The stories of athletes who did India proud at the recently-concluded Asian Games must not be forgotten in the din of celebration that more often than not shows a lack of nuance.
For those who watched it on television in 1982, the opening ceremony in Delhi of the 9th Asian Games, on November 19, 1982 remains an indelible memory for many reasons. This was the second time India was hosting the games, having first enjoyed the honour in 1951 when we were the hosts of the inaugural Asian Games.
1982 was also the year that television broadcasting in India went all colour and to see the Indian contingent in their blazing pink turbans and sarees, and the tricolour in all its glory, was a deeply emotional moment.
There was that huge replica of the much loved games mascot Appu rolling into the Jawahar Lal stadium to uproarious cheers.
And the larger than life logo for the games inspired by the observatory at Delhi's Jantar Mantar, and India's pride PT Usha leading the athlete's oath, Ravi Shankar's goose-bump inducing hymn of the Asiad, Swaagatam and of course the sight of the Indian hockey captain Balbir Singh and athlete Diana Simes running with a torch to light up the Asiad flame.
As a five year old in 1992, even after ten years of the Asiad in Delhi, I remember drawing pictures of the jolly little elephant Appu over and over again. In today’s podcast, we relive the medal glory that India achieved at the recently concluded Asian Games in Indonesia, and some factors that may have led to the success we saw. In the process, we will also take a look at India’s presence in the Asian arena over the years.
1982, the year of many firsts
In 1982, in Delhi, 74 Asian and Asian Games records were broken and this was also the first Asiad to be held under the aegis of the Olympic Council of Asia. India hosted a total of 3,411 athletes from 33 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) who competed in 196 events in 21 sports and 23 disciplines. The number of participating countries was the highest in Asian Games history. Handball, equestrian, rowing and golf were included for the first time; fencing and bowling were excluded.
The host of the next Asian Games in 1986, and the 24th Summer Olympics in 1988, Seoul, South Korea participated in the Delhi Asian Games with a 406-person delegation, including an observation team to study the facilities, management and events.
And of course, the 1982 Asiad gave India a new crop of sporting heroes and also changed Delhi's skyline forever with the 60,000-seater Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, Games Village, the Siri Fort auditorium, the Karni Singh shooting range along with many flyovers and roads.
If we only just talk sports, India ranked fifth in the overall medals tally, winning 13 golds, 19 silvers and 25 bronze medals with the help of stars like the 800m gold medal winner, Tamil Nadu's Charles Borromeo, Kerala's MD Valsamma, the 400 metres hurdles champion, and of course PT Usha, who won the silver medal in both the 100 metres and 200 metres events. Four years later she would dominate the field at the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul.
India also beat South Korea to win the women’s hockey gold medal, though lost to Pakistan in the final of the men’s edition.
But coming back to the current haul
Indian athletes were welcomed home recently with loud cheers after their Asian Games performance in Indonesia, for the biggest ever bag of medals collected by India. As is usual, more than the athletes, it is the governing bodies for the various sports that are out there celebrating.
India’s total medal haul of 69, with 15 gold medals, is no doubt a landmark but does that mean that the athletes succeeded because of the facilities, training and infrastructure provided to them or because many of them, rose above poverty and great deprivation to win great honours for the country?
In fact, some of the disciplines where India has always reigned proved to be disappointing this year as in the case of kabaddi where our men and women were beaten by Iran.
India's historically proud legacy of hockey also was let down by our loss to Malaysia and Japan, in the men's and women's category respectively. In archery and squash too, we need to be consistent in order to do better.
Also, as multiple news reports have pointed out, the measure used to rank nations at any multi-sport event, is the number of gold medals won not the pile of overall medals and by that standard, this has not been India’s best ever Asian Games.
India did however match its best ever gold-medal tally with its count of 15 at Jakarta. When was the first time we did it?
We did it in 1951, at the inaugural Asian Games where we won 15 out of a possible 57 gold medals and were ranked No. 2 on the tally. If we just go by the ranking on a medal tally chart, India’s better performance was in Guangzhou in 2010 when we came sixth with 14 gold medals out of 439 while this year, we were at the eight position with 15 gold medals from a possible 465.
Even as we celebrate our victories today, it is good to not lose sight of the fact that we have done it before and we need to do much much more if we want to join the league of Asian sporting superpowers like China and Japan not just at the Asian Games but also in the Olympics. In fact, Abhinav Bindra remains the only Indian who has won us an Olympic gold medal in over 38 years since the hockey team won at Moscow in 1980.
To achieve more, we will have to start competing at world-beating qualifying levels and there is hope that with the help of young sparks like javelin gold medalist Neeraj Chopra, shooting stars Saurabh Chaudhary and Rahi Sarnobat, shot put's golden boy Tejinder Pal Singh Toor, wrestling sensations Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat and track stars Dutee Chand and Hima Das, we may just get there.
What is important is that we we bring our focus back on what our athletes need to become world beaters because countries known to be sporting giants own their failures with as much alacrity as when they claim their successes and it is a good way to remain aware of what holds us back and then work on those factors even as we celebrate our medal haul.
