Let us begin with a small quiz: More than a hundred Indian athletes participated in the Rio Olympics 2016. How many names do we remember?
Ten, perhaps, including the badminton players, wrestlers and Dipa Karmakar's. Twenty more, maybe, if you are a keen follower of other sports and Indian hockey.
India finished 67th on the medal tally, winning a silver and a bronze medal. A handful of athletes fought till the very end for a podium finish. But, except for a few individuals, the rest of the Indian contingent just made up the numbers. One medal for every 60 athletes and just two for a country with around 1.3 billion people is a huge shame.
Yes, it is important to contest. But participation for participation's sake has never been the Olympic motto. It clearly states: faster, higher, stronger.
On that count, India's performance was miserable. Every four years the Indian contingent goes to the Olympics only to erase the gains it made in the previous years, to destroy its own legacy.
In 1960, Milkha Singh became the first Indian to come close to an Olympic medal. At Rome, he missed the bronze only by a whisker. How many Indian men have since reached the finals of an individual track event?
Twenty four years ago – and the Indian story at Olympics actually looks like some mathematical sequence – PT Usha entered the finals of the 400m hurdles at the Los Angeles Olympics. Like the 'Flying Sikh', the 'Payyoli Express' too missed out on a medal by a nano-second.
How many Indian women have since come close to a medal in a track event? This year, Lalita Babar became the first Indian athlete to run in a track final after 30 years. But she barely managed to figure in the top ten, coming in several hundred yards behind the eventual winner.
Yogeshwar Dutt, the 2012 medallist, got knocked out in the first round. Most of the boxers surrendered tamely, erasing memories of Vijendra Singh and Mary Kom's bravura performances in the last Olympics.
In every sport, the same story was repeated. Shooting, wrestling and boxing used to be India's joy and hope till a few years ago. This year, except for Abhinav Bindra, the boxers and shooters performed way below expectations.
To understand the Indian story, archery could be the perfect case study. Every four years, Deepika Kumari, Bombayala Devi and the rest of the squad go to the Games as medal favourites. In the end, they get knocked out before the semi-finals, blaming the wind speed or their equipment.
The point is, we are not faster, stronger or higher. Except for a few individuals, the Indian contingent at Olympics sticks to the story that began before Independence: Go, participate, lose, return, disappear into anonymity.
In the past, since the decline of hockey, medals at the Olympics have come because of a handful of committed, talented athletes. They have won, in spite of the system that contributes nothing to India's campaign – except freeloaders and ministers who go there at the cost of the exchequer, to party and click selfies.
After the London Olympics, The Atlantic had compared India's performance with several poor countries and concluded that if you rank countries by the total number of Olympic medals they've ever won, India places 55th in the world, tied with Morocco and Thailand – though India has participated in twice as many Olympic Games as either country. (The ranking is closer to 50 if you exclude the now-defunct countries such as Czechoslovakia or East Germany.) It is regularly outperformed by much poorer countries, such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and North Korea.
Nothing has changed in four years
A report in the Time magazine points out why India falters. "On average, India spends around $0.005 per head on sports each day, against $0.30 for the US, according to a recent Indian parliamentary report. And outside cricket, a game followed with almost religious fervour in India, there is little private investment in sports, discouraging participation." As the report noted, most athletes are wary of pursuing their discipline professionally “because of high risk, uncertainty and low rewards.”
A sporting culture gets established when talent is nurtured, groomed and rewarded. But the laughable spectacle of two states competing to own PV Sindhu, the only silver medallist at the Rio Olympics, and the announcement of extravagant rewards, points at India's ugly political reality: Use a winner only to score political points but invest nothing in nurturing them.
And when the government become apathetic, its officials mismanage talent; the result, as the Indian Express points out, is the embarrassment of seeing wrestler getting discarded or getting knocked out.
"The wrestlers were hardly seen at any international exposure meets – the one place they went in Spain, was enough indication of the poor form (Sakshi won a medal there, though). If photo-ops of climbing ropes and pumping weight in gyms is going to serve as fitness certificates for Indian wrestlers, then the country can continue to dawdle about in mediocrity,"
"The glitzy league cannot be a substitute for bonafide international meets – like the badminton or tennis players do. For all his credentials, no one had seen Narsingh fight abroad in anything other than a league not run by his own federation," the report read.
India can't win a medal at the Olympics unless the entire system is overhauled. To play any game, children have to start early. But, in India, there are no playgrounds, stadiums or parks for public use. The Indian government, for instance, doesn't own even a single world-class badminton stadium. The Sports Authority of India has just one stadium with world-class wrestling facilities.
Athletes who train at the Sports Authority of India get a pittance for uniform, equipment and daily living. Athletes who get injured are insured for Rs 150.
How do we intend to groom talent without facilities? Why will youngsters risk their lives for a medal when the chances of success are two out of a billion, and there is no insurance against failure or injury?
India needs huge investments in infrastructure, a dedicated programme for scouting and nurturing talent, and then creating opportunities for athletes to participate in global events.
Unless that happens, in spite of their best efforts, athletes will keep returning without medals. And officials will continue to do what Shobhaa De said, "Khao, peeyo, selfie lo."