Olympics: From Seoul to Rio, a journey with the Indian contingent

Olympics unites the world for a fortnight where the best are celebrated and the rest are applauded for their effort. It is a freewheeling cocktail of sports where religion, skin colour, language and other barriers are demolished, albeit temporarily.

Abhinav Bindra of India poses with his gold medal in the Men's 10m Air Rifle Final at the Beijing Shooting Range Hall on day 3 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Called the greatest show on earth, the Olympic Games are a celebration of human excellence, behaviour and endeavour. It is the dream of every athlete on the planet to be a part of these Games and bring laurels to his or her country.

This quadrennial sporting extravaganza unites the world for a fortnight where the best are celebrated and the rest are applauded for their effort. It is a freewheeling cocktail of sports where religion, skin colour, language and other barriers are demolished, albeit temporarily.

I have had the privilege of covering eight successive Olympic Games. From 1988 through 2016, from Seoul to Rio, I have been witness to the best, the good and the not-ugly, all in an unrestricted and free-flowing manner. That is what makes me sceptical about the Tokyo Olympics.

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For me, as well as for most Indian journalists, the mandate for the 1988 and ’92 Games was primarily to cover hockey. It was from 1996 onwards that India started winning medals and individual sportspersons started getting attention. We have Leander Paes to thank for that, as his bronze medal in Atlanta that year set the ball rolling for individual performers to do India proud at subsequent Games.

Seoul 1988 was perhaps the most extravagant Olympics, Barcelona’s opening ceremony the most opulent, Atlanta was strictly commercial, Sydney was efficiently conducted with the support of young but highly disciplined volunteers, Athens was a warning signal for the incoming economic disaster, Beijing was expensive, London was matter-of-fact, no-frills, and Rio struggled but managed to complete the Games amid economic gloom.

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Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson (second from left) wins the final of the 100 Metres event at Seoul Olympic Stadium during the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, 24th September 1988. Johnson won the event in a world record time of 9.79 seconds, but was disqualified for doping, with Carl Lewis (far right) of the USA, taking the title.   -  Getty Images

 

For me, Seoul was a different world altogether. The people were very proud that their country was hosting the Games. The awesome opening ceremony was a capsule of their glorious history and culture, and the official anthem, ‘Hand in Hand,’ was epic in every sense.

As it looked that these Games might earn the tag of the best of the Olympics till then, it was hit by what came to be known as “the dirtiest race in history.” On September 24, 1988, Canadian Ben Johnson did to the Games what the hosts’ bitter rivals North Korea could not do. Johnson pierced the heart of the Games as he tested positive for steroid use 24 hours after winning the 100m in what was being called the greatest footrace in history.

Suddenly, a pall of gloom seemed to have descended on the Games. For me, it was a stunning experience as I had never expected such a depressing reaction. One athlete’s dark deed could impact the Games thus.

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In 1988, the Indian hockey team opened their campaign disastrously with a 1-0 loss to the Soviet Union, drew with West Germany, then lost their next three matches and finally lost to Pakistan 1-2 in the playoffs to finish sixth. But hockey kept the Indian journalist busy – a match report one day, a preview the next, and that took care of 12 days and justified our presence there.

Tennis star Vijay Amritraj’s participation provided journalists with more work. I interviewed him soon after one of his practice sessions, and his opening line was: “Playing in the Olympics is just like making a debut at Wimbledon.” Amritraj lost to Henri Leconte of France over a gruelling five sets. Zeeshan Ali lost in the second round. Vijay and brother Anand also figured in the doubles.

However, the most distasteful episode for the Indian contingent were the tantrums thrown by the women athletes. P. T. Usha finished last in her 400m heat, but her coach, O. M. Nambiar, insisted she be in the 4x400m relay team in place of Vandana Rao. Rao protested, and then a ridiculous solution was worked out – to hold a trial run. Usha refused and was not included in the team.

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Olympic champion rower Steve Redgrave carries the flag for the British team during the opening ceremony of the XXV Olympic Summer Games 25th July 1992 at the Montjuic Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, Spain.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

The 1992 Barcelona Olympics was yet another new experience for me as for the first time, the two main news agencies of our country, United News of India (UNI) and Press Trust of India (PTI), had decided to collaborate on their coverage of the Games. So, the PTI sports editor, the late Jagannath Rao, and I jointly covered the Games for the two agencies.

As I wrote earlier, the opening ceremony of the 1992 Games was out of this world. The lighting of the flame by an archer with an arrow has become a part of Olympic folklore.

India started on an ominous note when hockey defender Jagdev Singh suffered an injury during a practice match against Spain and later played just 40 minutes against Germany before pulling out of the tournament. India finished seventh.

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Here I’d like to narrate an interesting incident that happened in the judo hall. Prabhjot Singh of The Tribune and I went to cover a 95kg bout featuring an Indian judoka. But even before I could note down the name ‘Cawas Billimoria,’ the fight was over. It lasted hardly 14 seconds and was perhaps the shortest judo bout of that Olympics.

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K.P.S. Gill (left), President, Indian Hockey Federation.   -  The Hindu

 

The 1996 Atlanta opening ceremony was all high-tech and modern-musical razzle-dazzle sans any cultural performance. The only thing that excited the crowd was when Muhammad Ali appeared on stage to light the flame.

