The Tokyo Olympics is over, and the euphoria generated by India’s best haul of seven medals at the Games — a gold, two silver and four bronze — is beginning to fade away. Before the country’s largest-ever contingent of 127 athletes left for Tokyo, there was talk of a double-digit medal tally. That didn’t happen, and India’s performance placed it 48th among the 93 medal-winning nations. How could India have performed better?
Indian table tennis veteran Sharath Kamal, at 39, made his fourth Olympics and feels better infrastructure is the key to improving India's medal tally. "When you look at table tennis at the grassroots level, every school, office, or college has a table tennis table. As a kid, you would have tried your hand at table tennis. Infrastructure is a major contributor to the success of strong sporting nations," Sharath said during a panel discussion - Bridging The Olympic/Paralympic Gap at Sportstar's South Sports Conclave in Chennai on Tuesday.
"When I was young and went into international tournaments, we lost half of the matches when we saw the stadiums. Mentally, you are like 'What am I going to do here?'. You are always playing in small halls and academies with three tables, a low ceiling, and a very congested place. Mentally, to get to the international level, the most important factor is infrastructure. If kids have the access to come to a stadium and play in international conditions, then your ability to find talent and nurture it becomes the secondary problem."
Sharath's compatriot G. Sathiyan feels India needs to ensure a steady flow of players for an Olympic medal haul in table tennis. "India is seen as a threat to most of the top countries. Once we were in the Chinese national training hall, and there was a poster put up during the Olympic Games that said, 'Biggest threat to China' and there was my face and Sharath's face right on the wall of the training center," Sathiyan said with a smile.
"We are at the top. For an Olympic medal journey, we need a lot of players coming as a bunch. That is very critical to get the cycle going. We have now upgraded ourselves in the Asian Games, which is like a mini Olympics. In 2024 Paris, we have a huge chance in the men's team. We are one of the best teams. On a given day, we could beat one of the best teams in the world. Manika and I have a great chance in mixed doubles. We are world number six now. It is not only about the medal but more about starting to compete with the best players. I am sure 2024 will be the year when table tennis makes history."
Indian tennis star Ramesh Krishnan is of the opinion that better accessibility is the key to augmenting India's performance in tennis. "The center of tennis has gravitated to Europe, so Europeans have a very big advantage. The Australians and Americans are struggling, and so Indians are also struggling.
"Even within India, if you want to go to Delhi or Mumbai, it is a long distance, it is almost a continent by itself. For a kid to come through, the travel and the competition are not very accessible."
Meanwhile, India created history in the Tokyo Paralympics 2021 by winning 19 medals (5 gold, 8 silver, 6 bronze) en-route smashing records. Going into the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, India had won 12 medals (four gold medals) in the history of the Paralympics.
Mariyappan Thangavelu, who had won gold in the T63 high jump in the 2016 Paralympic Games, won silver at Tokyo. Thangavelu reckons a better support staff will help para-athletes win more medals at the quadrennial Games. "We need good coaches, physios and nutritionists. Planning out a daily training regimen [is the key]," Thangavelu said. "If they get the right attention and care, they can definitely win more gold medals. If you look at para-athletics, we are training 5-10 days before the competition. They need to start with a goal in mind one or two years prior."