The Olympics is a glorious sports extravaganza, pitting the world’s best against one another and putting on display extraordinary sporting skills that inspire billions across the globe. But, here lies the pinch. India barely causes a gentle ripple at the Olympics, while other countries make a huge splash and walk away with glinting medals.
For us, that solitary victory is enough to send us into raptures. This country of 1.2 billion is overjoyed to witness one podium finish and if there are a few more medal winners, then the nation has a collective adrenalin rush.
It’s worrying. Just ponder this. Kirani James of Grenada, a tiny Caribbean nation, won an Olympic medal in 400 m at London 2012. And the total population of Grenada? A shade over 1,00,000. It is even smaller that most Indian cities.
India has been participating in the Olympics since 1900 when Norman Pritchard ran into the Indian history books by winning two silver medals in athletics. It was followed by an acute drought of individual medals, which ended in 1952 when Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav won the bronze in wrestling.
But, didn’t we regularly win medals in hockey? Yes, we certainly did. The first one coming in 1928 and the last one at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. During its heydays, Indian hockey team made the country proud by winning 11 medals, including eight golds in various Olympics.
If a story is to be believed, Hitler was so impressed with Dhyan Chand during the 1936 Berlin Olympics that he offered him German citizenship and a higher rank in the German army. True or not, the Indian hockey players were indeed wizards on the field, effortlessly beating the toughest of opponents.
That winning streak pathetically petered off after Moscow and hockey only went downhill from there, its finest hour now trapped in sepia-tinted photographs.
But there was always hope. Milkha Singh missed an Olympic medal by a whisker. He did earn the sobriquet ‘the flying Sikh’.
Heavy-muscled Madho Singh too came close to winning a medal in the Olympics in wrestling. He finished fifth. Sports history is quite unforgiving as there is no place for those who don’t get to stand on the podium. However, for India, even these mattered.
The turning point came in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when Leander Paes won a bronze medal in tennis. In the next Olympics in Sydney, Karnam Malleswari did India proud by bagging a bronze medal. Lt Col Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, now a union minister, got us a silver in men’s double trap shooting at 2004 Athens Olympics.
We finally were inching towards greater glory – in fits and starts.
Then in 2008 Beijing Olympics, the unthinkable happened when baby-faced Abhinav Bindra struck a gold in shooting. It was India’s first individual gold in Olympics and it did overshadow Vijender Singh and Sushil Kumar’s creditable bronze medals.
The hopes of this nation had now begun to go up. And the sportspeople did not let us down, walking away with six medals at the London Olympics. Sushil Kumar won a silver medal in wrestling while Vijay Kumar won a silver for shooting. The four bronze medals were won by Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom, Gagan Narang and Yogeshwar Dutt.
India delivered a performance that can at best be described as a saving grace. For neighbour China, the Olympics medal tally look like the sizzling stock exchange numbers. China has till date won 473 medals, of which 201 are gold.
India’s other difficult neighbour Pakistan is completely at sea in the Olympics. Till date, Pakistan has won 10 medal, six of which came in hockey. Interestingly, Pakistan won the hockey gold in 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and thereafter, it lost the plot and didn’t win any medal in hockey. Hockey, a pride of the Indian subcontinent, has been down in the dumps since the mid-80s.
Preparations played a crucial role due to which India did comparatively better than in the previous Olympic editions. The state governments encouraged sports and the army, particularly, gave a chance to its sportspersons to prove their mettle. Needless to say that Milkha Singh, Madho Singh, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore and Vijay Kumar were all soldiers.
Just ahead of the Rio Olympics there was an unsavoury controversy about Sushil Kumar, who twice won medals in Olympics, moving court against Narsingh Yadav and demanding selection trials. The high court, however, turned down his plea.
Controversies apart, when the Olympics are held from August 5 to August 21, as many as 121 athletes from India, including 54 women, will be carrying the hopes and aspirations of a billion people who will let out a collective roar when they step on to the white podium, lower their head for the medal and then stand up ramrod straight.