New Delhi: Eighty-one athletes in London will form the largest Indian contingent ever to march at the Olympic Games. But if numbers could turn into Olympic success, a country of 1.2 billion should have grabbed at least 1000 qualifications and maybe 100 medals. If not that, then what’s the reason for India hoping to come home with a medals kitty heavier than ever before?
Sixteen years ago in Atlanta, which was 16 years after India’s last Olympic medal and 44 years after the last individual medal, Leander Paes changed India’s ‘participation-matters’ outlook. An athlete has to soak in the pride, the honour to represent the country before he could mount the podium with the five rings and the national anthem sends a tear rolling down the cheek. That’s how Leander won that bronze and made every Indian believe: “It’s not beyond us.”
Indians were competition now, no more looked down upon. And those still committing that mistake stood corrected by Karnam Malleswari’s weightlifting bronze in 2000 and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s shooting silver four years later in Athens.
Beijing was next in 2008, where while Indian hockey mourned it’s first ever absence from the Games, a shooter, a boxer and a wrestler were busy re-writing history books. Abhinav Bindra wore gold on his chest – India’s first individual yellow metal - while Vijender Singh and Sushil Kumar punched and wrestled their way to a bronze. Not only the medal winners but the medal-winning disciplines were swelling in numbers.
A nation that always had hopes pinned on hockey was now looking beyond the eight gold medals the sport won between 1928 and 1980.
A sea change was evident – not only in the athletes’ outlook but also that of various federations’. To prevail over its able opposition, India needed to move on, and it did. It was recognised that winning a medal at the world level warrants an athlete to push himself to the limit. And he can’t do that alone.
The need to put in hours, days, months and years of training was recognised, money to build infrastructure and fund athletes’ training overseas was pumped in and the results showed up at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games and Guangzhou Asian Games. A second-place finish in the CWG at home and the best medal haul at the Asiad (14 gold, 17 silver, 33 bronze) testified India’s rise at the world level.
But will London 2012 add to India’s joy in world sports? Nobody’s saying ‘No’, but nobody’s saying ‘Yes’ with conviction either. However, there is hope like never before, with India competing in 13 disciplines.
Archer Deepika Kumari is a world No. 1; shooter Abhinav Bindra is the defending Olympic champion; Saina Nehwal is No. 5 in the world and on a winning run; boxer Mary Kom is a five-times world champion; India’s flagbearer Sushil won the 2010 World Wrestling Championships; Leander, Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi have grand slams under their belt; double-trap shooter Ronjan Sodhi is a two-time world champion; Gagan Narang has the confidence of four gold medals at the 2010 CWG; Vijender is a former world boxing No. 1 in the middleweight category; hockey is never short of support and India’s most cherished medal; and India’s improvement in the track and field events has promised a lot of late.
Never has India enjoyed such a host of champions joining hands in quest for medals, giving hope that’s not unfounded. But that hope of joy conceals a likelihood of dejection. When you are nearly sure of success, the wounds of failure are much deeper. That’s the risk India carries in their luggage to London.
But a top-flight sportsperson is not alien to that. In fact, he lives with it. And those who endure it come out champions. That spirit has made the likes of Jesse Owens and Mark Spitz in the past and Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt the present Olympic legends. And who knows if names like Saina and Sodhi are the future greats of the Games?
It's certainly not beyond India and if one were to believe in good omens, observe the similarity between the Olympic motto and India's rise in world sports: Citus (faster), Altius (higher) and Fortius (stronger). The growth of Indian sports in the recent past has been fast, is getting higher and looks to become stronger at the London Olympics.
Enjoy the Games!