Can India thrive in Tokyo?

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By: Kamal Baruah

“It’s not winning but taking part in Olympics” – the motivational signage at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Guwahati has enticed a lot of onlookers. I too got inspired during my college days to run on the rubber track surface like sprinter Carl Lewis that made the ground feel like a springboard, giving energy towards increasing speed. The Olympic motto is also coined by three Latin words: Citius-Altius-Fortius which means Faster-Higher-Stronger.

Now the Tokyo Olympics is around the corner. With the mega-events rolling out in the Japanese capital, Indians at home don’t seem very enthusiastic about it.  India’s medal hunts in Olympics so far have always been disappointing. It was just 28 medals (9 Gold, 7 Silver, and 12 Bronze) after Norman Pritchard’s winning 2 silvers in Paris in 1900 under the British-Indian flag. India’s first Olympics gold came in London 1948 under the tri-colour although it won three Olympics gold even before independence. The golden era, however, ended in Moscow 1980 with legendary Dhyan Chand and Balwant Singh.

Wrestler KD Jadav won an independent India’s first individual bronze was in Helsinki in 1952. Leander ended a long wait in Atlanta 1996 with bronze while the first women weightlifter Karnam Malleswari won bronze in Sydney 2000 followed by Capt Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore for silver in Athens 2004. An Olympic gold had eluded Indian for over a hundred years until shooter Abhinav Bindra owned the podium at Beijing 2008 along with bronzes from Vijender Singh and Sushil Kumar in boxing and wrestling respectively.  London 2012 Olympics bagged its best haul, six medals with silvers for wrestler Sushil Kumar and shooter Vijay Kumar and bronzes for Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom, shooter Gagan Narang and wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt. In Rio 2016, silver for PV Sindhu and bronze for wrestler Sakshi Malik have brought some respite from hope and glory.

But those aren’t enough. The world’s second-most populous nation has the worst Olympics record in terms of medals per head. Can other sports flourish in a cricket-crazy nation? Ironically cricket hasn’t been played in the Olympics other than in Paris 1900. Nevertheless, the number of Indian athletes participating has seen a rise in the past three editions. With 228 members’ strong contingent including 119 athletics in 18 disciplines competing for 85 medal events, India has sent a strong contender for Tokyo, which is a huge affair with 46 disciplines of 11324 athletics from 206 countries.

However, Tokyo Olympics won’t be anything like in the past. The projection contains more uncertainty over the Covid scare although the US is expected to once again top the Summer Games. The Virtual Medal Table forecast India at 19th position with jumping 17 medals (4-5-8) from just 2 in the last games. The expectation is very high in shooting with at least 8 medals followed by 4 in boxing, 3 in wrestling, and 1 each from archery and weightlifting. Wrestler Bajrang Punia, grappler Vinesh Phogat, world number one shooter Elavenil Valarivan, 10 m air pistol mixed team Saurav Chaudhary and Manu Bhaker have high hope to raise Indian tricolor and play the national anthem in Tokyo.

Six-time world champion Mary Kom is in her second Olympics medal appearance after bronze in Rio 2016. Lovelina Borgohain becomes the first woman boxer and second from the state Assam to represent Shiva Thapa in London in 2012. The competitors from North East are winning their places with a total of 8. Nilakanta Sharma (Manipur), Sushila Chanu (Manipur), Lalremsiami (Mizoram) for Hockey, Saikhom Mirabai Chanu (Manipur) for Weightlifting, Sushila Likmabam (Manipur) for Judo and Sikkim’s Tarundeep Rai for Archery is among them.

Athletics has never been India’s strong suit at the Olympics however Milkha Singh and PT Usha were India’s historic near-wins at the Games but emerging javelin throwers Neeraj Chopra and Shivpal Singh has raised hopes around. World champion PV Sindhu will be aiming to better her silver from the last games. The Indian boxers punched as many as nine tickets to the Tokyo Olympics. Never undermine the talent of the Indian men’s hockey team, who sit fourth in the world rankings.

Qualifying for the Olympics is a major hurdle for every sportsperson. As many as 15 Indian shooters have achieved Olympic qualification so far, making it the country’s largest contingent at any games. Youngsters Divyansh Singh Panwar and Elavenil Valarivan are highest-ranked in the 10m Air Rifle men’s and women’s respectively, while Manu Bhaker has had prolific returns and medal expectations are quite high. Ranked second in the world, the former world champion Mirabai Chanu is among the favorites for a medal.

Despite all odds, my bet for Tokyo is on the top 10 athletes who are expected to clinch medals. Hope PV Sindhu (Badminton), Mary Kom and Amit Panghal (Boxing) Saurabh Chaudhary and Manu Bhaker (Shooting), Mirabai Chanu, Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia (Wrestling), Deepika Kumari and Atanu Das (Archery) would shine in their respective events. India can thrive in the Olympics if it could ensure more players have a proper system for athlete selection and training from a young age. Ironically sports have never been a priority for the government. Sport has always taken a back seat vis-a-vis education. Sports as education can also help children for its development. Should sports be made compulsory in the education curriculum? Under the Khelo India scheme, the government is supporting.

Unfortunately, India got caught up at the bottom of overall medal standings 67th out of 87th medal winners in the last edition.  Our country has not always done enough to support its athletes. There is more to India’s sorry performance than just a shortage of funds or infrastructure. But for me, the Olympics mean more than just winning medals. Winning a medal is good but it’s the best feeling for any sportsman competing in front of the whole world with great athletics.

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