Still a long way to go

Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal in air rifle in Beijing was indeed a huge breakthrough for Indian sport. For, it was the first individual gold for the country in the history of the Olympics. By Kamesh Srinivasan.

From being a one sport wonder in Olympics for a long time, India has grown to gain respect in the Games.

The country had won six successive hockey gold medals from 1928 in Amsterdam to 1956 in Melbourne. Of course, two editions of the Olympics, 1940 and 1944, were not held due to World War.

Overall, India had collected eight gold medals in hockey including the last one in Moscow (where many countries boycotted the Games) in 1980. The country had also won one silver and two bronze medals in the sport.

India is no where in the picture when compared to world standards. In Beijing Games, China beat the U. S. to top the table by a margin of 15 gold medals with a haul of 51, while swimming sensation Michael Phelps won eight gold medals for the U. S. in Beijing, after having won six gold medals in Athens in 2004.

For the record, India has won one gold, one silver and five bronze medals in the other disciplines.

Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal in air rifle in Beijing was indeed a huge breakthrough for Indian sport. For, it was the first individual gold for the country in the history of the Olympics.

Bindra winning the gold was not a surprise because he was the world champion in 2006, and had the experience of having been in the final of the Athens Games when he slipped from the third place in the final, owing to a faulty wooden floor rather than a bout of nerves. The defending champion Zhu Qinan of China was in tears, as he was pushed to the second place after Bindra’s brilliant 10.8 last shot sealed the gold.

That gold was easily a diamond in the crown of Indian sports, but the fact that Sushil Kumar in wrestling and Vijender Singh in boxing added two bronze medals in the Beijing Games made it a delight. For, India had rarely won more than one medal in the Games. The only other time, when India won two medals was in 1952 in Helsinki when K. D. Jadhav added the wrestling bronze to the gold in hockey.

Actually, it was the first individual medal for India in Olympics. It had to wait for another 44 years, till the Atlanta Games in 1996, when Leander Paes capitalised on a wild card and clinched the singles bronze medal in tennis behind Andre Agassi and Sergei Bruguera. He beat a top-10 player Thomas Enqvist of Sweden along the way.

Paes had a memorable debut in Barcelona Olympics in 1992, when the talented 19-year-old combined well with Ramesh Krishnan, to upset the top-seeded John Fitzgerald and Todd Woodbridge of Australia 6-4, 7-5, 4-6, 6-1 in the second round. The Indian pair needed to win the quarterfinals to ensure a medal but lost 6-7(3), 7-5, 4-6, 3-6 to Goran Ivanisevic and Goran Prpic of Croatia.

Similarly, in Athens, Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi lost the bronze medal to Ivan Ljubbicic and Mario Ancic of Croatia 6-7(5), 6-4, 14-16. The Indian pair had beaten three high quality teams, that featured the likes of Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, before being blown off the court in the semifinals by Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Schuettler of Germany. Incidentally, Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka stopped the medal hunt of Paes and Bhupathi in the quarterfinals in Beijing and the Swiss pair went on to capture the gold.

In the Sydney Games in 2000, weightlifter Karnam Malleswari won the bronze. It was a shot in the arm for women in sports in the country, as Indian sports fans could only remember P. T. Usha losing a medal by one hundredth of a second in the 100-metre hurdles in the Los Angeles Games in 1984, or much later Anjali Vedpathak Bhagwat making the women’s air rifle final on debut in 2000 itself. Indeed, Suma Shirur followed Anjali in making the air rifle final in 2004, but could not make an impact thereafter.

Yes, world championship bronze medallist Anju Bobby George finished fifth in long jump in 2004 in Athens, with a national record leap of 6.83 metres, but the Indian sportswomen had generally kept a low profile in the Games, though there was a clear hint of a bright future when the 18-year-old Saina Nehwal made the quarterfinals of badminton in the Beijing Games.

From being a one sport wonder, India established itself to be a one medal wonder in other discipline, when Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won the double trap silver medal in 2004. It was indeed a silver lining for Indian sports, and Rathore had given a hint of things to come by, winning World Cup gold medals apart from a World Championship bronze.

There was no doubt that games like shooting, boxing and wrestling were providing substance to India’s challenge. Much before Vijender Singh became a national hero with the middle weight bronze, Gurcharan Singh had captured the imagination of the country, when he lost the light heavyweight quarterfinals as he failed to avoid a punch in the last few seconds in Sydney.

Akhil Kumar (bantam) and Jitender Kumar (fly) made the quarterfinals of the Beijing Games to provide the thrust for Indian boxing and Vijender went with the flow to bag that elusive medal.

Similarly, in wrestling, it was Yogeshwar Dutt who made it to the quarterfinals, while Sushil Kumar bounced back brilliantly in repechage like a phoenix from the ashes, after losing early, to win the bronze medal in Beijing.

K. D. Mangave, Prem Nath, Jagmander Singh, Rajender Singh and Sudesh Kumar had finished fourth, while Rohtas Singh and Madho Singh had placed fifth in different weight categories in the rich of Indian wrestling over the years.

Indian football sparkled in 1956 in Melbourne, when it surprised host Australia 4-2 following a hat-trick by Neville D’Souza, but lost the bronze medal play-off 0-3 to Bulgaria after the 1-4 loss to Yugoslavia in the semifinals.

For long, Indian sports lovers had been fondly recalling the story of the fourth place of Milkha Singh in the 400 metres in the Rome Olympics in 1960, but have graduated to looking at a handful of Olympic medals, with gratitude.