Predicting the $1.5 billion Powerball Jackpot or putting your money on the right horse at the Meydan Racecourse during the Dubai World Cup would be slightly easier than pulling out the names of possible medal winners from the 119 Rio Olympics-bound Indian contingent. Of course, there are a few favourites, plus those tipped to finish in the top three; the rest make up what is our ‘representation’ at the Olympic Games.
There is a huge chasm that divides the top nations and us, ‘India.’ We are still growing as an Olympic nation, tiny feet, stepping gingerly, and one a time. Sport is watched here. Not practiced. Indian kids know more about Usain Bolt, but they might not even know who is India’s National Inter-State Senior Athletics 100 metres champion. For the record, it is veteran sprinter Sameer Mon of Manipur. Sameer was also a member of the bronze-winning 4x100m relay quartet at the Delhi Commonwealth Games, six years ago.
But that’s where stats end and reality begins. And some of it is not good; like comparing ourselves to UCLA, (University of California in Los Angeles). UCLA students and coaches have won 253 Olympic medals – 128 gold, 65 silver and 60 bronze.
In contrast, we reached the final of an Olympic event only four times from 1960 to 1976, spanning a 16-year period. Our teams marched across Rome, Tokyo, Mexico City, Munich and Montreal – 184 athletes representing us for a measly one gold and two bronze. The gold medal came at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where India beat Pakistan 1-0 in the hockey final. The bronze medals came in hockey in 1968 and 1972. From 1976 to 1996, in 20 years and six cities, India won gold and a bronze – a hockey gold in 1980, a tennis bronze from Leander Paes in 1996, now playing an unbelievable seventh Olympic Games.
Rio, like London and Beijing before, is a once in a four-year phenomenon. Like a tidal wave slowly picking up momentum, the Olympics dawn upon India. Suddenly, a nation transforms itself. Wrestlers, sprinters, boxers, weightlifters, judokas, shooters, anybody who is not a cricketer, finally is acknowledged as a sportsperson. The sun has finally risen on his side of the world – a universe the athlete inhabits mostly in isolation. Records and the number of medals India would win are discussed. Even a failed dope test has scores of journalists covering the story. Outside the Olympics, a failed dope test would struggle to find mention. The Beast is the same; except now there is ‘Olympics’ embedded on it.
Momentum usually decides the fate of a nation in the Olympics; and for India, shooting starts early, right from the first day of the Olympics. Most tournaments are away from the sort of pressure that the Olympics build up. Not even the World Championships or the Asian Games come close. Jitu Rai would feel it in his shoulders, the sheer weight of a nation, expecting him to strike gold. The reigning 50m air pistol champion at the ISSF World Cup and the Asian Games gold medalist is hoping to repeat Bindra’s 2008 Beijing feat. India has nine male and three female shooters at the ranges in Rio. All world-class shooters, but Bindra and Narang have Olympic pedigree. Raninder Singh, NRAI President, feels it would be disappointing not to cross 5-6 medals. “I think I am very open about it. Three minimum and depending on luck we can make it six because all our athletes are at that level where just fractions can make them stand on the podium.”
Raninder smiles when speaking about Jitu Rai. There is a gleam in his eyes. Look closely and you can see the sparkle of gold there. “I have tremendous faith on all my athletes but one person I would really-really look out for is the phenomenal Jitu Rai.”
Abhinav Bindra was the youngest ever Indian at an Olympics – all of 17 – when he competed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Shooting superbly in 2004 but tremendously unlucky, Bindra finally struck gold at Beijing. After not qualifying for the finals in London, Bindra slipped out of the range within minutes and sat alone in the athletes bus leaving for the Village while India celebrated Narang’s bronze. He is there at Rio; and might surprise those not thinking beyond India’s Jitu ‘pistol-man’ Rai.
Saina Nehwal would surely dream beyond a bronze, her medal effort from 2012 London. The draw is crucial but the Badminton Association of India President (BAI) is confident of two medals with a better colour. Akhilesh Das, BAI President, says, “We are very hopeful and confident. Last time we got only one medal but this time we will get two medals and the colour will be better.”
Twice a bronze medalist at the World Championships, she just might be the shadow standing under the arc lights. PV Sindhu, when on the move, is fluid enough to take out opponents on guile and power. It’s her first Olympics, and she might make it count. “I am very-very excited and looking forward as it’s my first Olympics,” says Sindhu. “I don’t feel the pressure; it is just that you need to give your best because at the end of the day I know it’s the Olympics and the ultimate aim for everybody. When you go on to the court, you have to give your best and hundred per cent.”
