It’s great to see India recognise and appreciate the talent of its Olympic medal-winning shuttler, PV Sindhu. It’s disheartening to know that it has taken so long.
An Indian athlete’s success on the world’s biggest stage is commonly accompanied by a sense of hypocrisy that is hard to ignore. It generally acts as an exposé: it reveals how little India had cared for the player, or the sport, prior to the said triumph. Sindhu’s feat serves as Exhibit A.
Neither Sindhu ‘the badminton player’, nor Sindhu ‘the high-achieving slayer of top seeds’, was born at this summer’s Rio Olympics. She’s actually been around for quite some time, and not just floating around either, but quite frequently kicking up a storm on the badminton circuit. Yet, this isn’t something you could’ve guessed based on the many virgin reactions to her triumphant march.
At times, it felt like PV Sindhu’s name hadn’t existed on the Indian map at all prior to her Rio success — but why? It’s not like she hadn’t won medals and tournaments of significance before.
Sindhu’s back-to-back bronze at the 2013 and 2014 World Championships – essentially the World Cup of badminton — were India’s first ever medals in women’s singles. These came 30 years after India’s only other medal in singles: Prakash Padukone’s bronze in 1983.
No other Indian, male or female, has won a medal twice at this prestigious event. India’s number one, Saina Nehwal, won her first World Championship medal, a silver, only in 2015 – two years after Sindhu’s first.
It’s not as if Sindhu, with her aggression and steep smashing, hadn’t been ruffling the feathers of the top seeds all this while. The tall, athletic Indian had been a dark horse for four years now.
As early as 2012, when she was 17, Sindhu beat China’s Li Xuerui in her own backyard, only a month after the Chinese had won gold at the London Olympics. As recently as October 2015, Sindhu had upset Carolina Marin, who was then the world and All England champion and also an opponent Nehwal simply couldn’t match at the time.
Somehow all this slipped under India’s radar.
Sindhu should not have needed an Olympic medal to be a household name, or at least a name that India wasn’t hearing for the first time. It’s fabulous to see her get the attention she has long deserved but equally dispiriting to know that it takes so much – an Olympic medal – to earn the first wind of recognition in this country, no matter what you achieve in the rest of the years.
Imagine then the pressure you face as an athlete going into the Olympic Games. Every four years, it’s a do-or-die, hero-or-zero, make-or-break situation. There’s no middle ground. It’s a grossly unfair binary system of judgment under which we expect our athletes to perform.
The Games are the only time the country actually gives two hoots about what you’re up to, so you dare not disappoint them. Or you risk being forgotten completely.
Abhinav Bindra, India’s only individual Olympic gold medallist, had recently spoken of how only those “who’ve made it to the Everest level” get support in this country. His shots were, of course, fired at the administration but he may as well extend it to the general public as well.
Nehwal, thankfully, had won bronze in London, which installed her as the flag bearer of the sport and pushed her into the public spotlight. She could’ve still been searching for acceptance in this country had it not been for that medal four years ago.
Proof of this, oddly, lies in India’s reaction to watching and hearing Marin – Sindhu’s final opponent – scream after each point. A flurry of tweets and Facebook status updates suggested that Marin’s loud methods of intimidation came as a surprise to the majority of the viewers.
How could this be possible? Last year, Nehwal lost two of her, and Indian badminton’s, biggest finals against the same Spaniard; one of them at the All England Open and the other at the World Championship. Marin should’ve been a familiar face.
That she was not, reaffirmed what you had already suspected: that barely a fraction of the folks watching the Olympics tune in the rest of the time. If even an Indian world number one in a final could not hook a country on to badminton, what chance do other sports have?
The Hindu, among other online publications, ran a “Who is PV Sindhu” piece ahead of the final. They felt it was still necessary. It’s even more amusing that Pullela Gopichand, one of India’s all-time badminton greats, is being freshly introduced to the nation as PV Sindhu’s coach.
A popular comedian, while enjoying the thrilling Sindhu-Marin final, tweeted with excitement upon his discovery of badminton: “why isn’t this sport massive in India yet?” He will probably not watch another badminton match till the next Olympics (condition: if an Indian reaches a medal round), epitomising the existence of an Indian sports fan.
There are sports – wrestling, rowing, shooting, archery and gymnastics to name a few – which are hard to keep track of, owing to little TV and digital coverage. Badminton though, which is widely covered and broadcast, certainly isn’t one of them. Besides, following a sport doesn’t mean watching every bit of it. It simply means: know your heroes and support them when you can.
Sindhu’s example serves as a timely reminder as to how we, as viewers, spectators, supporters, can play a better role in driving change. If India wishes to see sporting success, it needs to be with an athlete through the entire journey and not just during the final stretch.