So the gold turned to silver. No matter, because it was really the bronze which became silver: Until Rio, three Indian women had won the bronze (Karnam Malleswari, weightlifting, Sydney 2000; Saina Nehwal, badminton, London 2012; Mary Kom, boxing, London 2012). The bronze tally was raised to four by wrestler Sakshi Malik — and we would have been pretty happy if P.V. Sindhu had won a bronze too. Until, suddenly, there was the prospect of gold.
At the Olympics, as in life, it’s a matter of managing expectations. Every four years, we as a nation build up our hopes, only to have them dashed to the ground when reality comes calling. Who builds up these expectations? Not our participating sportsmen: For them, there is no such thing as blind hope — the rankings, the stop watch and the measuring tape tell everyone where they stand against the world’s best; if our Olympians nurse a secret hope, it’s that they will do better than their own best. That won’t be good enough to win medals, but it’s more than enough to win satisfaction.
That’s how we, participating from the comforts of our living room, should see it; but we don’t, so we end up in either recrimination or despair. It’s, therefore, instructive to look at cold facts. Till Sakshi and Sindhu went beyond their best (and Dipa Karmakar almost did), Rio looked particularly bleak, a medal-less Olympics for India. Yet had the tally ended up being zero, it wouldn’t have been so for the first time: Overall, in six Olympics, our take-home has been just that. And if it hadn’t been for our hockey team’s incredible run from 1928 to 1980, we would have been empty-handed 16 times. Sports just isn’t our thing, baby.
By the record books, our first individual medals were won in 1900 in Paris, but that’s an aberration, because the athlete with silvers in 200 metres and 200 metre hurdles was Norman Pritchard, born to English parents in Calcutta (as it was then called), who entered the games via London and was initially credited as being part of the British team. India’s Olympic journey really begins in 1928, soon after we were affiliated to the International Olympic Committee. Our first individual medal came only in 1952 (K.D. Jadhav, bronze in wrestling). Then nothing till 1996 when Leander Paes won bronze in tennis. After that, by our standards, there has been an unseemly rush of individual medals — 13 in five Olympics, of which as many as six came in London.
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As predictable as the paucity of medals is the breast-beating that follows. “A nation of 1.2 billion people, yet just a couple of medals!” is how it usually begins. It seems like an unanswerable argument till you break up that figure. Of our total population, only 377 million live in urban areas, whereas the majority (833 million) lives in rural areas. Since there are no organised sports of any kind in the latter, we can begin with an Indian population of 377 million which has access to sports. But urban poverty is a fact of life: Only the figures vary depending on the definition of poverty. The Rangarajan Committee, the Tendulkar panel and the yet to be released Hashim Committee of the last Planning Commission, all differ in their definitions. Hashim puts 35 per cent of urban Indian households below the poverty line.
Using that yardstick, we get only 245 million people in urban areas having any kind of access to sports. However, this is only a theoretical access because a very large number of lower middle class to middle class children have extremely limited sports facilities. I tried to get figures for something as measurable as tennis courts — and I found that Mumbai has 55 while Washington has more than 600. One estimate is there are over one lakh tennis courts in the US while in India there can only be a few thousand. These are unreliable figures but useful to give us an idea of what our budding sportsmen are up against.
But numbers aren’t the only thing: Kenya with a population of just 46 million has won 91 Olympic medals from just 14 Olympics, while even more phenomenally, Jamaica has won 68 from 17 games. And its population is just 2.7 million, which is slightly less than the population of Hisar. What possibly can that mean?
I have chosen Kenya and Jamaica not just because of their inordinate international success, but also because they are not yet part of the developed world. More than that, it is vital to see what sports disciplines their medals have been won. In the case of Kenya, most of them are in athletics with as many as 61 in long distance running. In the case of Jamaica, 64 of the 68 medals are in athletics’ sprints events.
If winning medals is our priority rather than just participating, Kenya and Jamaica tell us a story which is confirmed by similar stories from other countries: That physical body structure (compare a sprinter and a marathoner), weather conditions and terrain, as well as tradition, play a dominant part in how well a country does in a particular sport, not determination. To break your national record, you have to work hard; to meet the Olympics qualifying mark, you have to work even harder. Every athlete wants to win (no one travels to an international competition for a picnic). But wanting to win is far from actually winning.
If we look at our 15 individual medals (excluding the two of Pritchard), as many as five have come from wrestling and four from shooting. It is clear where our strength lies. We could add related fields for future success, fields in which we have already tasted some international success — archery and weight-lifting. These are what we should concentrate on — others like tennis or badminton or gymnastics will always get the occasional Sania Mirza or Sindhu or Dipa Karmakar, but they will be exceptions. To catch up with the world in other games, we are fighting both geography and history. In those games we can fervently echo the Olympic motto framed by its founder Pierre de Coubertin: “The important thing is not winning, but taking part.”