Rio 2016: Best of a billion

Deccan Chronicle.  | Harpreet Kaur Lamba

Sunday Chronicle, cover story

India’s largest-ever contingent for the Olympics sets off. And we look at expectations, history, performances and the games themselves.

In just a few days from now, India’s athletes will begin their search for medals again, this time with more self-belief, better government support and funding, greater private sector interest and its biggest ever contingent

A hundred plus Indian athletes at Rio. What is special about this statistic as India and the world set their sights on the biggest sporting spectacle, the Olympic Games in Rio, in a few days from now? Is it because India are sending their largest-ever contingent for the Olympic Games, or is it the hopes of a billion plus nation that those athletes would carry with them, in their quest for Olympic glory? It often takes a moment of brilliance to spark a billion dreams, and India found its eight years ago in Beijing when Abhinav Bindra shot the perfect 10s for a gold in the 10 metre air rifle event to lift the gloom and despair of a 108-year history, that boasted of eight hockey golds but none in an individual sport ever.

His gold shone bright, and with it fuelled the belief of many others. In fact, one can further look back when another shooter, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, had fetched a silver — India’s only medal at the 2004 Athens Games — going one better than weightlifter Karnam Malleswari and tennis star Leander Paes’ bronze efforts at the 2000 Sydney Games and 1996 Atlanta, respectively. From only one medal at every Olympics in the last two decades, India jumped to six — two silver and four bronze — in 2012, which was still a poor return for the 83 athletes who took part in the London Games.

But for a nation that had just 20 medals to show before the London Games — that took the tally to 26 (nine gold, six silver, 11 bronze) — from its Olympic journey that began in 1900, it was a case of the glass being half full. In just a few days from now, India’s athletes will begin their search for medals again, this time with more self-belief, better government support and funding, greater private sector interest and its biggest ever contingent. Will they go better than the count in 2012 or will there be a gold medal among those?

It’s hard to say. But the growing number of participants and recent strong results at the international level underline that the country and its athletes are slowly moving forward. Today, they compete to win and not just to participate. But let us also be realistic here. A 100-strong contingent that will walk behind flag-bearer Bindra at the opening ceremony on August 5 in no way guarantees even a dozen medals. When compared to powerhouses USA, Russia, Great Britain and China, who finish with close to 100 medals at every Games, India are still finding their feet at the biggest Games. But a change in attitude and hunger cannot be missed.

Also, a look at India’s participants paints an intriguing picture and gives an insight as to why the nation has never been a true sporting power. The one common factor among many — if not most — of Rio-bound athletes is that they did not know what Olympics were when they started out in their careers. Take the case of shooters Gurpreet Singh and Chain Singh. Funnily enough, people in their villages still think that they either shoot for a Bollywood movie or fight the enemy on the border.

This, after the duo fetched medals at the Asian and the Commonwealth Games. Shooting as a sport is still an alien concept in the far-flung villages of Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir, their home states. Says Chain, “I belong to the Doda district of J&K and grew up with the sounds of gunshots. But shooting is unthinkable as a sport there. When I shoot, they think I am fighting the enemy.” It is a barrier that many of them would look to break through their guns, sticks and racquets in the coming three weeks.

Wonder women

Of the total Indian squad in Rio, 45 per cent are women and if one were to assess the medal hopefuls, the top names would be those of Sania Mirza (tennis) and Saina Nehwal (badminton). Belonging to contrasting backgrounds, the two women have truly made their sport popular single-handedly. If Saina draws her strength and perseverance from her mother Usha’s strict disciplinarian upbringing — the Hyderabadi remembers how every match lost at the junior level was met with a tight slap on her face by her mother — Sania dwells on her strong family support and her fiery attitude. Says Sania, who along with Rohan Bopanna, is expected to bring laurels in the mixed doubles, “This will be my third Olympics. Every time we enter a tournament, we enter to win. I have a legitimate shot at winning a medal, but then so do the others in the draw.”

Sania Mirza

For Saina, it is slowly getting to a stage where she is in more control of her game and growing at every step. The London Olympic bronze medallist knows she has the ability to go one better in Rio. “When I was a kid, my mother once told me that she wanted me to win an Olympic medal. I was surprised as the thought had not crossed my mind till then. Today, I have already won one medal and I am going to compete for another,” says Saina.

