Olympic-size disaster

Olympic-size disaster

Outplayed: The disappointing Indian performance at the Rio Games has raised several questions

Olympic-size disaster
India will have to begin almost from scratch for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. The overall performance of the country at the Rio Olympic Games has left the sports structure under the scanner amidst calls for revamping the national sports federations and a relook at the role and functioning of the Sports Authority of India (SAI).

These are anticipated responses to what has been a near-routine in Indian sports when contingents fail to live up to expectations in multi-discipline games. The worn-out script seemed to have changed for the better in the Olympic Games through the last two editions when the country brought in nine medals in all as against three from the three previous editions.

The medal haul has slumped once again. Even as badminton player P V Sindhu pulled off a silver by slaying a clutch of higher-seeded players, and woman wrestler Sakshi Malik came from the brink to snatch an impossible-looking bronze, there were apprehensions that India might finish without a medal in Rio. That would have been disastrous for a country that projected progress through the very qualification of 120 competitors compared to 83 in the last edition in London. Three doping disqualifications meant India fielded 117 athletes eventually.

Athletics, with 34 competitors, was tipped to get a couple of medals by those who looked to have no clue about world standards or the “strange phenomenon” of world-class performances at home during an Olympic year. Only one athlete, steeplechaser Lalita Babar, made the final.  Most others struggled to get close to their four-year-old bests than season’s bests exposing the qualification process that only helped swell numbers.

The shooters, barring Abhinav Bindra, slumped a little when they could have been expected to peak. Bindra, Beijing Games gold medallist, came agonisingly close to clinching his second Olympic medal before bowing out in a shoot-off for the bronze in the air rifle event. Gymnast Dipa Karmakar stood out as the brightest future prospect with a fourth-place finish that was as good as a medal-winning performance on the vault. The tennis players failed to jell together as a team while badminton ace Saina Nehwal’s knee injury that required surgery once she returned home, provided an unfortunate twist to India’s campaign. Women archers could not hold their nerves in the quarterfinal clash against Russia and the men’s hockey team made the quarterfinals as expected but lost, not unexpectedly.

Manisha Malhotra, former Asian Games medallist and a member of the panel which managed the Target Olympic Podium (TOP) scheme that sanctioned funds for Rio Olympic aspirants, does not agree that the shooters had performed below par. “From the World championships (2014) onwards the shooters were finishing seventh-eighth”, she said. Jitu Rai, Asian Games champion and silver winner at the last World championships in 50m pistol, had won two of the four World Cup medals that the Indian shooters claimed this season. He failed to find his touch in 50m and went out in qualification after finishing eighth in 10m.

“The pressure is different in world championships and Olympics compared to World Cup,” says Viren Rasquinha, former India hockey captain, Olympian and CEO of Olympic GoldQuest (OGQ), one of the organisations that is in the forefront of supporting and promoting Olympic aspirants. The OGQ supported 19 of the Rio Olympians this time including Sindhu who scalped three seeds above her before losing to top seed Carolina Marin of Spain in the gold medal clash.

Not many would have expected Sindhu to reach that far. But she had the determination and coach Gopichand had obviously prepared her well. People now talk of bringing in dozens of Gopis in every sport to prepare Indian athletes for Tokyo 2020 and beyond. “You need that desire to win, to overcome pressure,” says Rasquinha of Sindhu’s success. Everyone would agree there is the need to have world-class coaches in shooting and other potential medal-winning sport for India and the need to concentrate on quality rather than numbers.

‘Monitor training’

“Gopichand has shown Indian coaches can also succeed,” said long jumper Anju George, chairperson of TOP, India’s lone World championships medallist in athletics and a fifth-place finisher in Olympics. “We need top Olympians to monitor training programme,” said Anju, pointing out to the lack of meaningful monitoring mechanism this time. “Bring them together at one place instead of spreading them out in Bengaluru, Patiala, Poland or Kazakhstan,” said former national coach J S Saini, a Dronacharya awardee. “We will then be able to monitor the athletes in a better way.”

Funds were aplenty this time though utilisation was poorly monitored. The Indian sports budget of Rs 1,600 crore for 2016-17 gets dwarfed before what Britain spent for its Rio success: 275 million pounds through a four-year period which ended with the country at second spot in medals table behind the USA.

Through TOP, the Sports Ministry sanctioned nearly Rs 60 crore for 130 athletes. Normal assistance to national federations was outside of the TOP funding. There was nothing to despair, said the Olympians and coaches one talked to. “The government had given them all that they had asked for,” said Randhir Singh, five-time trap shooting Olympian, former IOC member and former secretary-general of the IOA and the Olympic Council of Asia. “Outside of medals, we have done much better this time.”It may be noted India’s top eight performances slipped from 16 to 14 compared to London and top-four from seven to five.

The need to have a junior programme to supplement that of the seniors cannot be over-emphasised. “The problem this time was overall, we didn’t have many youngsters taking over from the old guard. The batch in 2012 had matured from the 2010 Commonwealth Games,” said Bobby George, a Dronacharya awardee in athletics. Anju says juniors if picked early and taught the right technique could blossom when placed under competent coaches at centralised locations. Rasquinha felt the athletes should not be pampered. “Too much too early can only be counter-productive.”  

‘’Medals will come, money cannot buy medals, you need the hunger and fire. Performance should not be tied to medals. Olympics should not be the be all and end all”, says Manisha.  “You need to provide facilities, grounds, halls, pools and coaches in schools and colleges if you want to develop from the grassroots level which is the only way to go forward,” said Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, Olympian hurdler and AFI Selection Committee chairman. But we only keep talking about grassroots development. Plans remain on paper; implementation or the lack of it is always the key as these Olympics showed.

(Mohan is a veteran sports writer)

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox