowd of around 60,000. But the success was put in perspective (also the relay gold at the Asian Games in Guangzhou) when six of the quarter-milers tested positive for steroids in 2011. Three of them — Mandeep Kaur, Sini Jose and Ashwini Akkunji — were part of both the teams. The New Delhi Commonwealth Games was perhaps the poorest in terms of athletics quality through the history of the Games.

The Commonwealth Games was the platform on which Prakash Padukone, the greatest badminton player of our times, established himself first at the international level. At Edmonton, Canada, in 1978 he won the men’s singles gold to mark the beginning of a golden era for Indian badminton. Two years later he was to become the first Indian to win the All England, too.

The late Syed Modi enlarged on the success that Padukone had registered in the CWG by winning the gold in the Brisbane Games in 1982. Alas, Modi was murdered in his prime at 26 and what could have been a brilliant career was cut short.

P. Kashyap was the third India men’s winner in the Commonwealth Games, his success coming in 2014. Saina Nehwal won the women’s singles gold in 2010 and 2018 while other badminton medal winners included Aparna Popat, P. V. Sindhu, Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa.

The Commonwealth Games always proved a veritable goldmine for Indian shooters, weightlifters and wrestlers. Understandably, most of them found it difficult to duplicate their efforts at the Asian Games since the standards were much tougher.

Jaspal Rana was an exception. The pistol shooter who won countless medals in the Commonwealth Games from 1994 also claimed three individual gold medals at the Asian Games, one in centre-fire pistol in 1994 and one each in centre-fire and standard pistol in 2006. He also had a team gold in centre-fire in Doha. In his impressive career, Rana also had two silver and a bronze in the Asian Games. Today, Rana is moulding the careers of teenage pistol shooters like Saurabh Chaudhary (2018 Asian Games gold) and Manu Bhaker (2018 CWG and Youth Olympics gold).

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Hima Das celebrates her victory in the women’s 400 metres at the 2018 IAAF World U20 Championships in Tampere, Finland, on July 12, 2018. No other Indian has this distinction.   -  AFP

 

India can look ahead with great hope what with young shooters like Shardul Vihan (double trap silver in 2018 Asian Games), Lakshay Sheoran (trap silver in 2018 Asian Games) and Anish Bhanwala (rapid-fire pistol gold in CWG), apart from Bhaker and Chaudhary. There are also young athletes like javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, 2018 CWG gold winner, and quarter-miler Hima Das, the latter having taken the athletics world by storm by winning India’s first-ever track gold at the World U20 Championships in Finland this year, apart from being part of the gold-winning 4x400m relay team at the Asian Games where she also claimed two silver medals.

From the days when Guru Hanuman (who guided many a champion wrestler including 1982 Asian Games gold winner Satpal) sat on dharna in front of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s residence to get a wrestling mat imported, and athletes ran on mud and cinder tracks up to the 1980s, India has come a long way though we can do with a lot of improvement in having additional infrastructure.

Young shooters have a number of avenues to show their talent, there is no dearth of ammunition (occasional complaints notwithstanding), wrestlers, archers and track and field athletes train and compete regularly abroad. And the badminton players are among the top in the world and compete and win regularly on the circuit. The blueprint for Tokyo 2020 is ready, we are told.

One worrying aspect is doping, though. From 2013 through to 2015 India was No. 3 among the list of ‘doping countries’ in the world. In 2016, we were joint sixth with Russia, which now has been exposed to have undertaken state-supported doping. India has had doped weightlifters expelled from the Commonwealth Games (2002 and 2006) and the 2004 Olympics. At the last Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, two Indian athletes were expelled for violating the ‘no needle’ policy.

Athletics and weightlifting have been the most dope-affected sports in India. No amount of “we-have-zero-tolerance-to-doping” type of statements from authorities would suffice when athletes show abnormal improvement. If the country should avoid embarrassment on the global stage, the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) has to perform a more convincing job of catching the dope cheats.