Some years back a prominent Indian sports writer had written that followers of sports in India follow three international events closely - the cricket World Cup where there is anticipation mixed with anxiety as the national team is considered one of the frontrunners, the soccer World Cup where there is no stress or strain since we have nothing at stake as a country and the Olympics, where the feeling is invariably a combination of melancholy and misery on account of being placed at the bottom of the pile in the medals tally. But this year, India have started on a good note winning a silver medal on the very second day through Mirabai Chanu in women’s weightlifting 49 kg category. This, along with the victory recorded by the hockey team in their first match against New Zealand, has infused a spirit of optimism and hope among the sports lovers in our country.
As a person who started following sports and sports related events actively from the 1970s onwards, I could understand the feelings described by the sports scribe as detailed above as I had experienced them very acutely. During the period between 1976 and 1992, all that India had to show for their participation was a gold medal in the Moscow Olympics of 1980, which was boycotted by the entire western bloc of countries led by United States of America. When the nation went without even a single medal in three consecutive Olympic games starting with Los Angeles in 1984, one started despairing whether we would ever figure in the list of countries fortunate to have a medal winner in their ranks.
It took a highly inspired performance by the indefatigable Leander Paes at Atlanta in 1996 to end this medal famine for India. Paes played brilliant tennis in the men's singles to reach the semifinals, only to lose to the ultimate winner Andre Agassi. But Paes salvaged the pride of his nation when he defeated Fernando Meligeni to win the bronze medal. While doing do, Paes became the second Indian, after K D Jadhav who won a bronze medal at in bantamweight wrestling at Helsinki in 1952, to win an individual Olympic medal. All other medals won by India, if one excluded those won by Norman Pritchard during the 1900 Games at Paris, had come in hockey till then.
In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to state that till India's standing in the game went into a sudden decline during the 1970s, hockey offered the sole hope for the nation in its quest for an Olympic medal. After winning the gold medal six consecutive times from 1928 to 1956, India were pushed to second position at Melbourne in 1960. Though they bounced back to win the gold at Tokyo in 1964, they could not regain their preeminent status as could be seen by the bronze medals in 1968 and 1972. The gold medal won in 1980 was sans any sheen as most of the major hockey playing countries had stayed away from this edition of Olympics in protest against the occupation of Afghanistan by the troops of erstwhile Soviet Union.
Paes was to prove to be a sort of trendsetter as India had not returned empty handed from the Games since 1996. In the 2000 Games held at Sydney, Karnam Malleswari won the bronze medal in women's weightlifting 54 kg category, thus becoming the first woman athlete from India to bag an Olympic honour. This was followed by Rajyavardhan Sinh Rathore winning the silver medal in Athens in 2004 in men’s double trap shooting, which incidentally was the first time that a athlete from Indian stood on the podium at the second place.
Abhinav Bindra did the nation proud when he won the gold medal in men’s 10 m air rifle shooting at Beijing in 2008. He remains, to date, the only Indian athlete to win a gold in an individual event in Olympics. India won two more medals at Beijing when Vijender SIngh and Sushil Kumar won bronze medals in middle weight boxing and 66 kg wrestling respectively. India increased their tally of medals to six at London in 2012, with badminton star Saina Nehwal joining the wrestlers and boxers in finishing among the top three. Another star attraction at London was the lady boxer Mary Kom, who faced extreme difficulties and overcame serious challenges in life to pursue her career in this sport. However, this tally dropped to two at Rio in 2016, with only P V Sindhu and Sakshi Mallik winning silver and bronze medals, in women’s badminton and wrestling respectively.
No history of Indian participation in Olympics will be complete without recalling the instances of near misses suffered by Milkha Singh in 1960 and P T Usha in 1984. Milkha was acknowledged as one of the best quartermilers in the world at that time and had proved his form with his performances during heats and semifinals. However, in the finals, after a good start, he inexplicably dropped pace after covering 200 metres, allowing others to get the lead. Though he put in a tremendous final push, he could only finish fourth, missing the bronze by a whisker. For the record, Otis Davis of USA won the gold with a new world record of 44.9 seconds, while Milkha was timed at 45.6 seconds.
Usha’s case was different as she was a virtual unknown in international circles, having switched to 400 metres hurdles from sprint events only a few months prior to the Games. This was also the first time that this event was held in Olympics. But Usha took to it like a duck to water and stormed through the heats and semifinals, raising hopes of a podium finish. However, in the finals, she finished one hundredth of a second behind Christine Cojoceru of Romania, thus losing out on a medal. In the race which was won by Nawal El Moutawekal of Morocco with a time of 54.61 seconds, Usha finished fourth with 55.42 seconds.
A tally of 28 medals, including 11 in hockey, with nothing in track and field, over a period of 120 years is indeed a source for despair and torment. Will Tokyo 2020, as the Games presently underway is christened, prove to be any different? There are a few hopes, some stray expectations and couple of wild wishes from the contingent of 120 athletes. Sindhu remains our best hope for a gold medal in Badminton though her ranking has slipped to No. 7 as she has not won any major tournament since winning World Championships in August, 2019. Other Indian medal hopes pin on Deepika Kumari in women’s archery, Bajrang Punia in wrestling, Manu Bhaker in women’s air pistol shooting and the women boxers. All of them are among the top ranked in their events in the world and hence the expectations of medals from them are not misplaced. There is an exciting prospect in javelin thrower Neeraj Mishra, presently ranked fourrth in the world, who stands a good chance of breaking India’s medal drought in track and field events. However, a top world ranking is not necessarily a guarantee for success at Olympics as can be see from the failure of shooter Elavelin Valarivan, who is ranked No.1, to qualify for the finals.
The story of Mirabai Chanu, the country's first medal winner at Tokyo 2020, is one that should provide inspiration and motivation to aspiring athletes. Born in an modest household in the north eastern state of Manipur, she made her first international appearance in weightlifting in the Commonwealth Games at Glasgow in 2014 where she won a silver medal in 48 kg category. She disappointed at Rio 2014, but showed her mettle by bouncing back quickly to win the gold at the World Championships held at USA in 2017. This was followed by a gold medal in 2018 Commonwealth at Gold Coast, Australia. However, during the years since when she moved to 49 kg.
Does the success of Mirabai send out the message that there will be many more podium finishes by the members of the Indian contingent at Tokyo? As a long time sports enthusiast I will keep my fingers crossed, uttering a silent prayer whenever an Indian athlete takes the field. We need more success stories like those of Mary Kom, Mirabai and Sakshi to inspire youngsters to take up those sports competed in the Olympics, to emerge as a leading contender on the world stage.
While congratulating Mirabai on her medal, let us wish other athletes good luck when they take the field on the most spectacular of all arenas in international sport. Let us hope that more Indians take the podium during Tokyo 2020 than during the previous editions of Olympic Games and inspire a new generation of champions across our country.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)