CHENNAI: According to the Chinese calendar, 2016 is supposed to be the year of the monkey. The monkey says one of the lucky colours will be gold, while going west will yield auspicious results.
Indian athletes will be hoping the monkey brings positive results for them with a gold when they travel west to Rio de Janiero for the 31st installment of the Summer Games. Like the beginning of every Olympic year, dreams are aplenty and hopes always trump reality. Even otherwise, the Indian contingent can be quietly confident of bettering their mark in London. The trends indicate that. After each and every big multi-discpline event (read as Olympics, Commonwealth Games or Asian Games), pundits around the world are quick with their calculators to see how the world’s leading nations have performed under different factors such as GDP, population and team size rank.
While India have always finished near the bottom with respect to population and GDP, it’s the team size rank that is an indicator that there is a gradual increase. If you apply the numbers across the last three Summer Games, India’s improvement is there for all to see.
In 2004, it stood at 1 medal out of a total of 73 athletes (0.01). In 2008, it was 3 from 57 (0.07). In 2012, it was 6 from 81. A rise of 0.01 to 0.07 over eight years doesn’t seem huge but in 2012, they multiplied their medals tally six times from 2004 and two times from 2008. Progress.
Plotting the team size against GDP and population ranks in 2012 also reveals an interesting detail. In terms of GDP, India ranked 81st out of a total of 85 countries that won medals. In figures of population size, India, not surprisingly, finished 85th. However, in terms of team size, they finished a creditable 61st. Ahead of the likes of Argentina, Serbia and Belgium. It’s in this backdrop that the contingent will be heading to Rio de Janiero in August.
And there is an all pervading sense of optimism in the air. “By far cricket is the frontrunner. But now, youngsters reckon they get recognition through other sports as well,” says Viren Rasquinha, CEO of Olympic Gold Quest. “In recent times our athletes are tasting success in Olympics. Saina (Nehwal), Sania (Mirza), Jitu Rai, (Heena) Sidhu have been winning in prime events. Shooters, especially are doing really well in Olympics and World Championships.”
There is a real belief that the team, with help from shooters and badminton stars, can reach double figures. That may feel like punching below the weight for a country like India but to put things in perspective, the country won a total of nine medals in 13 Olympics from 1956 to 2004.
But the Olympics isn’t the only thing that will be the focus for blue riband Indian athletes this year. Anirban Lahiri, for instance, will be making his debut on the PGA Tour. The Bengaluru lad, who finished Tied 5th at the PGA Championships last year, will be looking for a shock victory at the Majors. Another sportsperson who will be watched keenly is Sania Mirza, who has the opportunity for a Golden Slam. But standing in the way of that could be her partner Martina Hingis, who will be partnering Roger Federer at the quadrennial bash.
Moving away from tennis, Saina and her rivalry with PV Sindhu will be another storyline. The latter was sidelined by injury this year but expect her to fight in what will be a crucial year for her. The same sentiment applies for Saina too. She made inroads against her traditional rivals and was briefly ranked World No 1 but she stumbled against Spain’s Carolina Marin.
Even otherwise, the Hyderabadi has assumed greater importance because of her status in the Indian landscape. “For a sport to grow you need role models. Saina came out of nowhere and now you see plenty of Indians doing well in world badminton,” according to Rasquinha. “Moreover people have realised they can have a career out of sports. Now we have so many leagues across different sports and what has done is it has opened up opportunities. Earlier, the ones who failed to make the international cut wouldn’t have dreamt of making huge sums by just plying their trade in domestic events.”
A point ad man Prahlad Kakkar is quick to catch on. “In recent years, other sports have started going the cricket way in India at least. All these leagues are commercial ones and when it is on TV, it drags eyeballs. ISL is just two seasons old and in next three years it can make people forget about the Mohun Bagan and East Bengal rivalry.”
There was much cynicism when franchise-based leagues started sprouting after looking at the success of the IPL but they are here to stay. And it’s easy to make the case that 2016 could be a landmark year for many of these leagues. “They have given athletes the infrastructure and top level coaches to work with. It helps you evolve as an athlete.”
And 2016 could really be that. The evolution of the modern Indian athlete.
Currently ranked 40th in the world, Anirban Lahiri has secured a berth for the Augusta Masters, golf calender's first major, and probably the possibly the most prestigious event in the sport. Lahiri also played in the Masters last year.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who is currently the first choice goal-keeper for the national side, could become the first Indian to play in the Europa League this year, as the Norway club he plays for, Stabaek, have qualified for the tournament.
Shooter Jitu Rai is the current favourite to win a gold in this year's Olympics. If he does so, he will become the first Indian after Abhinav Bindra, and the first from the Army, to achieve the feat.
Yuki Bhambri reached a career-best ranking of 88 in 2015. He is currently ranked 93.
Apurvi Chandela is the only Indian woman to have cornered a quota for the Rio Games till now. The Commonwealth Games gold medallist qualified for the Games after bagging the 10m air rifle bronze in a World Cup event.