With 1.3 billion people and 33 medals ever, India remains an Olympic mystery

Tokyo 2020 Olympics – The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony – Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan – July 23, 2021. Mary Kom Hmangte of India and Harmanpreet Singh of India lead their contingent in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony REUTERS/Mike Blake/Files

TOKYO – Scroll, and scroll, and scroll, down the Olympic medal table as of Friday morning, and let the eyeballs reach 65th place. There glows maybe the most curious case on the whole kaleidoscopic chart.

Yes, that’s India, fascinating in every regard while also baffling regarding Olympics. It has the world’s silver medal population tally (1.339 billion), its gold medal population of exuberance (581 million people between ages 0 and 24) and chronic trouble getting medals (33 in its history, or five more than Michael Phelps). In Tokyo as of Friday morning, it sat an inch ahead of the 66th-place logjam of Armenia, the Dominican Republic and Kyrgyzstan, whose populations add up to roughly half that of Mumbai alone.

Twenty-five years after Leander Paes ended a 16-year Indian medal drought at Atlanta 1996 and said upon his tennis bronze, “What it really means is that we Indians can do anything in sport,” it remains a giant Olympic puzzle. Studying it for too long can set one’s brain adrift through the big questions and big mazes of culture, economics, priorities and pressure.

Only a hopeless prude would quibble with the premise that the Olympics would improve if India improved, if it jockeyed for medals up near China, the United States, Japan, Australia et al, while surpassing all of the above in both vividness and the reactionary melodrama that helps make sport so irresistible. Yet post-Paes, this sporting giant of a country often said to generate two-thirds of the world’s cricket revenue, a country that boasted one of the Olympics’ great dynasties – men’s field hockey, seven of eight gold medals between 1928 and 1964 – has gone through six Olympics and umpteen fresh streams of medal-seeking. The medal tallies: one, one, two, a hopeful six (London), a bummer two (Rio de Janeiro) and a sighing five (Tokyo).

The Indian novelist Manu Joseph suggested in a column in Mint that with India’s relative lack of systemic support for its athletes, the word “India” on their jerseys ought to undergo a mild editing to include, just above that word, “Despite.”

Here in Tokyo, India even had a kerfuffle in the sport of shooting.

Shooting has drawn some pretty good waves of youth after Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal at Beijing 2008, such that by the start of these Olympics, the voluminous world shooting rankings brimmed with 10 Indians among the top threes in the various disciplines. Somehow, by the end of these Olympics, India had no shooting medals, but did have some swirling stories about dissension from within the coaching realm.

Amid these Olympics, the man running that operation, Raninder Singh, met with Indian reporters in a parking lot near a bus and gamely expressed his befuddlement. He said, “We have done whatever is humanly possible in the buildup and preparation for these Games,” and, “I cannot excuse non-performance but I can only say this much: Remember that most of them are nineteen years old.”

But, he said, “It’s really unexplainable in a way.”

In a sport of such precision, maybe the sheer volume of the country and all its voices does weigh. It’s a country where, on the morning after India’s triumph in the 2011 Cricket World Cup, a TV news channel had the headline, JOY OF A BILLION, a figure rounded down for size by roughly the population of the United States. PV Sindhu, the mesmerizing athlete who won a badminton bronze here after a silver at Rio de Janeiro 2016, smiled at the Olympic “hype” she sensed building back home and said, “I’m sure billions of Indians are supporting and cheering . . . And thank you for your support!”

She wasn’t exaggerating when one counts the diaspora, and that’s a lot.

“I was talking to one of the archers [Atanu Das],” Mihir Vasavda of the Indian Express said in an interview at the field hockey venue. “He said, ‘In our minds we make Olympics a very big deal. We are generally competing against the same guys in other tournaments, almost every second month, and we beat them there, but then we create this hype in our minds about the Olympics which then kind of affects, and the pressure is created, and we don’t perform.'”

