The Tokyo Olympics has the potential to be the kind of turning point that the 2010 Commonwealth Games was to Indian sport. Never before in the country’s history has it sent a contingent to the quadrennial games with so many medal contenders within its ranks. A best-ever show might be on the cards come July and August.
It’s the ninth of August and millions of Indians are glued to their TV screens. The closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics is on and they’re left wishing it had dragged on for a few more days.
Cloaked in the bright lights and sweltering heat of the New National Stadium, the Indian contingent is all smiles—never has a squad of athletes from the country had more reason to be more happy at an Olympic Games. Waving the tricolour high is Bajrang Punia, the unassuming wrestler from Jhajjar, who had, a day before, put the cherry on top of an excellent Indian performance with gold in the men’s 65kg section. Behind him, sporting her trademark grin is another gold medallist, the affable Vinesh Phogat, who had laid to rest the demons of 2016 where she had gone in as a medal hope and returned with a broken leg. There’s one more wrestling medallist in the party—the young Deepak Punia. Amidst all the waving hands, the diminutive lifter Mirabai Chanu is hard to spot, but after a medal in the 49kg section, the cameras find enough time to be trained on her.
Back in India, celebrations are underway in various parts of the country with everyone rushing to congratulate medallists who opted for early returns. Nowhere are they celebrating harder than in Hyderabad where PV Sindhu has returned home with her second straight Olympic medal, this time an improvement on the silver that she had won in Rio. But unlike four years prior, she has to share the spotlight with a lot many others. Outside her Jhajjar home, Manu Bhaker brandishes her gun and her gold to the adoring public—she’s got one in the mixed team event as well. She’s not the only shooter to be mobbed on return though—fellow teenager Saurabh Choudhary and rifle shooter Apurvi Chandela have landed with medals as well.
A short drive away from there in Rohtak, everyone’s getting ready to welcome another returning medallist in Amit Panghal. He though is not the boxer of the moment—that would be the veteran MC Mary Kom, who, at 36, has punched her way to a second Olympic medal, eight years after she had won the first in London.
But, amidst all the golds and silver, the most poignant story from Tokyo is a bronze. Forty years after a last medal in the sport on the world’s biggest stage, the women’s hockey team has managed to get on the podium. In a sport, that Indians once considered their own before they appeared to lose their way and slip over to an eternal path of damnation, they had somehow stumbled back on to the right road. That bronze made it 12 medals. A best-ever performance and the first time ever that the country had managed double digits at a Games.
Ok, now cut back to reality! Did that scenario sound a bit too fanciful? A utopian dream that’s never going to happen in at least a couple of decades? Think again! It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. For all their faults, the women’s hockey team is probably the fittest in the world and it will only take a couple of blistering performances on the right day for them to move into the medal brackets. Sindhu is the reigning world champion. Vinesh, Bajrang and Deepak were all medallists at the most recent World Championships in their sport as were Amit and Mary. Mirabai may be eighth in the world rankings right now, but finished fourth in the weightlifting Worlds in September.
And where do you start with shooting? The way, Manu & Co have dominated the World Cup circuit over the past 12 months, it would probably be considered a disappointment if they come back with anything less than three or four medals. It’s no fluke that India has secured a record 15 shooting quotas at Tokyo and the buoyancy in the camp is best summed up by national coach Jaspal Rana.
“This time, it’s different because whatever quota places we have won, we won it at events where all these top Olympians were participating in,” he says. “Our shooters beat them by good scores, not just once but a number of times.”
Of course, there is the very real possibility that all this could end in one dour, grimace-inducing anti-climax. India could come back with two, one or even zero medals. But for once, nobody is expecting them to.
Things were a lot different when Leander Paes was packing his bags for Atlanta, way back in 1996. India had just shaken off the constraints of a protectionist economy and was beginning to sprout its post-liberalisation wings. For Indian sport, it was a weird period—that interlude between the hockey team’s last years as a global force and the cricket team’s rise as one of the game’s true powers. Sachin Tendulkar was starting to tell the country that an Indian could be the best in the world at a sporting discipline but not everyone was ready to believe him just yet.
An individual medal at the Olympic Games was considered a fanciful fantasy—after all, the only instance of that happening for independent India came in 1952 when KD Jadhav netted a wrestling bronze. And as Doordarshan broadcasted the Atlanta Games in its entirety, Indians scrambled to find a rare glimpse of the national flag in the participants’ list. No one bothered to even take a glance at the medal tally.
Then Paes happened. Few saw it coming, Sure, the field at Atlanta was much-weakened but there were still names like Andre Agassi, Goran Ivanisevic and Thomas Enqvist. And Paes was nowhere in the picture—a mere wildcard. But he somehow battled on to a bronze, scalping third-seed Enqvist along the way, losing only to the great Agassi. A bronze and the joint-71st spot on the medal tally may seem like nothing to write home about but Paes had broken a 44-year drought.
