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An Olympics For A New Generation

Among the generation that grew up in the 90s – for those with an interest in sports – this was a common taunt (from our hard-working elders with no appetite for taking a risk in life):

Oye, padhai kar le. Yeh khel vel ke Olympic medal nahin mil jayega!”

No one really gave it a thought, but where did it stem from? Clearly, the Olympics were a big deal. We’d heard stories from our grandparents about the prowess of the Indian hockey team, which won 11 medals in 12 Olympics between 1928 and 1980 – eight of which were gold and six of which came in consecutive Olympics between 1928 and 1956.

Even if you deliriously ran to buy a cold drink for a sudden visitor, chances were someone would scream: “Oye gir mat jaayio Milkha Singh.” Yep, as kids, we knew this Milkha Singh had something to do with running.

The Rise

Why had Milkha become a household name at a time, when there was no television, no Google, no social media, but just the limited airwaves of the radio or column inches of newspapers? Why were the Olympics a benchmark for sports?

I am not an expert or even old enough to pass judgment, but I think a major reason was pride. For that generation of our elders, the Olympics brought (whatever little) glory and recognition at the world stage. Especially after independence, when India longed for its own heroes, its own identity in different fields, that the Indian hockey would routinely rout the mighty Europeans (and of course our friendly neighbors) was a big deal.

It didn’t matter that we were British India until 1947 because it was a homegrown Indian, Major Dhyan Chand, stealing headlines around the Western world. It was a big deal. Dadasaheb Jadhav won a wrestling bronze in 1952, an individual medal, and it was a big deal. And of course, Milkha Singh almost winning a medal in track and field continues to be one of India’s greatest achievements on the world stage.

The Fall

But post-1980, a medal slump coincided with the rise of cricket. Television had made bigger inroads into homes, and a hunger for entertainment was widespread. India was moving forward; with Kapil’s devils scripting the greatest underdog blockbuster in 1983, the country found new heroes. And rightly so.

Sport inspires a generation. It is, after all, a microcosm of what life should be: hard work, determination, will power, training, discipline, teamwork, winning without arrogance and accepting defeat with grace. But nothing succeeds like success, and as cricket reached new heights, it took with it many a fan, most of whom had given up on other sports following decades of failure.

And India’s Olympic quest had failed, for a number of reasons. The authorities failed to match the pace of the global movement: the intertwining of science, nutrition and psychological strategies for preparation; the assurance of career options to athletes once they hung up their boots. Not to mention the petty politics and corruption at play that we are all, unfortunately, still so well aware of.

An average retainer of even a state-level cricketer is higher than that of his compatriot athlete training for an Olympic sport. Until last year, these senior athletes and coaches would travel in 2nd AC train compartments while juniors languished in sleeper class. Only in 2016 has air travel within the country been allowed to seniors for trips of more than 500 kilometers. A coach’s salary, too, was bumped up only last year from the earlier 30 to 50,000 rupees bracket.

I am not here to take anything away from cricket. But in reality, it’s a sport played competently by eight to 10 nations. An Olympic medal is won by defeating the whole world. For an athlete in India to rise through the ranks – overcoming great political divides between state federations, sub-standard food and living conditions, shoddy equipment and measly stipends – their embodiment of sacrifice is perhaps far more than that of an average cricketer, making their achievement if not greater, then more valued.

The Resurrection

This has slowly started to change in the last decade or so, however, and the youngest generation’s introduction to the Olympics was Rajyavardhan Rathore’s silver in double trap at Athens in 2004. Or the moment when Abhinav Bindra took the country to stratospheric euphoria with India’s first-ever individual gold in 2008.

And while the 2010 Commonwealth Games might have opened quite a few cans of corruption worms, the facilities and equipment procured during the period did benefit athletes, allowing India to swoop six medals (their best showing in a single Olympics edition) and raise the overall medal tally to 26 two years later in London. Since then, most federations have upped their standards, the Sports Ministry is a lot more involved, and the facilities for elite athletes have seen marked improvements.

So now, as we get ready for 119 Indians — the country’s biggest contingent ever – to raise our profile and our spirits in the Brazilian capital, it’s only fair to focus on the hopefuls. For a country vying for a spot in the United Nations Security Council, taking giant strides with its developing economy, manning its own space missions, programming binary digits for the Western world, our showing at the Olympics has often snatched away any bragging rights. But not this year.

It’s time to send a #billioncheers to our contingent as they strive for our best showing yet. It’s time to have some Olympians again in our pantheon of sports heroes. It’s time to say,“Yeh khel ke aapko Olympic medal mil sakta hai.”

Rio, here comes the Tricolor.

The Must-Watch of the Olympics

Dipa Karmakar

The first Indian woman gymnast to qualify for the Olympics, Dipa’s story began in Tripura. From practicing on a spring board made with a scooter’s shock absorbers to being one of only three current gymnasts to successfully execute the rare Pradunova vault, medal or not, Dipa has put gymnastics on India’s map.

Jitu Rai

Born in Nepal and now with the Indian Army (11 Gorkha Rifles), Jitu is India’s best medal bet at the Olympics. With 7 World Cup medals, Jitu is India’s most consistent and elite shooter heading into the 28th Summer Olympics. An extremely humble and shy foodie, hopefully Jitu gets to bite a gold medal in full public view.

Abhinav Bindra

The preparation king who needs no introduction has replicated the Rio shooting venue at his home near Chandigarh: the same number of lanes, lighting, colour schemes, and logos. Bindra does not want to leave even a decimal point to chance in this next go at glory. He’s called this medal a need, before he finally uncoils the gun and his career post the Olympics. A final hurrah for India’s golden eye!

Yogeshwar Dutt

Away from the ugly wrestling sagas at home, Yogeshwar Dutt is ready for his fourth Olympics. A repechage won him a bronze in London but he’s desperate to improve upon the metal in what could be his final Olympic journey. At 33, Yogeshwar leads India’s hopes on the wrestling mat.

The Hockey Teams

Runners-up in the recent Champions Trophy, the Indian men’s hockey team will again be under the scanner at the Olympics. Hopes are swelling with coach Roelant Oltman’s men matching European speed and showing recent glimpses of ball control from the past. With the experience of captains PR Sreejesh and Sardar Singh paired with the agility of youngsters like Mandeep and Manpreet Singh, a top five finish is likely and will be a remarkable improvement from the last edition.

And, don’t miss the women, who have qualified for the first time in 36 years. Rani Rampal and her team will invite various remixes of Chak De India! at the venue.

Saina Nehwal

A maiden bronze in London, but Saina will know that medal was made somewhat fortunate by her opponent’s injury in that last match. This time, she’ll want to win on her own terms. While she has in the past failed to cross final hurdles at world events, Rio could exorcise those demons, once and for all. Sania leads a contingent of seven shuttlers – each with the potential to vie for a medal.

Other Hopefuls

Sania Mirza & Rohan Bopanna (Tennis Mixed Doubles)

Deepika Kumari (Archery)

Shiva Thapa (Boxing)

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