For years we were a country easily satisfied with the barest minimum at the Olympics. We expected our hockey team to win, but understood that the others were there to gain experience, sometimes just shopping experience.
All we asked was that our stars didn’t get knocked out at first attempt. And if they did, we were understanding of that too. We were the embodiment of the Olympic spirit: It isn’t the winning, it is the taking part.
And we took part. Boy how we did! Jokes about this became part of our cultural consciousness. About the Indian who kept Hitler waiting at the Berlin Olympics — by taking his time over the marathon while Hitler stayed on at the stadium and waited for the event to finish. About athletes who tired themselves out at the inaugural marchpast and were thus not at their best in the competitions. About the shooter who put a gun to his head after being eliminated, but survived because he missed.
The jokes were cruel, but the acceptance of defeat was exemplary. We knew that triumph and disaster were impostors without any help from Kipling.
There would be a week of headlines like ‘What is wrong with Indian sport?’ and then everything would be forgotten if not forgiven till four years later when the cycle began all over again. Athletes spoke of poor training facilities, biased selections, of politics in sport. Occasionally questions were asked in Parliament. It was Theatre of the Predictable.
Then things changed. Suddenly expectations skyrocketed. We went to the Olympics expecting to win medals. Stars who nearly won were replaced by those who actually did. In Tokyo we were expected to clinch more gold medals than we had won since 1928.
The Prime Minister was shown cheering Indian athletes on TV. When the Indian contingent marched in, the screen was split to show the Sports Minister cheering. Politicians know what sports can do for them.
Perhaps the change in attitude happened in the new century; Tokyo is the sixth Olympics of the 21st century. In the previous five, India won one gold, four silver and eight bronze medals.
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We are no longer satisfied with participation now. We want a podium finish. And if we don’t get it, we want our athletes to pay the price. Ban them. Ask them to return the money spent on training and worse, if social media is indication. In one leap we have crossed from the sublime acceptance of the last century (two individual bronzes) to the ridiculous displeasure of today.
Athletes have enough pressure without our adding to it with threats and intimidations. Tokyo has been the most difficult Games for long. COVID-19 has disrupted preparation and ensured no one is relaxed. The gymnast Simone Biles, virtually the face of the Games, pulled out during competition citing mental pressure.
We must treat our athletes with compassion and consideration. And perhaps rediscover some of that understanding from the days when India were not expected to win anything.
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