Good, Bad and Ugly of Indian Sports in the Olympics cycle between Rio and Tokyo
With just one month to go for Tokyo Olympics, let's have a look at the good, the bad and the ugly turn of events that have been the summary of Indian sports.
India sent its largest contingent of 117 members to the Rio Olympics and yet it returned home with just two medals, against six in London 2012. At the pinnacle of world sports, medals are one barometer of sporting performance. The clock for waiting for India's another Olympic medal had started ticking on August 21, 2016, when Rio Games had concluded. After multiple scrutinies, overhauls, restructuring, and changes in strategies, we are yet again reached unbelievably closer to the D-Day. Every single effort in the last five years will be counted when the Indian contingent makes a touchdown in Japan's capital for the Tokyo Olympics.
With just one month to go for the biggest sporting extravaganza, let's have a look at the Good, Bad and Ugly turn of events that have been the summary of Indian sports in the time cycle between the previous and the upcoming Olympics.
The last five years have seen a manifold increase in the sports budget allocated by the Government of India. In 2016-17, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley allocated Rs 1,400 crore as plan outlay, while Rs 192 crore was set aside for non-plan for a total figure of Rs 1592 crore. In 2019-20, the government had allocated Rs 2826.92 crore for sports, which was later revised to Rs 1800.15 crore because of the lack of activity caused by the pandemic. Though the sports budget for 2021-22 was slashed to Rs 2596.14 crore, this year's allocated amount was Rs 795.99 crore more than the revised budget of 2020-21. The spending last year was severely impacted after the Tokyo Olympics was postponed. Domestic events were cancelled in almost all sports, and no foreign training and competition were possible for most Indian athletes.
Recognition of NSF
Today, India has 58 recognised National Sports Federations (NSF), compared to 48 in 2016. When India had fielded competitors in 15 different sports in Rio 2016, only nine of their NSF's were recognised at that moment. Major disciplines like Archery, Tennis, Boxing did not have their own NSFs, for multiple reasons that led to creating a barrier between the Indian Olympics Association and the federation. The absence of a recognised national federation had dried up funding for the sports.
In the last five years, the MYAS had prioritised the matter at hand and expedited the recognition of all the NSFs, including the 18 sports where India would be fielding athletes at the Tokyo Olympics. The Sports Ministry restored the recognition of the faction-ridden Gymnastics Federation of India (GFI) after 10 years, taking into records Sudhir Mittal's election as president in the polls held in November 2019. The recognition was being granted for the period till December 31, 2021. The GFI was de-recognised by the ministry in 2011 because of infighting in the body. Similarly, Similarly, After remaining suspended for eight long years, the Archery Association of India (AAI) was granted annual recognition, validating its elections held for new office-bearers on January 18, 2020. The sports ministry provides significant financial assistance to the NSFs, which in turn strives towards the development of the players and sports.
SAI's intervention for athletes
The Archery federation, which remained derecognised till 2019, had no funds for foreign training and competitions for the archers before the Asian Games in 2018. Sports Authority of India (SAI) had helped athletes by giving money from the Target Podium Olympics (Scheme). The best part, though, was that the government provided the archers with the best possible equipment for the Asian Games. With a view to ensure no reduction in training intensity of the Olympic Games-bound athletes, SAI had also amended the quarantine regulations in COVID-19 for those returning to its centres from various competitions. SAI ensured every step for Indian athletes to make sure they train and compete in tournaments for exposure in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics.
Overhaul in shooting
Post the shooting debacle in 2016 Rio Olympics, the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) faced a lot of criticism. Notably, NRAI prioritised analysing the fallouts. A four-member committee was constituted to understand the reasons for the underperformance of the 2016 Rio Olympics. The members formulated a report and worked relentlessly on the shortcomings. This work has revolutionised Indian shooting and has been able to decode the formula of success. In the current scenario, the Indian shooting team is standing at the world's top positions. The roadmap adopted by NRAI has been a success, with Indian shooters dominating at the world cups.
Greater inclusivity in TOPS
The Indian government's flagship program, Target Olympics Podium Scheme (TOPS), which started in 2014, has yielded major success for India in the last five years as it was used to its fullest potential. Today, 126 athletes/ teams from India are part of the TOPS scheme, and a majority of them have already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in disciplines such as archery, boxing, wrestling, athletics, table tennis, hockey, and para-sports.