If there is a discipline that needs to come good, it’s archery. Limba Ram and Shyam Lal emerged out of nowhere from Rajasthan in 1992 to have a nation dreaming of a medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Limba’s failure in Barcelona still rankles and like shooting, the World Championships and the Asian Games is no match for the nerve-jangling Olympic cauldron. Bombayla Devi is a two-time Olympian and understands pressure is just not nerves. A slight shift in wind speed, the inability to shift focus, re-evaluate equipment and the flight home would be a lonely one. “Don’t know about hope,” the 33-old Manipuri says, “But the day we have our match, that day luck would be with us or else God would be with us and we will give it our all to have a medal.” Her teammate Deepika Kumari started as a prodigy and unless she does something at the Olympics, it would be a career where you have climbed a few good peaks; but not the Everest. Deepika qualified for the Olympics by scoring 686/720 in the women’s recurve event of the 2015 Archery World Cup in Shanghai to equal the earlier world record set by South Korea’s Bo-Bae. “I would just like to say that it comes after four years and everyone knows how hard we have worked. We are performing and will give our 200 percent. The rest depends on the day on how one plays.”
Yogeshwar Dutt might be wondering whether wrestling has already had its moment with the doping ‘conspiracy’ of Narsingh Yadav. It would be sad that a sport where India was coming to grips and enlarging its base of sub-junior talent, might get stalled for reasons other than training and luck of the draw. Narsingh’s episode drew too much attention to every wrestler though Yogeshwar is the wily old warrior knowing the difference between a battle and a war. He is confident and is hoping for four medals. “Last time we had two medals, this time we are focusing on four medals and gold should be one of them. After London, my only target is that I win gold for my country in Rio. There is less time and we focus to do better this time.”
Tennis should be a gold moment. If we can get past ‘ego’ issues, ‘not sharing a room’ and who ‘lands later in Rio’, there is enough class in the team to play at least one final. On the face of it, it just could be only the pairing of Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza. Leander Paes plays his seventh Olympics, a number that may stand the test of time, as far as Indian Olympic history is concerned. Paes’ 1992 bronze may turn out to be his and India’s only highlight as far as the singles go.
Tintu Luka has been a moderate talent on the Olympic tracks. Tactically, there is an argument on why she runs the first 400 metres like a bat out of hell. But PT Usha has held strong on her beliefs and Luka is not much of a thinker to be able to look at 800 metres that is sometimes a waiting game rather than an all-out athletic prowess test. If Luka can do better than her 1:59:69 at the semi-finals in London, and as Usha believes, run below 58 seconds, there is a chance that with slight tactical changes, she just might have a shot at reaching the final. “Normally there would be pressure but I think it all depends on form and I think she now has the form,” says Usha. “I think she will be doing well at the Olympics because her preparations are going well and she is much-much better than past so I am targeting under 58 seconds.”
Vijender Singh as the predictor is a safe bet. The former amateur World Numer one and the Beijing bronze medalist feels boxing is slipping. The now professional boxer has a point. Brought up on the theory and philosophy of Cuban boxing, the Indians were starting to dominate the lesser weight categories. But then as usual, the bureaucracy decided that the bouts outside the ring mattered more than the medals won by their boxers. Eight boxers made it to the 2012 London Olympics, but the flight to Rio carried only three – Shiva Thapa, Manoj Kumar and Vikas Krishan Yadav. Vijender believes all the three can make it to the medal rounds. “Shiva Thapa, Manoj and Vikas are experienced and they were with me in London Olympics as well,” says Vijender. “I expect all three to come with medal. But I have high hopes from Shiva Thapa because he qualified in the first attempt. So, he is the best hope.”
Since 1980 in Moscow where a team with tons of talent picked up the hockey gold, every Olympic has been a pit-stop for those still believing and dreaming of a medal. There have been instances where a medal seemed around the corner – Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 – but teams have come back empty-handed. Tournament structures have changed, a certain amount of coaching consistency has crept in though cynics would challenge that, yet there is a feeling if India can play consistently without massive dips in form, PR Sreejesh and company can crack the code. Roelant Oltmans is not the sort to show you the gold in the distance. “It’s a good team, so are the others,” he explains. “But if the team plays like they should, then it’s a fair fight for the medal.”
The Olympics offer no guarantees. Not even to the best. Ask Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj, probably the greatest middle distance runner of all time, not winning at Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 and winning everything in between ,and finally when the world gave up on him, he won the 1500m and 5000m double at Athens 2004. Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, the reigning women’s marathon world record holder who has a gold and silver at the World Championships; but no medal at four consecutive Olympics – 1996 to 2008. Or our own PT Usha who won everything on offer in Asia but on the track in Los Angeles in 1984, 1/100th of a second separated her from a dream nurtured from childhood.