Grit and glory
There is however absolutely no reason to not celebrate the indomitable spirit of our athletes, many of whom have overcome great odds to win accolades for India. Take the case of swimmer Sajan Prakash who broke the 200m butterfly national record at Jakarta despite five of his family members untraceable in the Kerala floods.
Or Manjit Singh, who struck gold in the 800m race, despite having faced rejection at the job front and also the disdain of his employers who thought he could not get anywhere in his chosen discipline.
Or Swapna Barman who finished with India’s first gold in heptathlon with a tooth infection, a stroke-afflicted father at home, and a rare physical condition because of which she has six toes in each foot. This amount of grit cannot be attributed to anything other than an almost superhuman work ethic and immense love for the country.
Or 15-year-old Shardul Vihan who without any support, willed himself to wake up at 4 am, commute for over two hours from Meerut to reach Delhi and train at the Karni Singh Shooting Range.
The stories of these athletes must never be forgotten in the din of celebration that more often than not shows a lack of nuance.
Among other memorable moments this year was Arpinder Singh's win in the triple jump where India won a gold after 48 years, and Dutee Chand's silver in 100m which came after a gap of 20 years. The team of Sawarn Singh, Bhakanal Dattu Baban, Om Prakash and Sukhmeet Singh won India its second-ever Asian Games gold medal in rowing.
We won 2 golds, 4 silvers and 3 bronze medals in shooting. India also won a gold in the men's pair event in Bridge. Amit Panghal's heroic boxing win over Dusmatov Hasanboy of Uzbekistan, a Rio Olympics gold medallist, in the men's light fly (49kg) category can also not be applauded enough.
Sometime back, we spoke of potential world beaters and we can add to the list, the young and hungry women’s 4x400m relay team. The National Rifle Association of India and the Sports Authority of India need to further groom its bunch of young shooters with steady coaching and mentoring.
The Wrestling Federation of India also needs to pull itself out of the woods because despite wins by Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat, the number of medallists came down from five in 2014 to three now.
The same goes for boxing as world class coaching of raw talent can sometimes achieve miracles on the global stage.
In tennis doubles, we also need to question why we haven't got farther than Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi in 2004 or even Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza in Rio.
The rowing gold is a sign of better things to come and Indian badminton players too with their track record in the last two Olympic Games, can be expected to grow better and better though the departure of Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo seems to have affected the players adversely.
The Archery Association of India also needs to ensure that talented archers are able to withstand the pressure of big games. The table tennis players will also need to push harder than ever to succeed in global events other than the Asian Games.
World champion weight-lifter Mirabai Chanu, swimmers Virdhawal Khade and Srihari Nataraj are some of the other possible contenders.
As Firstpost put it in a recent article, "India’s best performance in the Olympic Games came in London in 2012 when it claimed six medals. Rio was a massive disappointment, considering that only PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik earned medals against the dozen projected by a key official in the Sports Authority of India. There is hope that India can kick on to deliver its most successful Olympic campaign in 2020."
The seeds of change
What needs to change is our perspective as a nation about those sporting disciplines that are not in the public eye as much as cricket and that we remember only when we are counting medals during Asian and Commonwealth games.
Tales of previous medal winners having fallen on hard times are not infrequent either and we have also swayed our heads collectively at how sometimes the most basic of facilities and support systems are missing when athletes travel or train.
It would also be a remarkable gesture on the part of corporate houses to not just publish congratulatory messages in newspapers and cash on victorious athletes as brand ambassadors but to invest in sports and athletes as long term prospects.
An Olympic medallist as our Union Sports Minister is a good start to change the sports culture from the ground up.
It also bodes well for the future that Neelam Kapur, Director General of the Sports Authority of India said before the recent Asian Games, "SAI is providing complete support to the athletes and the emphasis is on ensuring a hassle-free preparation in the run-up to the Games.”
The Annual Calendar for Training and Competition 2018 (ACTC) was also sanctioned by SAI with the Asian Games preparation in mind and a lot of emphasis was exerted on sports like wushu, swimming, fencing, wrestling that shows that our preparation is becoming more diverse and far-sighted.
Also heartening is that various National Camps were also organised to create a supportive training atmosphere.
Over Rs 25.12 crores were spent on providing athletes with foreign exposure, training, support staff and extending equipment support apart from a monthly allowance of Rs. 50,000.
A ‘Talent Identification and Development’ (TID) programme has also been introduced under which the SAI is providing boarding and lodging to the selected trainees along with scientific training and equipment support.
There is also a Come and Play Scheme for optimum utilisation of SAI sports facilities across the country.
As Neelam Kapur stated in an interview, steps like establishing centres of excellence, a helpline for all the athletes, regular interaction with players, upgrading the national coaching framework, taking action against errant coaches and negligent officials are also likely to go a long way to make the overall sporting atmosphere more positive and conducive to the growth of potential world beaters.
The future looks golden and silver and we can't wait to see our sports stars dominate international podiums with authority and confidence.