Jitu ‘Zen’ Rai

Calmness could well be shooter Jitu Rai’s middle name. Born in Nepal, the 50 metre and 10 metre air pistol shooter is a man of few words and many high deeds. He is aware of the huge expectations, but is amazingly calm about it. “What is the use of talking about it (the medal)?” says Jitu, a first time Olympian. “My job is to perform and not talk.” A Naib-Subedar in the 11 Gurkha Regiment, Jitu was born in the Sankhusawa district in Nepal, but calls India his home.

Jitu Rai

“Whatever I am is because of this country. All that I have achieved till now is thanks to my hard work and India,” he says. It has taken a lot for Jitu to rise from mediocrity and days of frustration. During his early days in the army at Mhow, he was sent back twice due to non-performance. The rejections spurred him and he came back stronger to make his mark in 2014, winning three medals in nine days at the World Cups. This was followed by golds at the 2014 Asian and Commonwealth Games. Many believe he has the ability to repeat Bindra’s gold medal feat in Rio. “When in Nepal, I did not really know what Olympics were.  It was only in 2012 when my idol Vijay Kumar clinched a silver that I thought I could do so too. I will try,” he says simply.

Yogi wants a gold

Unlike Jitu, the man carrying India’s hopes in the 66 kg wrestling category makes it clear that he is “going for a gold”. Yogeshwar Dutt can afford to say it as he has already proved his mettle with a bronze in London. “Gold hi chahiye (I only want gold),” says the simpleton who still swears by his three litres of milk and lassi everyday.

Five surgeries haven’t dampened Yogeshwar Dutt’s spirit, who will be competing in his fourth Olympics

Five surgeries haven’t dampened Dutt’s spirit, who will be competing in his fourth Olympics. In his 14-year-career, his ability to stay focused and rise above the odds have stood out. At the 2006 Doha Asian Games, Dutt returned to compete two days after his father’s funeral and finished with a gold. From finishing 18th in 2004 Athens to ninth in Beijing four years later, Dutt went on to claim a bronze at the previous edition. “I wasn’t very happy with my bronze medal in London. I had decided that day itself that I need to do better,” says Yogeshwar.

Small-town girls, big dreams

Small-town girls Deepika Kumari (archery) and Dipa Karmakar (artistic gymnastics) are perfect examples of Cinderella stories coming true. Archer Deepika, born to a father who drove an auto-rickshaw, learnt the sport while aiming at mango trees with homemade bamboo bows and arrows. Her journey from her days of financial struggle to World No. 1 in 2013 is an inspiring one, and the 22-year-old would be keen to erase the painful memories of 2012 London with a strong showing this time.

Karmakar, who will be the first Indian gymnast at the Games after 52 years, took up the sport at the age of six and was training with equipment made from the second-hand parts of a scooter till a few years ago, until her big leap earlier this year brought her into the limelight. Besides them, there are many who have the ability to surprise and a few who can shine again. Bindra is known for his precision, Paes can never be ruled out while Gagan Narang too understands what it takes to deliver at the big stage.

Young boxer Shiva Thapa will carry the hopes in boxing,  Anirban Lahiri will be keen to make it count in the absence of big names as golf makes its Olympic return, while Vinesh Phogat believes she can change the way people view women wrestlers in the country. Young athletes Dutee Chand, Srabani Nanda and the 33-year-old Vikas Gowda are the ones who dream of writing their own fairy-tales. It is time to shape them into a reality. Let the Games begin…

Men’s Hockey: Weight of gold

The country’s affinity towards a hockey medal can never be forgotten. The eight gold medals, a matter of huge pride, have now slowly turned into a yardstick of unrealistic expectations that the current generation of players finds hard to meet. While the women’s team will make their first appearance at the Games, the men are well aware that their recent good show has fuelled that dream once again.

Says skipper Sreejesh P.R., “We can surely take a lot of pride and inspiration from our rich history.  Everywhere we go, people talk about a medal. As a group, we are making sure that the players do not get overwhelmed or pressurised by such expectations. We are going to give it our best shot.”