With more medal possibilities than before, Indian sport is hoping that this Olympics will be the long-awaited turning point
A country of more than a billion, and not a single individual medal to show. That used to be the lament not long ago when Indian contingents returned empty-handed, barring the hockey medal, from the Olympics Games.
Wrestler K.D. Jadhav’s breakthrough with a bronze in the 1952 Games followed by tennis ace Leander Paes’s third place in 1996 and weightlifter Karnam Malleswari’s similar feat in 2000 are too well known to merit repetition here. So, too, the hockey gold in Moscow in 1980, the country’s last success in a sport in which it has eight gold medals in Olympics.
But they do give us an idea about how tough the going has been for Indian sports through the years on the biggest sporting stage in the world. Shooter Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s silver medal in Athens eight years ago and the three medals in the Beijing Olympics, including the gold by shooter Abhinav Bindra, have changed the outlook drastically.
“We can also do it” was a belief that Rathore, Bindra, Sushil and Vijender brought into Indian sport, which, despite the much-maligned sports federations, the constant wrangle between the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the government, the legacy of a corruption-ridden Commonwealth Games, and the meagre budget allocations, has started to look up.
Government and private support
In a country where, by and large, there is only one sport (cricket) that monopolises private sponsorship, support from multinational companies and initiatives like the Olympic GoldQuest (OGQ) are beginning to make an impact on Olympic disciplines.
The Mittal Champions Trust and the OGQ have signed up almost all the leading members of the Olympic contingent to provide them monetary and logistical support towards attaining their goals. Government incentives, both at the Central and State levels, are more than attractive.
Today, with just hours to go for the London Olympics to start, there is talk of half a dozen medals, if not more, for the country in what could turn out to be a path-breaking moment for Indian sports. But don’t jump to conclusions. There could still be a few imponderables that the experts and coaches have not taken into consideration.
Though there could be complaints about poor planning and inadequate build-up in some disciplines, sportspersons have responded enthusiastically to official and private support by qualifying in larger numbers than in the past. India has sent an 81-member contingent of athletes including 16 hockey players to this year’s Games. In a welcome departure, the IOA named World Cup-winning hockey captain Ajitpal Singh as the Chef de Mission of the contingent, a position that used to be doled out in the past to federation officials as a ploy to garner votes.
The Sports Ministry, despite financial constraints, has put in its bit. With a budget in excess of Rs.200 crore to support OPEX (Operation Excellence London 2012) and money also available to finance individual athletes towards hiring of foreign coaches or setting up training bases abroad, from the National Sports Development Fund, the ministry has been quite liberal in sanctioning funds.
The initial planning was late but adequate. Shortly after the Asian Games in Guangzhou in November 2010, an exercise was undertaken by the ministry to assess whether India could reach double digits in its medal collection in the London Olympics. It looked too ambitious a target at that time, but Injeti Srinivas, then Joint Secretary in the Sports ministry, was optimistic.
“With the kind of performance our teams have shown in the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, 10 medals should not be too stiff a target,” he said then.
The doping fiasco that hit Indian athletics last year upset some of those calculations. OPEX London 2012 was born in March, 2011, a little late but there was a brighter tag than routine. Initially, 16 sports disciplines were identified as possible contenders for spots in the Olympic line-up; not medal prospects. Thirteen made it eventually, gymnastics, taekwondo and sailing going out without a qualifier or a ‘universality’ quota, something that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) provides to keep athletes from the underdeveloped nations encouraged.
There are expectations of Indian medals in shooting, archery, badminton, boxing, wrestling and, to a lesser extent, tennis. In Deepika Kumari, the 18-year-old Jharkhand archer, India has a world No.1. In shooting there are two men who have enjoyed world champion status in the past, Abhinav Bindra, who is also defending Olympic champion in air rifle event, and Manavjit Singh Sandhu, the trap shooter. In double trap shooter Ronjan Sodhi we have a world top-10 athlete and a former World Cup winner while wrestler Sushil Kumar has won world and Asian titles apart from the Olympic bronze.
Then there is badminton star Saina Nehwal, who has to her credit victories over the top Chinese apart from a world ranking of No.5. It is an anxious wait for the Games to begin in London. Indian hopes have gone up as never before though it would be prudent to be cautious in one’s forecasts. An Olympic medal is the toughest to get for an athlete. Only a handful of Indians have realised that dream if you exclude hockey.