The questions spiral from there, and go even to one seldom asked around Olympics: Why all this big hoo-ha over hoarding medals, anyway?

Ronojoy Sen, a Kolkata-raised senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, dug through all the layers and contours for his book, “A History Of Sport In India.” In a telephone interview, he outlined five explanations for how India has numbers such as just nine gold medals across 121 years (eight of those from field hockey).

First, the India of yore never much linked sport and nationalism. “The emphasis was not really on sporting excellence, or sporting nationalism, which happens in a country like China, or in a way, the Soviet bloc,” he said (and could have included the United States as well). He told of an old ethic: “‘The point is to play the sport. The point is not winning.'”

Second, as far as a national project such as China’s Project 199, well, “India never really had anything like that,” Sen said.

Third, the socioeconomic, the “poor health, infrastructure, nutrition,” Sen said, which mean, “The participation is very low. A very small amount of the population has the luxury of taking part in sport.” He said, “There was also, amongst Indian elites, those who certainly had access, you might add that is the sort of culture, parents would emphasize more doing well in academics.” And for the middle class, “If I want to survive, if you want to have a living, don’t focus on sports. I think that was, for a long time, part of the middle-class ethos.”

Fourth: “India did not have a sort of winning tradition in one particular sport,” Sen said, referring to individual sports and calling to mind the way Australia’s excellence in swimming helps generate energy toward Australia’s excellence in general.

And fifth: “As incubators of sport, India did not have anything like the university system in the United States.”

In his book, Sen aimed to debunk some widely held hypotheses, including the widely practiced and deeply enjoyed art of blaming the government, which, Sen reminded, routinely has provided jobs to athletes, such as Sindhu’s as a collector in her state.”

He did note the art and tradition of lampooning administrators – “Sports administration in India is a very much-maligned thing” – figures almost mythical for reputed buffoonery. They undergo that lampooning in a country that can dish out some lampooning.

A 21st-century push toward more medals has turned up in government programs, in upgraded corporate revenue streams toward Olympic sports – Forbes ranked Sindhu No. 7 in the world in 2017 among female athletes for sponsorships – and in private programs that attempt to nurture young talent, with names such as “Olympic Gold Quest” and “Anglian Medal Hunt.”

This Olympics, India got a boost from its women. Right off the bat on the first day of competition, Chanu Saikhom Mirabai won a silver in women’s 49kg weightlifting, a grand triumph reflecting great learning from having faltered under pressure in Rio de Janeiro. Sindhu won that bronze in badminton. Lovlina Borgohain won a bronze in welterweight boxing. And the women’s hockey team enthralled the country, finishing fourth but reaching the semifinals after a towering upset of Australia.

The hockey men, meantime, had not won any medals since Moscow 1980, with the sport’s switch to AstroTurf often blamed. The year 2021 breathes far, far away from the golden hockey days when a loss to Pakistan for a silver in 1960, Sen said, “was almost like the end of the world, losing your hockey crown to Pakistan,” and when the late Leslie Claudius of those teams “told me about the kinds of crowds that would turn up.”

Time has removed that dynasty from any hovering. Current players “don’t have the baggage as such,” Vasavda said, “and I think the average age of this team would be 26 years old. To be honest, all they have lived through is heartbreaks in Indian hockey.”

They managed to reach this year’s semifinals, and last Tuesday late morning in the sunspot heat, they took world champion Belgium into a fourth quarter in a 2-2 tussle. Belgium’s eventual 5-2 win ended with a whack into a last-gasp open goal, whereupon three Indian players sprawled onto the blue turf. They were Surender Kumar, Rupinder Pal Singh and Mandeep Singh, and they epitomized the heaviness of the Olympics – preparation, hope, agony.

Their teammate Dilpreet Singh walked back to help them up, one by one, so they could go on and keep trying. Two days later, in a testament to how an improved India might improve the Olympics for verve and heft, they won the bronze, a bronze the Times of India called “pure gold.”

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