The double-digit medals tally the Indian Olympic Association had drea
mt of didn’t turn into a reality at the Tokyo Olympic Games. But their athletes still produced some soul-stirring performances to lift the spirit of a country that was hit hard this year by a devastating second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
By winning India’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in athletics, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra became only the second individual gold medallist at the Games after shooter Abhinav Bindra.
Manipuri weightlifter Mirabai Chanu (silver) and Lovlina Borgohain (bronze), the feisty boxer from a remote village in Assam, have now become a part of Indian sporting folklore on the back of their talent and indomitable spirit.
The hockey teams captured the imagination of a country with their history-making run in the Japanese capital with the men ending a 41-year drought for an Olympic medal and the women reaching the semifinals in their only third appearance at the Games.
PV Sindhu, the reigning world champion, is now a double Olympic medallist and only the fourth women’s singles player in badminton history to win medals in two consecutive Games.
Wrestlers Ravi Kumar Dahiya and Bajrang Punia showed grit and class to come back with the silver and bronze medals respectively in the men’s freestyle events.
For a country that had returned empty-handed from three consecutive Olympics (1984, 1988 and 1992), India’s has shown a bit of a spark in the world’s multi-sports greatest sporting event.
Leander Paes (tennis, bronze), Karnam Maleswari (weightlifting, bronze) and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore (shooting, silver) ensured the world’s second-most populous country returned from the 1996 (Atlanta), 2000 (Sydney) and 2004 (Athens) Olympic Games with at least one medal in hand.
But the fortunes changed in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics when shooter Abhinav Bindra earned India’s first-ever individual gold medal. And for the first time in history, India returned with more than one individual medal with boxer Vijender Singh and wrestler Sushil Kumar earning bronze medals.
The 2012 London Games saw India return with their best ever medals tally with two silver (wrestler Sushil Kumar and shooter Vijay Kumar) and four bronze medals (shuttler Saina Nehwal, boxer Mary Kom, wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt and shooter Gagan Narang).
India failed to replicate the London success in Rio with only Sindhu (silver) and wrestler Sakshi Malik (bronze) earning podium places.
But the Tokyo Games have proved that there has been a significant improvement in India’s sporting landscape.
Yes, the country has still a long way to go before it can challenge the sporting giants at the Olympics. But the seeds for success have definitely been planted.
During a recent interview with the Khaleej Times, Rani Rampal, captain of the Indian women’s hockey team, said that things are definitely changing in Indian sports.
“Lot of things have already changed in women’s hockey in India. I have seen this and experienced this. There are a lot of changes from the time I started playing and now. The facilities were not so good when I started, but it’s much better now,” Rampal said.
The daughter of a cart-puller, Rampal is now among the greatest strikers in women’s international hockey. Rampal genuinely believes that the country will soon produce more athletes that can compete at the highest level.
“The government has given youngsters a great opportunity at the grassroots level by introducing the Khelo India (Let’s Play, India),” Rampal said, referring to the Indian Youth Games launched to identify and nurture young talents.
“This has given youngsters a very good platform to showcase their talent. It’s a great way to encourage young athletes. It’s important for youngsters to get a good ground to play, to get good equipment. So I think that’s the reason why there has been an improvement not just in hockey, but in other sports as well.”
The Olympic athletes, according to Rampal, have also received great support from the Indian government.
“Even for the Olympics, the government has been very supportive. If any athlete needs any extra support in terms of coaching or anything, they are ready to help. They just tell you that ‘we will support you, you just do your best and try to win medals’,” Rampal said.
“This kind of support and encouragement players have started to receive even at the grassroots level. Things are definitely changing, but to compete at the highest level with the top countries in events like Olympics, it will take some time.”
If the Indian sports system is starting to produce world-class athletes, the country’s cricket continues to be the flagbearer.
Virat Kohli’s men may have lost the World Test Championship final to New Zealand, but the team’s bench strength across formats now has now become an object of envy for the rest of the cricketing world.
Pundits have credited the Indian Premier League (IPL) for the success of the Indian team in international cricket. The likes of Ishan Kishan, Devdutt Padikkal, Ruturaj Gaikwad and Rahul Chahar would not have seen such success if not for the platform provided by the IPL.
The 2021 IPL, which was halted by the deadly second wave of the pandemic, would resume in UAE next month. This wonderful country has been a source of great support for cricket and last year’s success of the IPL once again proved UAE’s credentials as a top sporting destination.
The UAE will be the centre of attention again when the world’s richest T20 league will resume here in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.
The IPL, in fact, will be a prologue to the T20 World Cup, which will be hosted by BCCI in UAE and Oman, which is likely to stage the preliminary matches.
India was scheduled to host this year’s T20 World Cup, but the pandemic forced the BCCI to bring the tournament to UAE.
“The UAE government and the cricket authorities have always been very supportive. So that gives us great confidence to take the tournament to UAE,” Rajeev Shukla, BCCI vice-president, recently told Khaleej Times.
“I have always said that for us, after India, the UAE is the best country for hosting premier events. It has wonderful facilities and it’s very well prepared to host big events safely in a pandemic,” he said before acknowledging the advantage of staging the IPL and the World Cup in the same country.
“In terms of bio-bubble and logistics, yes it’s definitely a great advantage, to have the IPL and the World Cup in the UAE.”
Two extravaganzas, both to be hosted by India’s powerful cricket board in UAE, will be another sporting spectacle on these shores.