Before the opening of the Games, I met senior International Olympic Committee (IOC) official Ashwani Kumar at a practice ground, and we got talking and suddenly he told me that Indian Hockey Federation chief K. P. S. Gill had not been able to get a flight from New York to Atlanta. Gill was travelling on a train in which he was the sole passenger. He was deboarded midway and completed the journey by car.

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It so happened that a South Korean plane had crashed after taking off from New York and sabotage was suspected. Meanwhile, news came that Khalistanis had threatened Gill, the man credited with bringing the Punjab insurgency under control, so all airlines decided against taking the Indian official on their flights to Atlanta. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arranged for the special train and later a fleet of cars to transport Gill to Atlanta.

It turned out to be the most-talked-about exclusive story by me in India.

Another interesting happening in Atlanta was the near-full media gallery during the India -Pakistan hockey match. Most of the American and European journalists, who had little or no interest in field hockey, were there to report on the expected violence and fight between the teams and the spectators. Much to their dismay, it was a match played in a very sporting spirit, and no violence or brawl took place on or off the field. At half-time, most of the journalists had left.

The Indian team might have finished seventh in hockey, but Paes gave millions of people back home something to celebrate as he won India’s first individual Olympic medal in 44 years, defeating Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni for the bronze.

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China's Weining Lin, who won a gold medal in the women's 69-kg weightlifting competition at the Olympic games in Sydney, flanked by the silver medallist, Hungary's Erzsebet Markus(left) and the bronze winner, India's Karnam Malleswari.   -  THE HINDU

 

The 2000 Sydney Games were very efficiently conducted. For India, it was the Olympics where the country should have won more than the one medal claimed by weightlifter Karnam Malleswari.

The hockey team were unlucky to have drawn their last league match with Poland, conceding an equaliser in the dying moments that deprived them a place in the semifinals. India and South Korea tied at eight points each with the same goal difference (9-7) for second place in the group, but South Korea went through because they had beaten India in the league.

In the 81kg boxing quarterfinals, Gurbachan Singh fought a brave battle and from an Indian point of view, he should have been declared the winner. He was tied 12-12 with Andrly Fedchuk of Ukraine but lost on some technical point. The Indian boxer cried loudly saying he had been deprived of a win, and he was left a very bitter man after the Indian officials did not help him.

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Malleswari won the bronze in the 69kg category, but she rued the fact that not many from the Indian contingent were present when she won her medal.

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Dhanraj Pillay looks dejected after India's defeat in the match against Netherlands in the Olympic Games 2004 in Athens on August 14, 2004.   -  The Hindu

 

Athens 2004 was held amid economic gloom. On the very second day of the Games, the posters and decorations started falling, and there were no efforts to put them back in place.

The Indian hockey team performed poorly and there was tension in the squad. Dhanraj Pillay cried foul after he was substituted early in India’s last league match. He said it was an insult and: “This was my fourth and last Olympics and I deserved better.” In the playoffs, Pakistan rubbed more salt into India’s wounds with a 3-0 thrashing.

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Weightlifters Pratima Kumari and Sanamacha Chanu reportedly tested positive for banned substances, and the Indian officials indulged in futile firefighting. If that were not enough, shot-putter Bahadur Singh and discus-thrower Anil Kumar produced flop shows, failing to get in a single legal throw.

Rajyavardhan Singh won a silver in double trap shooting and that brought some cheer to the Indian camp. Archer Satyadev Singh made the quarterfinals, while Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were just unlucky to lose a four-hour epic bronze-medal match in tennis.

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The 2008 Beijing Games were an expensive affair with the Chinese authorities leaving no stone unturned in putting up an awesome show. Interestingly, for the first time, there was no hockey team from India at the Olympics as the country failed to qualify.

Abhinav Bindra became the first Indian to win an individual gold medal, while Vijender Singh in boxing and Sushil Kumar in wrestling won a bronze each.

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Sushil Kumar of the India Olympic wrestling team carries his country's flag during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

The 2012 London Olympics was business-like. The Indian contingent unwittingly got embroiled in a controversy at the opening ceremony when it was found that a volunteer had joined the march and gotten behind the flag-bearer Sushil Kumar without being noticed. This was construed as a big security breach. The matter was sorted out amicably after the volunteer apologised saying she was not stopped by any security persons, so she kept walking.

It was perhaps the best Games for India till now as the country won six – two silver, four bronze – individual medals. But it was the worst for hockey as the team lost all their matches and finished last without scoring a point – they failed to even achieve a draw.

Wrestler Sushil Kumar claimed silver in the 66kg freestyle to become the first and only Indian to win two individual Olympic medals. Shooters Vijay Kumar bagged silver in the 25m rapid fire pistol event and Gagan Narang bronze in the 10m air rifle. The other three bronze medals came from Saina Nehwal in badminton, M. C. Mary Kom in boxing and wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt in the 60kg freestyle.

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Silver medalist P.V. Sindhu celebrates during the medal ceremony after the Women's Singles Badminton competition on Day 14 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

The 2016 Rio Games showed why it is becoming tough to host an event such as the Olympics. Brazil had been hit hard by an economic slump, and half-completed roads and stadiums were testimony to this.

The Indian athletes put up a below-par performance. The women's hockey team, taking part in the Olympics after 36 years, finished last. The men’s team ended eighth. It was only towards the end of the Games that India managed to get two medals – wrestler Sakshi Malik fought a great bout to snatch a bronze, and then shuttler P. V. Sindhu capped the country’s campaign with a silver.

 

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