Indian athletes have time and again spoken about how the TOPS scheme has helped them excel. With the help of the scheme, athletes are provided with customised training under reputed coaches at institutes having world-class facilities, participation in international competition, purchasing high-quality equipment. Besides, it appoints trainers, sports Psychologists, physiotherapists for the athletes. It also gives the athletes an out-of-pocket allowance of Rs. 50,000 as an incentive every month. The effectiveness of the scheme has produced several medal-winning prospects at the Tokyo Olympics like javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, wrestler Vinesh Phogat, weightlifter Mirabai Chan, among others.
Khelo India Games
Khelo India, the National Programme for the development of sports in the country, continues to churn out fresh talent in priority sporting disciplines at various levels, besides providing annual financial assistance of Rs 5 lakh per annum for eight years. The Khelo India program provides a veritable feast for us to delve into and sort the best from the rest, besides having nurtured the young pool of talents. Weightlifter Jeremy Lallrinnunga, Archer Komalika Bari, Wrestler Anshu Malik, are some the brightest stars who have shone for India at multiple international events have had their foundation strengthened at the Khelo India Games.
Development of science behind sports
India has realised that sports in the country cannot only be developed by harnessing an athlete's physical abilities. Acting accordingly to the need of the hour, it has also drawn focus towards the overall science behind sports - including bio mechanics, nutrition, physiology, psychiatry among others needed for winning medals at higher levels. For instance, Priyanka Prabhakar, a psychologist, associated with the Sports Authority of India, has become a part of the Indian women's hockey team family.
Chief Coach Sjoerd Marijne, realising the need to work on improving the mindset of the players was quite convinced of the positive impact a psychologist will have on the team. In an exclusive with The Bridge, he had earlier said: "As sports is getting highly competitive, it is important to have a focussed approach on players' mental wellbeing. Like we train our bodies to stay fit and deliver to the best of our potential, we often forget to train our mind, though it is one of the most important aspects of the game. I believe the more we have control on our mind the achievement will be better."
Development of new disciplines and a renewed focus
The cricket-crazy nation of India has been able to leave its mark in sports like badminton, wrestling, boxing, and shooting in the last few editions of the Olympics. Several other sports gained more momentum to Indian sports, which could be the high points for the country at the Tokyo Olympics. Fouaad Mirza became India's first Olympian in Equestrian over 20 years after he earned a quota spot for the individual eventing event. Fencing came to the limelight with Bhavani Devi's Olympics qualification, and this moment of glory must not be lost, both for her and the sport itself. Besides, history was created by Indian sailors as four — Nethra Kumanan, Vishnu Saravanan, KC Ganapathy, and Varun Thakkar —qualified for the Tokyo Games in the Asian qualification event.
Poor show in badminton
India had its best outing in badminton at the Rio 2016 Olympics, with a silver medal won by PV Sindhu. The momentum India had gained since the dawn of the new era of badminton stars, with Saina Nehwal taking centre stage fizzed somewhere between the last four years. The former world no. 1 shuttler Saina has failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. However, more disappointing was the result of another former world no.1, Kidambi Srikanth. Albeit the restrictions in play imposed because of the coronavirus, Kidambi's failure to qualify for the Tokyo Games was unexpected, particularly after starting the post-2016 Olympic period with a bang. The 28-year-old played his first Olympic qualifying tournament, the Indonesian Open, in July 2019, where he crashed out in the round of 16. He failed to reach the finals of any tournaments since then, which could have propelled his rankings to win some crucial points. Similar to Saina, Kidambi competed in a total of 17 tournaments amassing 59829.429 points. During the qualification period, Srikanth has a won just 50% of his games. Considering the ten best results that contribute to Race to Tokyo Rankings he has 4,2989 points. Having played his first Olympic qualification tournament in July 2019 to the recently concluded Orleans Masters in March 2021, the former world number 1 has tasted wins in just 17 of the 34 matches he played.
