Every four years (or five, in this instance), India surrenders collectively to the grip of frenzied anticipation. In the days leading up to and for the duration of the Olympic Games, caught up in the hype and hoopla, the sport-loving public waits for moments of magic, slices of history. What it has got, for the most part, is utter disappointment, a feeling of being let down.
Ahead of Tokyo 2020, the optimism and the publicity blitz driven by influential figures
— union sports ministers current and former, and the chief of Defence Staff among them
— seemed justified. No stone had been left unturned in the five years between Rio and now, no expense spared in the preparation and fine-tuning of athletes. Lending further credence to claims that this would be the country’s ‘best ever’ Olympics was the plethora of World No. 1s across disciplines —in shooting, wrestling, archery, boxing. With the media lapping up tall pronouncements gleefully, fans were given to understand that several of India’s superstars had only to turn up to ensure a double-digit medal haul.
We believed it all. And yet, here we are, more than a week into the Olympics and with most of the so-called medal disciplines out of the way, and no more than two medals guaranteed. Mirabai Chanu’s opening day silver in weightlifting was supposed to be the harbinger of great tidings. Only intrepid pugilist Lovlina Borgohain has joined her in the club of medallists at the time of writing. It is possible that India could add to their currently anaemic tally; for now, though, it is safe to say that Tokyo 2020 has been another in a long list of underwhelming performances.
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Various theories have been proffered to explain the debacle, the lockdown of last year owing to the coronavirus pandemic that subsequently disrupted the competition schedule of these elite athletes who generally work towards peaking for the big occasion understandably sitting right at the top of that pile. It is true that preparations were seriously hampered when it came to match fitness. No amount of practice can replicate the adrenaline and nerves of battle. In these unprecedented times, however, that has become the norm; the Indians aren’t in a minority. While the Europeans and the Americans managed to ease back into competition mode with the Olympics fast approaching, the same wasn’t the case with either the Australians, or the Chinese and the Japanese, currently occupying the top two slots in the medals table in that order.
It hasn’t been so much the lack of medals as the lack of fight that’s been hard to stomach. Most of India’s celebrated champions haven’t done justice either to their own abilities, or to the investment of emotion, hope and money in them. They seemed to buckle under the weight of expectations and the pressure of performance on the most celebrated sporting stage of all. Perhaps, authorities concerned should focus as much on that intangible as on training, overseas participation and match-readiness.
Several reports indicate that upwards of Rs 1,100 crore has been channelled towards India’s largest Olympic contingent to date. That’s a massive amount anywhere in the world, and especially in a country where sport hasn’t always been viewed as a career choice. A significant proportion of that sum has come out of taxpayers’ pockets, so everyone falling in that bracket is entitled to seek accountability. That, however, may not be a popular viewpoint in a climate where citizens are nudged by key figures in authority to ‘boost the morale’ of the athletes.
No one is grudging the money and resources laid at the doorstep of aspiring young men and women with dreams and visions of making the country proud. No attempt is being made to dismiss their commitment to their craft, the long years of uncompromising work ethic and a steely resolve that has helped them make lemonades out of the multitude of lemons life has hurled at them. They aren’t just athletes, they are India’s ambassadors on the global stage, a source of inspiration for millions. Few go to an event like the Olympics not determined to give off their best. The problem is, several fall well short of their best, time after time. And that, more than anything else, hurts like hell.
Only the odd athlete makes an excuse on their own. Often, there are other quarters that do the job. Those range from someone being too young, to someone else participating in their first Olympics. This, at a time when a 13-year-old — you read it right — walked away with a gold in Tokyo. Momiji Nishiya became Japan’s youngest Olympic gold medallist of all time by coming up trumps in the women’s street skateboarding competition. The teenagers are gnarled veterans in comparison.
To compound matters, a prima donna culture is beginning to invade the sporting landscape. One athlete demands venue access for her personal coach, another insists on Games-specific accreditation for her personal physio, all at the last minute. The Indian Olympic Association and the Sports Authority of India, unwilling to be seen as villains of the piece, bend over backwards in a bid to satisfy these demands. So, is invocation of team spirit and the pride of being a part of a team set-up mere lip service? What were to happen if every single athlete made such ‘requests?’
In the immediacy of each abortive campaign, much noise is made about self-introspection. Some scapegoats are found, the odd witch-hunt is undertaken, but then life returns to ‘normal.’ For that to change, a systemic overhaul in thinking is mandatory. Tough questions must be asked, and honest answers elicited. Return on investment has to be demanded. The role of babus should be probed, officials must be held accountable because they are involved directly in decision-making processes.
Most significantly, India must come to terms with the fact that we are a long way away from becoming a global sporting superpower. And, that hype and unrealistic projections do the athletes no favours whatsoever. These might appear naïve and simplistic suggestions, but a start must be made somewhere, right?