Let’s start with the beginning. India recorded its best ever medal harvest at the end of Tokyo 2020 on August 9, 2021. A new high is always more intoxicating than the previous one. The sports effects are as powerful as any other drug for a company. Apart from the metaphorical opiate, sport today is the civil religion which has a flag, a hymn and a goal – that of a country. Every drop of sweat that falls from an athlete’s body tells the story of his country’s aspiration to be the best in the world. Few nationalist rituals come close. And Indian athletes once again gave their all for the country.
A contingent of 124 athletes in 18 sports and seven medals – that’s the sum of India’s “best” effort in Games history. India’s previous Olympic record was six medals in London 2012, where she won two silver and four bronze. In Tokyo, India could have won more and was, in fact, heralded to hit double digits in the final medal standings. There have been many firsts and of course near misses that have made the sporting extravagance even more enduring. Archers, boxers and shooters could have done a lot better.
For now, the nation of a billion people with its love for all that glitters will face Neeraj Chopra’s javelin gold, a few silver medals and four bronze medals. Given India’s not-so-proud Olympic history, this new peak should be read with optimism. Indian sport finally crosses previously unexplored territories.
IN PHOTOS – The life and times of Neeraj Chopra
India competed in 18 sports and won medals in six of them. That’s tiny compared to what heavyweights like the US and China picked up, 113 in 29 and 88 in 21 sports respectively, at Tokyo 2020. But the point is, India’s sports culture in is still in its infancy. The big leap is yet to come. Many see it coming, as soon as possible. Optimism is here to see. The celebrations for every medal won in Tokyo were accompanied by impatience, wanting more.
A DREAM START, BUT …
India couldn’t have dreamed of a better start to the Games with a confident Saikhom Mirabai Chanu lifting a grand total of 202 kg – 87 in the snatch and 115 in the clean and jerk – to finish second behind the Chinese Hou Zhihui in women. 49 kg weightlifting event. The little Manipuri, who is 4’11 “, became the second Indian weightlifter to win an Olympic medal and the first since Karnam Malleswari’s bronze in Sydney in 2000. Moreover, India had never won a medal on first day of official competition Mirabai’s money gave India the start of a dream, then the moment of truth arrived.
What followed was heartbreak as the Indians succumbed to Olympic pressure. A very strong 15-member shooting team, featuring some of the best talent in the world, was India’s biggest disappointment at the Tokyo Olympics. With the exception of Saurabh Chaudhary, none of the shooters made it to the medal rounds. The prodigious are now targeting Paris 2024. Hope, as they say. For two successive Olympics, the Indian shooters, the privileged lot, shot blank.
The archers also returned empty-handed. World girl number Deepika Kumari, her husband Atanu Das, Pravin Jadhav and veteran Tarundeep Rai have struggled and at times they have looked out of their depths despite their recent incredible performances. The disappointment continued in boxing, table tennis, tennis, etc. The hype and reputation can be shattered at the Olympics. Deepika, veteran of three Olympic Games, will testify to this.
India was also hoping for several boxing ring medals. The nine-member team consisted of MC Mary Kom, Amit Panghal, Vikas Yadav. But it was the unannounced Lovlina Borgohain who saved India’s pride in the ring with a bronze medal performance in the women’s welterweight. In wrestling, debutants Ravi Kumar Dahiya (men’s freestyle -57 kg) and Bajrang Punia (men’s freestyle -65 kg) won silver and bronze respectively, although none of the four women grapplers, including the favorite of the Vinesh Phogat medals (-53 kg), only reached the medal round.
Rio silver medalist PV Sindhu became the first Indian athlete to win back-to-back Olympic medals. After losing the rather docile women’s singles semi-final to arch nemesis Tai Tzu-Ying of Chinese Taipei, the reigning world champion produced a badminton masterclass to beat China’s He Bingjiao for the bronze medal.
But India’s most encouraging performance came from the two hockey teams. The men’s team ended the medal drought with a thrilling 5-4 victory over Germany in the bronze medal playoffs. India won a final Olympic hockey medal in 1980 at the Moscow Games. The women’s team, making their second consecutive Olympic appearance, defied the odds to reach the first semifinals. But the fascinating journey ended in heartbreak after suffering a 3-4 loss to Great Britain in the bronze medal playoffs. Their performances, however, forced India to fall in love with their national game again.
Golfer Aditi Ashok, who was competing in her second Olympics, missed the bronze medal with a mustache. The Tokyo Olympics also saw India make their fencing debut with CA Bhavani Devi competing in the women’s saber.
Then came the golden moment. Chopra helped India end the Tokyo 2020 campaign on a high note by winning the gold medal in the men’s javelin throw. In the process, the 23-year-old also ended India’s 100-year wait for an athletics medal at the Games. After a sensational first throw of 86.65m in qualifying, Chopra put in a better throw of 87.58m with his second attempt in the final. And that was enough. Chopra has now joined shooting legend Abhinav Bindra as the only individual gold medalist for India.
Launched a year late, the Tokyo Olympics will be remembered as one of the toughest Games ever. And Indian athletes, like their rivals from other countries, have faced the grim reality of living in a COVID world. The preparations and the trips were not easy, so the accommodation at the Village. Still, they made everyone proud of their desire to compete with the best. Empty stadiums weren’t the only witnesses to their quest for excellence.
The winners, as usual, were few. Record books and reports can so coldly ignore those who fail to win a medal. But the Olympics are not just medalists. Making the cut to represent a country at the Olympics is in itself a huge achievement. And that gives the Olympians legitimacy. In Paris 2024, India will have another chance to improve its sporting position on the world stage, hopefully with more qualifiers and more medals. The bigger the team, the better the chances of winning more. Then there is also the spirit of participation.
(Jayanta Oinam is an Assistant Editor with Outlook and the views are personal)
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