India’s Olympic nightmare was threatening to stretch into day 13 of the Rio Games when Sakshi Malik rallied to beat the clock and her Kyrgyz rival in women’s wrestling to give the country its first medal — a bronze. Two days later, shuttler P.V. Sindhu climbed one podium step higher. Together, these two women players spared India the ignominy of returning empty-handed from the Olympics despite having sent its largest contingent ever — 117 athletes — to the Games. While a total disaster has been averted, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that the Games have been a failure from India’s perspective, falling well short of the six medals it had won four years ago in London. It’s a difficult pill to swallow for a country that is becoming very conscious of its international image. And while the Olympics medal tally isn’t quite the Human Development Index, it gets far more publicity and consequently becomes a trigger for chest-thumping — or self-flagellation.
But here is the thing: If London is the benchmark — and admittedly it’s a modest one for a country of 1.25 billion — India hasn’t fared too badly. Agreed, it got only a fraction of those medals, but its elite athletes were in contention. The women’s archery team came very close; Abhinav Bindra went down to the eventual silver-medalist in a one-shot shoot-off by a whisker; Jitu Rai was there and thereabouts; Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna lost the mixed doubles bronze medal match in tennis; Dipa Karmakar was pushed off the podium by the world’s best; the men’s hockey team showed tremendous improvement and even defeated the eventual gold medalists, Argentina; Saina Nehwal was done in by an untimely injury; and in the 74kg freestyle wrestling the inept federation denied India a sure-shot medal. In their core events, the Indians didn’t just participate, they competed.
There is no reason, therefore, to not believe that India will better it in Tokyo in four years’ time. But to rub shoulders with the traditional Olympic powerhouses, the country needs a strong long-term vision and sufficient funds. While money has been spent on the athletes in the run-up to Rio, a big chunk of it was released only in the last eight months. This ad-hocism has to go. Moreover, it’s imperative to invest at the grassroots. It’s instructive that shuttler Sindhu and wrestler Sakshi come from cities — Hyderabad and Rohtak — which have a culture, sound infrastructure and coaching facilities for their respective sports. Then comes patience: Both Sindhu and Sakshi started out in 2004. It took 12 years for those medals to materialise. So Rio was virtually on par with London, not for the statistically minded but certainly for optimists. However, in four years from now, a similar performance would bring on pessimism. Consistency over 12 years is called stagnation.