Opinion Columnists 13 Aug 2016 Well tried! But it ...
Sidharth Bhatia is the Founder/Editor of The Wire and writes on politics, society and popular culture. In addition, he is a great fan of rock music.

Well tried! But it’s the medals that count

Published Aug 13, 2016, 12:11 am IST
Updated Aug 13, 2016, 7:21 am IST
De happened to be the person who said the bitter truth, so she had to be shouted down.
Rio Olympics
 Rio Olympics

The beast we know as social media needs to be continuously fed to keep it in perpetual outrage mode, and this week author Shobhaa De did the needful. Her tweet about the Indian contingent dismissed with a wave of the hand and a sneer their poor show at the Rio Olympics. De didn’t mince her words — all that the athletes would get back from Rio would be selfies, she suggested and called it a waste of money. Twitter warriors, always ready to take up cudgels from the comfort of their mobile phones, went after her and, naturally, since this was a made-for-television spat, channels went into overdrive to hold debates on this crucial issue. De being De, has not apologised for her tweet — and why should she — and neatly switched to criticising sports officials rather than the athletes. Two points arise out of this — first, as much as we have the right to criticise De for her views, she has a right to air them.

Those who get worked up over things don’t always remember this. She may have been glib, she may have been unfair, but she has a right to say what she did. Her critics have a right to hit out at her, though in the typically crude style we have become used to, many of the attacks were ad hominem and downright nasty and obscene. But that, unfortunately, is the new normal and is not going to change any time soon. It is the second reaction that is more interesting, in that it provides a glimpse into what we have become. It is not as if in the pre-Twitter days people did not criticise Indian Olympians for failing to return with any medal. Not much was expected from the athletes, but certainly a poor show by the hockey team, which once dominated the world, evoked sharp comment from fans and the media.

 

Conversely, every little achievement, even if it did not result in a medal, was seized upon for out of proportion glorification. Milkha Singh came fourth in the Rome Olympics and till today urban legend has it that if he hadn’t looked around he would have come third. P.T. Usha, a fine athlete with a slew of medals won at international races, made it to the finals in the 1984 Olympics but did not win. It was not till the Beijing Olympics that India won its first gold medal in an individual sport and that rightly turned Abhinav Bindra into a star. Others, such as Sushil Kumar, Mary Kom and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore too have come back with medals. But while we hail their feat, it is sobering to know that Michael Phelps has now won 21 gold medals by himself! That is far more than the nine this country of 1.2 billion has won so far.

Pointing this out is not being unpatriotic, but simply realistic. One of the criticisms against De was that she didn’t know and would never know the sheer hard work and effort that our Olympians had put in. And that is true — each of the sportspersons who have made it to the Olympics would have worked hard in the most trying of circumstances: poor infrastructure, unhelpful officials and simply an abundance of all the daily difficulties of life in India. Yet, of late, athlete after athlete has emerged from the far corners of this land and won the honour of representing their country in the greatest sports arena of this world. One cannot even begin to know the dedication of someone like Dipa Karmakar from Tripura to become the first-ever Indian gymnast to go to the Olympics. In a cricket-mad country, other sports get short shrift and gymnastics is almost non-existent, yet she, like her north-eastern compatriot Mary Kom, shrugged off the problems and practised hard to win that privilege.

But while we laud the effort, it is a hard fact of life that the world does not recognise effort — it only hails achievement. Every athlete at the Olympics from every nation must have put in the same superhuman levels of practice to make it to Rio; they all carry the dreams of the countrymen and women. They all deserve to be hailed. But the record books will show the medal winners. If Indians lose “by a whisker”, as Bindra did, that won’t be mentioned anywhere. Do we want to be known as a country that always fails by a whisker? Earlier in the week, a video showing Dipa Karmakar “winning a gold medal” was doing the rounds; it was obviously fake because the finals are on the 14th.

Yet, many simply swallowed it as gospel, because not only are we hungry for good news, we now only want good news. We cannot face disappointment; our cricketers are the best, our athletes are the best and everything about us is the best. The media happily participates in building up this hyper-nationalistic narrative. De happened to be the person who said the bitter truth, so she had to be shouted down. I found the tweet a bit silly in tone (and premature too), but it wasn’t far off the mark. But she was expressing her anguish at the defeat after defeat of Indians and was angry to see the Indian hockey team lose to Germany while dominating the entire match. Yes, you guessed it, we lost by a whisker.

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