The sobering reality behind the Indian haul of seven medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics needs to be focused on…
The Greatest Show on Earth has come to a safe and satisfying end. For India, the just-concluded Tokyo Summer Olympics is greater than ever before. After all, the nation of 1.3 billion people has got its tenth-ever gold medal in more than a century of participation. It’s also the second time in the world’s second most populated country’s history that the coveted six-gm yellow metal disc was brought home by an individual. Neeraj Chopra hurled the javelin to set the gold standard that has been eluding his compatriots in track and field events since American James Connolly hopped, skipped, and jumped to win the first-ever gold medal of the modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 after jeopardising his Harvard University student career by going despite a rejected leave of absence application.
By Suvam Pal
Triple jumper Connolly’s story was all about transforming sacrifice into success. However, for his Indian counterparts, the fascinating stories of sacrifices, unfortunately, have hardly been transformed into success in the 29 editions of the Summer Olympics to date. But the Tokyo Games have given a new lease of life to India’s Olympic dreams. The seven medals, gilded with Chopra’s glorious gold, have catapulted India to within the top 50 countries in the overall medals tally (48th on the basis of the number of gold medals and 33rd on the basis of total number of medals). The stories of several near-misses, including an amazing Aditi Ashok’s incredible live demo version of “How I Play Golf” for millions of Indians in the early hours of the final day, have undoubtedly resulted in a new dawn for Indian Olympic aspirations.
But the fact remains that the world’s fifth largest economy (both in terms of nominal GDP and Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) Adjusted GDP) has yielded a gold medal haul less than that of Kosovo, a country with the population size of Goa.
In fact, it’s quite noteworthy that when a section of the Indian social media was celebrating India’s brief tenure at second position of the medals’ table after China following the historic lift by Mirabai Chanu in the first hours of the opening day, the eastern European country that has not yet been recognised by India along with Russia, China, Brazil, and Argentina, among others, rather inconspicuously won a gold medal thanks to their judoka, Distria Krasniqi, in the 48 kg category. Interestingly, during the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships in 2018, India caused quite a stir after denying a visa to a boxer from the erstwhile war-ravaged Balkan territory that was the epicentre of the bloody Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
The Kosovar Olympians added gold in judo to finish a few places above India in Tokyo. Countries like Kosovo, Uganda, and the Bahamas, with hardly any Olympic legacy and history, won more gold medals than India to trash the oft-repeated notion of lack of funding and sports budgets hindering India’s Olympic performance for a century. Funding is still an issue for Indian Olympic sports, with the central government reducing a substantial sum of Rs 230.78 crore from its annual budgetary allocation for sports for the financial year 2021-22, compared to the amount earmarked for the previous financial year. But that can’t be an excuse for India’s subpar performance compared to a sub-Saharan least developed country (LDC) like Uganda, which hardly had any sporting legacy except for the notorious folklore involving its heavyweight boxing champion-turned-President, Idi Amin, and its first-ever Olympic champion, John Akii-Bua of the 1972 Munich Olympics 400 m hurdles fame.
‘The mixed-race or naturalised citizen athletes reigned supreme in many sports and predominantly in the track and field events.’
Several specifically Olympic-focussed initiatives, including the central government’s TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme), the Indian Army’s Mission Olympics programme at the Army Sports Institute (ASI) in Pune, the highly successful crowd-, individual- and corporatefunded NGOs like Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ),
GoSports Foundation, and the JSW Groupbankrolled High-Performance Training Centre of the Inspire Institute of Sport (IIS), apart from India’s first individual gold medallist, Abhinav Bindra’s eponymous and signature-styled The Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance Centres, did play a pivotal role in ensuring India returned
with their highest-ever medal haul from Tokyo. Significantly, in countries like Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, the Bahamas, and even Jamaica, these kinds of scientifically advanced and financiallyempowered high-performance programmes, financial assistance, and centres are still a far cry.
The Chinese model and its reality
Even in a country like China, the world’s secondlargest economy, their latest Olympic “sweetheart”, Quan Hongchan, had to face severe financial difficulty in the treatment of her ill mother until she won the gold in Tokyo and subsequently received massive financial support from various corporates and individuals. Let’s not forget she is just 14 and a few years younger than each of India’s Tokyo medal prospects like Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary, whose dismal show was
defended by a section of Indian officials and many social media activists by citing their lack of experience and young age. Age does matter, but that barrier can be erased as Quan or 13-year-old Japanese skateboarder Momiji Nishiya highlighted with their gold medal triumphs.
Another young Olympian and top-notch Chinese shooter, Yang Qian, who won the first gold medal of the Tokyo Games after finishing first in the women’s 10 m air rifle event, nearly quit the sport to look after her mother. The way China created their highly debatable model of producing an assembly line of Olympic medal-winning athletes may not be replicable in a democratic, multi-party system like India’s. In China, the Communist Party leaders function like technocrats while in India the politicians rule the roost despite a sound bureaucratic system. Moreover, the Communist nation’s country-wide talent-spotting and athletes-grooming system will face many stumbling blocks like corruption and nepotism in a country like India. Besides, the rigorous training and many questionable and stringent methods applied to filter out Olympic medal prospects in China are bound to face rights violation issues and media trials in an open system like India’s.
‘The way China created their highly debatable model of producing an assembly line of Olympic medalwinning athletes may not be replicable in a democratic system.like India’s.’
More importantly, countries like China and the US have got the monetary might to create a robust sports ecosystem, whereas India is continuing to grapple with its 300 million below the poverty line. Moreover, unlike China, where its allpowerful supreme leader, Xi Jinping, has reined in rampant corruption with his uncompromising anti-corruption crackdown on “tigers and flies”, the biggest hurdle for India is to ensure the entire funds earmarked for sports development reach the right persons and right places.
Money does win laurels: the Great Britain team at the 2016 Rio Olympics took home 67 medals at a staggering cost of £5.5 million each. According to some Australian media, the price of Olympic success for traditional superpower Australia was approximately $9.2 million per medal for its overall haul of 29 in Rio
Notably, 17 out of the top 20 countries in the 2020 Tokyo medals’ table are developed or highincome countries. The only exceptions are the world’s second-largest economy, China, its Communist counterpart, Cuba, and long-distance legacy-holders Kenya.
However, money is not the only recipe for Olympic success. One of the world’s wealthiest countries with the highest per capita wealth, Monaco, often called the “b illionaires’ playground,” hasn’t won a single medal to date since taking part at almost every Summer and Winter Olympics from the 1920 Antwerp Games onwards.
Another essential aspect critics miss out on is the role of equipment and accessories in Olympic sports. Olympians from most of the bestperforming nations have many state-of-the-art sports brands and international standard manufacturers of various scientifically proven and technologically superior sports gear and
accessories, which often play a stellar role in enhancing the athletes’ performances. Apart from the top sports brands from the US, Germany, France, South Korea, Japan, and Australia, countries like China and the UK also used science and technology-driven innovation and invention to aid their Olympians, including the cyclists and swimmers.
‘Money does win laurels: the Great Britain team at the 2016 Rio Olympics took home 67 medals at a staggering cost of £5.5 million each.’
However, the Indian Olympians can hardly look beyond Delhi-based sports apparel brand Shiv Naresh, predominantly supplying basic apparel like tracksuits and jerseys. If one takes a look at China, Li Ning, the first-ever Olympic gold medallist from the middle kingdom and the gymnast who acrobatically lit the Olympic cauldron in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, is known for his eponymous world-class sports brand, and the company has been sponsoring various Indian sports apart from supplying equipment to leading Olympians like P.V. Sindhu, among others.
In cricket, several cricket equipment manufacturing companies from India have dominated the world cricket market, and Indian cricketers have been significantly helped by those indigenous but top-class products.
Legacy and inspiration
When it comes to legacy, museums and archives do play a considerable role in motivating upcoming generations. National sports museums or Olympic museums are quite common in many countries, including Finland, Japan, Australia, China, and the US. However, in India, we hardly have any archive of our hockey or other sports glories, and
there is not a single sports museum where one can see the handful of Olympic laurels brought home by our past legends or inspirational belongings of our sports icons.