India still reels in tennis
Who could forget the tragic defeat of Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna in the bronze medal match of the mixed doubles event in Rio 2016? But could India at least reach a similar stage during the Olympics this year? Probably no. Tennis has seen only a few hits and majorly misses in the last Olympics cycle. Once a major deal in Davis Cup, India's challenge has barely been significant in the tournament. The singles players Ramkumar Ramanathan, Prajesh Gunneswaran, and Sumit Nagal did show some initial promise but couldn't bring significant results. A bronze medal in the men's singles event at the 2018 Asian Games at Jakarta is poor consolation for Prajnesh, who promised so much and after achieving a career-best ranking of 75 in 2019 and now slipping to 130. Sumit Nagal had caused major noise after taking a set off Roger Federer in the 2019 US Open. He even went on to win his first-round match at the 2020 US Open. However, Sumit has been eliminated at the qualifying stage at both Wimbledon and the French Open and this year went down in the first round at the Australian Open. With just a month left for Tokyo Olympics, India will still have to wait to know if a men's doubles team from the country will compete at the Tokyo Olympics since Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan's qualification, who have a low combined ranking of 113, would depend on the number of entries from other nations.
Weightlifting - Only Mirabai in sight
Indian weightlifting has found its new hero in Mirabai Chanu. In 2017, she won the Gold medal in the Women's 48 kg category by lifting a competition record 194 kg in total (85 kg snatch and 109 kg clean & jerk) in the World Championships. Mirabai will be entering the Tokyo Olympics as a definite medal contender. However, the whole ecosystem of Indian weightlifting, minus Mirabai, has not been able to perform significantly. Indian men's weightlifters have never won any medal at the World Championship, while it is the women lifters that have been making the weightlifting world sit up and take notice of them. Jeremy Lalrinnunga, who was aspiring to make an entry to the Olympics, finished a disappointing fourth in the IWF Junior World Championships. Thus, we still have to wait for years to find another big contender like Mirabai.
Zero progress in gymnastics
Five years down the line after Dipa Karmakar's fourth-place finish at the Rio Olympics, the assessment of India's development in gymnastics could be rated with a simple 0. A brilliant proposition of five years hasn't yield anything for gymnastics in the country. With the cancellation of series of World Cups which were part of the Olympic qualification program, again, only one gymnast from India could manage to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. An athlete needs to participate in three Olympic qualifiers (World Cups) and need to achieve 90 points to qualify for the Olympics. While India's best bet Dipa Karmakar, could earn less than half of that points, Pranati Nayak, who had claimed a bronze in the vault at the Asian Artistic Gymnastics Championships in 2019, is set to compete at the Tokyo Olympics after qualifying through the continental quota. No national gymnastic championships have been conducted in India since 2015. Another big challenge remains the age-old infrastructure and equipment that is still used in government-affiliated centres.
India failed to send its Taekwondo player to Olympics
The sorry state of affairs continued to deal a blow for the development of taekwondo. As 16 spots for the Tokyo Olympics were decided to start today at the Asian qualifier, India lost a great chance of fielding their athletes on the mat for the first time. India shortlisted four athletes after a selection trial conducted by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) on May 7. These players had to reach Jordan by May 19 but there was a 14-day quarantine in place already in the capital city of Amman for Indian athletes due to the outbreak of COVID-19 second wave in the country. But in the whole episode, what was most surprising was the fact that the selection trials in Lucknow were held just 12 days prior to the tournament.
Wrestling and controversy
Controversies still went hand in hand with Indian sports, and this time it dragged the name of one of India's most decorated Olympians, two-time medallist Sushil Kumar. The wrestler was named in an FIR regarding the murder of a 23-year-old wrestler Sagar Dhankar. Sagar was allegedly killed during a brawl between two groups of wrestlers at the Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi. It was alleged that Sushil and his associates beat up Sagar in the parking area of the stadium leading to his death. What followed the brawl was the Olympian absconding and a look-out notice against the wrestler. His subsequent arrest. Arrests of his associates. Sushil being sent to police custody as the investigation continues.
Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, once again, cases of doping continue to mar India's reputation in front of the world. The latest report by NADA found positive doping cases in India's core group of athletes who were preparing to take part in Olympic qualifying events. According to the 2019 Anti-Doping Testing figures report by the WADA in December, India, for the first time, topped the chart with 225 positive cases from 4,004 samples. Athletics was among the top defaulters. Besides, Olympic qualified wrestler Sumit Malik has also been provisionally suspended after failing a dope test during the recent Qualifiers in Bulgaria, bringing a major embarrassment for the country with just weeks left for the Games in Tokyo.
India is expected to send its largest-ever contingent for the Tokyo Olympics. And despite every shortcoming Indian sports had in the last Olympics cycle, it is widely being considered the the country will have a bumper harvest at the biggest sporting stage in the world.