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The breakaway Games

London 2012 marks India’s new scaled-up ambition. And it is spread across disciplines

Written by Sharda Ugra | Published: July 27, 2012 12:23 am

The Olympics begin today in London and Indian nerves are jangling loudly. The real story though is where the jangles come from. Not from Yogeshwar Dutt,the most senior of our four wrestlers whose first-ever Olympics will begin and end on August 6. But it is Manisha Malhotra who must deal with the butterfly stampede.

A few days ago,Malhotra,former tennis Fed Cupper and CEO of the Mittal Champions Trust (MCT),told Dutt that anxiety was killing her and,by the way,a medal absolutely had to be delivered. Dutt,29,from Sonepat who quotes Muhammad Ali for inspiration,replied that there is nothing to be nervous about: “We’re sure to get a medal.”

This is not India’s usual Olympic vocabulary. That normally pivots around “luck”,“destiny”,“hope”,“prayer”. From Atlanta 1996,it has tacked on comfort by adding “dream” and “surprise”.

This is why London is going to be India’s breakaway Games. Not only because more medals will be won than Beijing 2008 (so help us God),but also,as former world billiards champ Geet Sethi says,“For the first time we are predicting how many medals we will come back with.” As anyone with an adult memory will recall,before London,such prediction went beyond delusional. It was pure fruitcake,with extra nuts.

What separates London even from Beijing 2008 is a wide field of contenders across disciplines. The best chances from India’s largest,81-athlete-strong Olympic contingent? In shooting,boxing,wrestling and Saina Nehwal. Outside bet: archery. Tennis? On-court melodrama most welcome. Hockey? Chak de and all that. Athletics? Finals and PeeBees (personal bests) will be mega.

With a competitor’s calm perspective,Sethi says “A real breakout Games for us would be one where we can win 10 or more medals.” The number being predicted from London ranges between five and seven. Sethi reminds us gently,“Five is not a great number,is it?”

Hockey centre-half Viren Rasquinha believes that India’s real Olympic progress can be measured by the fact that there are “15 names” capable of winning medals,who have qualified with time to spare. Rasquinha is now CEO of Olympic Gold Quest,like MCT,a private fund that offers financial assistance and world-class expertise to India’s elite athletes. For the number to go beyond 10,he says,India needs a field of about “30 to 40” contenders. The middle-aged mind boggles at this scale of ambition. Because India’s medal prospects are scattered among disciplines,the weight of expectation is also evenly spread out among the athletes. At least until competition begins. “This is the Olympics,it is hard to predict,” says Rasquinha.

It is this increase in the Indian challenge itself that has marked London down as the Games to break open doors. Malhotra calls London a “critical Olympics”. If the medals come,another precious layer of belief will be added to a younger,utterly agog generation. Before Beijing,boxer Akhil Kumar had made a prediction: the moment his sport broke its Olympic medal barrier “boxing will get a medal at every Games”. In Beijing,India had five contenders in 10 categories,in London it is seven. The increase in numbers is not accidental.

Yes,India is still light years away from sporting giantism,so a grumpy wallow in arguments like “See the Chinese!” or “For shame,Kenya/ Mongolia/ Belarus won more” is natural among the more elderly. Repeat those taunts to Indian athletes today and they will guffaw in your face. Get with it,dude,that is so 20th century. It is indeed.

While the planning around them is far from perfectly executed,India’s sporting elite are better looked-after than their predecessors. Before London,the boxers spent time in Ireland,the shooters in parts of Europe,the wrestlers in the US and the athletes were spread around in Kenya,Hungary,South Africa,Italy and the US. Sethi says that for any athlete who gives even

a “glimmer of hope” of an Olympic medal,“Money is really not an issue.”

India’s rise in Olympic sport has run parallel to its economic growth. Private enterprise gives the best athletes the energy and speed of delivery they need. The foundation of financial support,though,still comes from the humble taxpayer. “From April 2011,the sports ministry has spent Rs 135.29 crore under the OPEX London 2012 project (OPEX standing for Operation Excellence) for coaching camps and overseas “exposure”. Go to the OPEX website and it has figures of how much has been spent on what,where and in which discipline. As of this week,the National Sports Development Fund has also handed out Rs 10.18 crore to athletes,boxers,shooters,tennis players and gymnasts for training,competition and hiring coaches.

Competing in four Asian Games from 1998 onwards gave Sethi,one of the directors of OGC,the sight and feel of “a vast difference” around Indian contingents. Again,not that it is perfect but there is far less “running around” and “struggling” than in the 1990s. He notes that athletes can even procure large Indian flags to be draped over Games Village balconies. In the past,it was not possible. (If only the contingent’s London 2012 kit,produced by Dida Sportswear of Rohtak,could be one-tenth as spiffy as the Italian contingent’s Armani threads.)

Yet,the absence of hockey in any discussion about India’s 2012 Olympic medal-dom,is hard to miss. Decades of self-serving administration had finally imploded in the failure to qualify for the Beijing Games. Now two warring rival bodies and a general lack of results have silenced even the harking back to eight golds. Drag flicker Sandeep Singh knows that if his team had not qualified for London,“Indian hockey could have stopped,like the dinosaur.”

It has actually come that close. While hockey requires,Malhotra believes,“90 per cent planning and 10 per cent luck”,Indian hockey has operated the other way round in the last decade or so. In contrast,nursing individual excellence and ambition — whether in shooting,boxing,athletics,badminton,archery — has turned out to be comparatively simpler,more controllable and has produced better results. It is why the hockey team has headed off to London as the Indian contingent’s fringe contender. Hanging on to familiar words — destiny,luck,hope,prayer.

Regardless of hockey,London could become the Games that obliterates India’s four-yearly lament around its national self-esteem. Indian athletes now have before them a lot more resources and many more uncomplicated routes leading to high performance at the highest level. The medals will follow. The glitches will continue and the hurdles will frustrate many (and the Games kit may still be rubbish),but one silver from Athens and three medals from Beijing have raised the bar. The benchmark is now 10 Olympic medals. A decade ago,could you ever imagine that?

The writer is senior editor,ESPNcricinfo

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