How many Indians can claim to have seen the 1936 Berlin Olympic gold medal of Dhyan Chand or K.D. Jadhav’s bronze from the 1952 Helsinki Olympics or Karnam Malleswari’s bronze from Sydney in 2000 or Col Rajyavardhan Rathore’s rifle that he used in the 2004 Athens Olympics? Museums curate history and legacy while motivating the younger generations to follow in the footsteps of past legends. Just imagine how a public display of Neeraj Chopra’s javelin or Abhinav Bindra’s rifle or Ravi Dahiya’s leotard along with their respective Olympic medals would inspire budding Indian athletes.
Apart from displaying memorabilia, museums also play a huge role in educating visitors. Only a few in India have basic knowledge about various Olympic sports and their rules, including shooting, fencing, wrestling, rowing, and archery, among others. The spread of rudimentary knowledge about various sports among citizens would also help India undergo a transformation into a multisports nation like the US, Germany, Russia, Australia, China, Japan or South Korea.
While analysing the stupendous success of countries like the US, UK and many other European nations, it’s been noticed that mixedrace or naturalised citizen athletes reigned
supreme in many sports. The fastest man on earth, Lamont Marcell Jacobs, stunned many to win the first-ever 100 m gold for Italy. His mother is Italian but his father is an African American. Similarly, Sunisa Lee is the first Hmong-American medal winner for the US.
Some of the most conservative countries have opened their doors for granting citizenship to athletes of foreign ethnic groups or who are mixed-race. Hosts Japan had at least 30 mixedrace athletes in their 580-plus Olympic team while heptathlete Zheng Ninali (born Nina Schultz) made history in Tokyo as China’s first naturalised citizen Olympian. The Chinese contingent in Tokyo also had event rider Eton-educated Alex Hua Tian of mixed parentage.
But in India’s case that’s nearly impossible as the country’s stringent citizenship rules have hardly been tweaked to accommodate the naturalised citizenship process. Moreover, the illegality of dual citizenship in India also discourages mixed-race overseas Indians from representing the country in Olympic or other sports.
Apart from all these factors, Indian Olympians have to deal with peer pressure, including numerous send-off programmes, sponsors’ events, photo ops with politicians, and countless media interviews. It creates havoc in our athletes’ minds, unlike their counterparts in other countries including the US and China. I can’t remember having ever seen
President Xi or any of the Standing Committee or Politburo members posing with the Olympic-bound Chinese contingent. Similarly, I don’t think I have ever known of an instance when POTUS or any of his cabinet colleagues attended a pre-Olympic departure event or a send-off ceremony. But that can’t be cited in India’s case. Even many Indian
mediapersons jostle for that breaking post-event first interview or exclusives with Olympians even before they participate in their respective events.
As far as fans’ behaviour is concerned, we need to be more rational and supportive towards our Olympians. For example, the stupendous success of cricket is often vilified in India, whereas in China, despite the astronomical popularity and craze over basketball and men’s soccer – the two sports where the Chinese are still lagging substantially behind
many other nations – the other Olympic sports thrive without much blame games among the fans.
But many Indians often, and quite shamelessly, troll our athletes when they can’t bring home a laurel. This time, young shooter Manu Bhaker was heavily and unceasingly trolled for her dismal display in Tokyo.
Several Chinese under-achievers in Tokyo, like shooter Wang Luyao and celebrity spiker Zhu Ting too were bullied by the keyboard warriors, but there was quick intervention by the Chinese government to rein in the cyber bullies with the cybercrime laws and a slew of stringent countermeasures.
Nevertheless, being part of a generation that was baptised in the Olympics by India drawing a series of blanks in 1984, 1988 and 1992, the spectacular surge in Tokyo with seven medals can make one spot green shoots in the formerly arid terrain of Indian Olympic sports.
(The writer is an independent journalist, published author and documentary filmmaker.)