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What India should do as we enter the Olympics year?

What India should do as we enter the Olympics year?

Sarah Waris

Published: 18 Dec 2019 2:54 PM GMT

Sports minister Kiren Rijiju is hopeful that India can return with their best-ever medal haul at the Olympics 2020, with the biggest-ever contingent likely to turn out for the quadrennial event. He further went on to state that the nation should aim to be in the top ten of most medals won by 2028, with former sports minister and 2004 silver medallist Col. Rajyavardhan Rathore hoping that India brings back 100 medals by the 2032 Games.

India’s best-ever medal haul at the summer Olympics has been only six - which they had achieved back in 2012 in London, with the Rio Games two medals. Though rapid strides have been taken by the players, coaches, and the federations in the last three years, expecting the Indians to mount a stiff challenge in Japan and return with medals in the double-digits would be an unfair ask.

Hima Das
The euphoria around Hima Das soon died down after the realisation sunk in that she is nowhere near the Olympic standard.

The words of Rijiju or Rathore might be encouraging for fans who have desperately wanted India to be world-beaters in sports, but let us be realistic for once. Federations, fraught by corruption, are derecognised. Sportsmen, without facilities, are left to fend it for themselves. Injuries, undetected, are hampering the progress of the players. Foreign coaches, a desperate need of the hour, are denied. Is only fielding the largest contingent enough, then? Does fielding the largest contingent guarantee the largest-ever haul, rather? 83 athletes in total represented the Indian flag in London. 117, in the following Games. Does quantity determine the medals won, or should the Indian sporting realm focus on ensuring quality instead?

So far, 62 Indians have booked their flights for the Tokyo Games, and the number is likely to cross 100 with a few other badminton players, paddlers, tennis stars, wrestlers, boxers all likely joining the party soon. But how many have just about managed to qualify, and how many can actually be termed as competitors? The euphoria around Hima Das soon died down after the realisation sunk in that she is nowhere near the Olympic standard. The track and field athletes did pitch in with respectable showings at the Asian Games last year, but hopes of them improving were dashed at the Doha World Championships, where even the elite struggled to make a mark.

The archers, the wrestlers, and dare I say, even the shooters, consistently fare well at the World Championships but fail to replicate their run in the Olympics. What goes wrong? What can be done?

Also read: 2020 Tokyo Olympics: A look at the Indian athletes qualified so far

'The Olympics don’t come every four years. They come every day.' Gold medallist Abhinav Bindra could not have stressed the importance of continued efforts to achieve success at the highest level in any simpler words.

While conjecture is ripe about the reasons that India is miserable at the Olympics, where the best players, who might often not play the worlds, are present, there needs to be a systematic approach as we move ahead towards Tokyo. The government’s control and the presence of warring factions have already affected the archers, basketball players, gymnasts, karate players, the taekwondo team and the volleyball side over the years. The archers, karate and taekwondo players were denied entry to participate in the recent South Asian Games, with the archers playing independently till fresh elections are held.

Kiren Rijiju
India concluded with an impressive haul of 312 medals at the recently held South Asian Games.

Derecognition at the global body and by the sports ministry cuts off funds for camps, training, and diet, while also stealing an opportunity from them for fine-tuning their skills against top players. Despite politics and limited chances, some athletes do manage to do the nation proud, but just imagine the peaks they could scale if their only focus was on bettering themselves rather than thinking on how infighting would harm them next?

If the tussle for power does end, the requirements of the sports stars could be given its due importance. We are just over seven months away from the Olympics, and the cries for a foreign coach by the players have fallen on deaf ears. Squash player Joshna Chinappa has been vocal about the decision by the Squash Rackets Federation of India (SRFI) where they will hire experts from event-to-event rather than a full-time coach, stating that the youngsters are in dire need of a full-timer, who can sort out issues on a daily basis. Though squash is not a part of the Olympics, her argument is valid.

After P V Sindhu attributed her gold medal at the World Championships this year to her Korean coach Kim Ji Hyun, the powerful insights that they bring could no longer be ignored. The rapid strides taken by the hockey teams under the foreign coaches are telling, and how soon the wrestling and the table tennis teams can get their preparations in order once a foreign coach is appointed, will play a major part in their showings in Tokyo. For the uninitiated, the wrestling coach of India Hossein Karimi was sacked due to clashes, while the TT coach Dejan Papic is yet to join the Indians, who are without a full-time coach since the Asian Games in Jakarta. The men’s table tennis squad had won India’s first medal in 60 years then, which had given hopes of an Olympic medal, but the progress has entered a roadblock, with players now training on their own.

P V Sindhu
Sindhu beat an array of top players to claim silver at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. While she seems nonchalantly effective with her racquet today, it is the result of years of hard work, sacrifice, and dedication.

After discrepancies emerged over the medical reports of a few Indian players - Hima Das was declared fit and picked for the IAAF events in July but was able to complete her race only once, and Dipa Karmakar’s knee issues seem never-ending - the Sports Ministry did form a panel that would monitor every athlete under their TOPS scheme ahead of the Olympics. While this move is one in the right direction, educating the players as well on revealing the slightest niggles is the need of the hour. Often, athletes, in a bid to seal an Olympic quota, might declare themselves fit, but the larger repercussions are scarier.

Target 2024 and beyond

While foreign coaches and eradicating injuries ahead of Tokyo 2020 should be the prime agenda, if Rijiju’s dream is to be fulfilled, India has to expand its dominance in sports like swimming, cycling, and gymnastics - those that have the most medals on offer. Of 28 sports that were included in Rio, India saw participation in only 15. Yes, the badminton stars, boxers, and the shooters are our primary focus, but will India ever have a breakthrough performer in swimming or judo or softball or water polo? If India has to reach the next level, the 'unconventional' sports need active participation, which indirectly means that fencers like Bhavani Devi, the only fencer hopeful of bagging the Olympic spot, need to be included in the TOPS, the scheme that identifies medal winners in Olympics and extends support to them.

Bhavani devi
Bhavani Devi is the only Indian fencer hopeful of bagging the Olympic spot.

Also, success at the Olympics needs long term planning, with aims and goals being set and strictly followed by all successive federations' presidents. Great Britain showed how medals are won as they invested heavily in their cycling team after a dismal Atlanta Games in 1996. They brought on the best scientists and coaches, stuck to their plans, and the result was that by Rio 2016, the cycling contingent went home with 12 medals, including six gold. This is the level of dedication and focus needed if Rijiju's vision is to be fulfilled.

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