Hope and Glory: India's medal prospects at the long-awaited Tokyo Olympics
India Today Editor-in-Chief talks about the Olympic journey of Indian sportspersons and the triumph of their athletic spirit, in the July 19, 2021 edition of the India Today Magazine.
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The Olympic Games, which are to be held in Tokyo in two weeks, may be the best antidote to the misery with which the Covid-19 pandemic has blighted people’s lives across the globe. As 11,090 athletes converge for the Games, it is a tribute to the human spirit, determined that life must go on regardless. It is a Herculean challenge for the International Olympic Committee to ensure a Covid-free event. If there is any country in the world that can pull it off with a smile, it is Japan. The country is renowned for its self-discipline and meticulous planning. The Games have been the ultimate multidisciplinary sporting contest for over a century and a test of fitness amongst the best from all over the world. The Tokyo Olympics will see athletes from 206 nations competing to determine who is truly, as the Olympic motto goes, ‘faster, higher and stronger’. The Games, in their 125-year history, have been cancelled only thrice—during the two world wars—and rescheduled just once—by the pandemic last year. In a way, this will be a very unique Olympic.
India Today India Today Magazine July 19, 2021 cover, ‘Hope and Glory’.
Unfortunately for India, every instalment of the Games is also a reminder of our inadequacy as a sporting nation and a time for that soul-searching query—why can’t a nation of 1.3 billion people bring in a decent medal haul? It is a rhetorical question. We know the answer—the inability to plan and invest in sporting talent other than cricket. Government bodies are meant to promote sports but become political sinecures and, worse, dens of nepotism and intrigue. The result is there for all to see. India has so far won just 28 medals from 24 Games.
In the 2008 Beijing Games, we ranked 51st, thanks to Abhinav Bindra shooting his way to India’s first, and so far solitary, individual Olympic gold. Since then, every instalment of the Olympics has been a descent into ignominy. London 2012 was our best showing yet, with six medals, but we figured at 55th place in the medals tally. In Rio 2016, we won just two medals and stood 67th—along with Mongolia (pop. 3.2 million). This, even as Cuba and Croatia, roughly the size of Telangana and Himachal Pradesh, finished in the top 20, with five golds each.
The government has spent Rs 1,169.65 crore between supporting 18 national sports federations and 128 Olympic hopefuls since 2016 but India’s medal tally at the Olympics reminds us every time to lower our expectations. Until we learn to invest in sports at the grassroots level.
However, there is a glimmer of hope this year. India will be sending 120 Indian athletes, our biggest delegation yet, to the Games. We are seeing first-time participants in sports like fencing. It’s also the first time that a female sailor, Nethra Kumanan, and a female swimmer, Maana Patel, will compete. Athletes like javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, who are among the best in the world, bear the heavy burden of expectations of over a billion people who yearn for their sportspersons to succeed. They are our hope for a podium finish.
The Olympic journey of our sportspersons is a triumph of the athletic spirit, their grit and perseverance in already trying times. Besides our poor domestic sports infrastructure and unhelpful officialdom, India’s athletes have also had to manage their training through a pandemic that has disrupted everyday life and travel across the globe. Just to qualify for the Olympics, there are distances to clear, timings to meet, and rankings to attain. For that, one needs to compete in events. Unfortunately, most of those were cancelled in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sportspersons in ‘duel sports’ such as wrestling and boxing struggled to find sparring partners. Fencer CA Bhavani Devi turned her kit bag into a dummy partner to practise on her terrace in Chennai.
Battling Covid 19-induced anxiety has been a recurring issue for athletes. Chopra struggled to focus on training in Patiala as India grappled with a devastating second wave. Others contracted the virus themselves, among them pistol shooters Rahi Sarnobat and Saurabh Chaudhary, women hockey players, including captain Rani Rampal Singh, and a few coaches and staff on the women’s boxing team.
The fear now of the Delta variant of Covid-19 means that many Indian athletes, coaches and support staff won’t be allowed to come into contact or train with athletes from other countries for three days.
Then, there is the fear of faltering at the final frontier. As PV Sindhu, our silver medal-winning shuttler from the Rio Games, told us, “When you reach that stage, you will give your best. Sometimes it may not be your day.”
As they enter the world’s most fiercely competitive arena, we celebrate the spirit of the Indian athletes. Our cover story, ‘Hope and Glory’, compiled by Senior Editor Suhani Singh, with inputs from our bureaus, profiles 11 medal hopefuls. We hope the incredible spirit of our athletes will inspire us all to rise above adversity and aim for global excellence. May this be the time when India’s sportspersons break into the Olympic league like never before.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, ‘Hope and Glory’, for July 19, 2021)