And that India has never failed to win an individual medal in the two decades since suggests something changed that day at the Stone Mountain Tennis Centre.
Twenty-four years later, the country is unrecognisable as is its sporting scene. Cricket may still be numero uno but its exponents are far from being the only royalty in Indian sports. An affluent middle-class has risen and their ambitions for their kids are not limited to them getting a white-collar job. Sports, once a pesky distraction from the academic syllabus, is now considered a part of it. A throwaway bronze will do nothing to whet this India’s appetite. There was a time when officialdom would usher in the Olympic Games with a collective we-just-want-athletes-to-do-their-best shrug. But now their predictions are getting bolder.
During his rather admirable crisscrossing of the country—many a sports minister have chosen to reign from the capital without venturing out much—Kiren Rijiju always got the loudest applause at one point of his stump speech. Multiple times, he reiterated that 2020 Games would see India come back with its best-ever tally.
Rijiju, however, did not stop there, outlining some rather confident plans for the longer term. “The target in 2024 is we have to cross double-digit medal tally,” he said while speaking in Chennai last month. “By 2028 Olympics, India must be in the top 10 medal-list.”
Of course, statements are easy to make. Getting into top 10 in an Olympic medals tally is no mean task—you have to have contenders in at least a dozen disciplines. Let’s not worry about how the United States—toppers last term—had medallists in 22 sports or that second-placed Great Britain found success in 19. Even Canada, a country finishing 20th last time, got their 22 medals from 10 disciplines. India’s best-case has it medalling in six.
The sports ministry has taken preliminary steps. It has identified 13 sports to develop as medal prospects, among them the likes of cycling, archery, table tennis and fencing. Many of these sports are disciplines where Indians need just a push—G Sathiyan in table tennis holds much promise while archery has always been a sport where India have had pedigree.
As of now, the ministry’s flagship programme, the Target Olympic Podium Scheme, caters to athletes from eight disciplines. Missing are athletes like Asiad medallist Fouaad Mirza who has qualified for the Games in equestrian and CA Bhavani Devi, who looks poised to be the first Indian fencer ever to make the Olympics cut. For these fringe athletes, life without government assistance is not easy.
“For the Tokyo Olympics, eight disciplines have been identified. The number of sports for 2024 Paris has been increased to 13. TOPS is essentially looking after the probable athletes who have potential to finish at podium in Olympics,” explains Rijiju. “There are different criteria established for progressive sports, which have potential to perform better compared to previous Olympics to give a fillip to that particular sports in the country. Notwithstanding that, the TOPS is already in process of identifying athletes for 2024 and 2028 Olympics, which would be part of the development group of TOPS and would certainly include other sports.”
In 2008, Sushil Kumar kickstarted a revolution when he brought home an unlikely wrestling medal. Who’s to say that, with the right encouragement, the likes of Fouaad and Bhavani won’t do it for their disciplines? All it takes for a sport to catch fire in India is that one spark. The government just needs to bring the matches. And once that happens, the dozen medal hopes that we have right now will multiply manifold. The IOA has already announced plans to bid 2032 Games. If ministry plays its cards right, it could have the same cathartic effect on Indian sport that hosting the 2012 Games had on Great Britain.
From Leander’s lone bronze to high Tokyo hopes
It has been a long journey for India since Leander Paes ended the country’s 44-year wait for an individual Olympic medal, back in 1996. In the years since, many landmarks have been broken. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore kickstarted India’s shooting revolution with a silver in 2004 before Abhinav Bindra won the country’s first-ever individual gold in Beijing in 2008. Sushil Kumar became the country’s first double-medallist (in individual events) in 2012, the same Games that Saina Nehwal won a landmark badminton medal in.
Golden year in shooting heightens expectation
Indian rifle and pistol shooters were in a different league throughout 2019. In all the four World Cups (rifle and pistol) they participated in, they performed exceedingly well. They topped the medal standings, earning a record number of quotas in the process—15 is the most shooters India has ever sent to the Olympics. They went on to put the icing on the cake by topping the World Cup Final, where only the best-ranked shooters compete. However, the trap shooters had a year to forget with no one making the Olympic cut.
Multiple World Championships medallists in 2019 alone
As many as 11 medals were won by boxers and wrestlers in the world championships last year. The Worlds medals meant four wrestlers—Vinesh Phogat (53kg), Ravi Dahiya (57kg), Bajrang Punia (65kg) and Deepak Punia (86kg)—qualified for Tokyo. The pugilists also did well as six of them (four women) finished on the podium. Amit Phangal (52kg) and Manju Rani (48kg) clinched a silver each while MC Mary Kom (51kg), Jamuna Boro (54kg), Lovlina Borgohain (69kg) and Manish Kaushik (63kg) won a bronze each.
28 Olympic medals
India has won, both before and after Independence. Hockey has contributed the most—the men’s team has won 11 medals of which eight were gold.