Indian sportsmen and women take the Olympic motto very seriously. They regularly participate but hardly ever win medals. In the past it was only the hockey squad that saw India make it to the medals list. From 1928 in Amsterdam to 1956 in Melbourne the team won the gold medal every time.
In 1960 at Rome it was silver, back to gold again at Tokyo in 1964 and then it settled for bronze at Mexico City in 1968 and Munich in 1972. With hockey heavyweights among those who boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980 the Indians managed to win their eighth gold medal.
In four Olympics – Montreal (1976), Los Angeles (1984), Seoul (1988) and Barcelona (1992) the Indian contingent came back empty handed though Sriram Singh in the 800m at Montreal and PT Usha in the 400m hurdles in Los Angeles helped sustain the Indian interest by making the finals of their respective events. Usha in fact came within a fraction of a second of winning a bronze medal but had to remain content with fourth place while the gallant Sriram Singh finished seventh in a star studded field.
Of course there have been a few other moments to cherish like Milkha Singh just missing out on a bronze medal at Rome by a fraction of a second in the 400m and Gurbachan Singh making the finals of the 110m hurdles at Tokyo. And there was a most unexpected fourth place at Melbourne in 1956 when the football team just missed the bronze.
Till 1996 these were the crumbs of comfort that Indian sports fan had to endure. Through the last four Olympic Games however India have had slightly better results. Starting with Leander Paes’ bronze medal in the tennis event at Atlanta, India has won at least a medal in every Olympics.
Paes’ achievement was quite remarkable in that it constituted the first individual medal that an Indian had won since KD Jadhav clinched a bronze in wrestling at Helsinki in 1952. The picture of Paes standing on the podium with tears of joy in his eyes with the Indian tri-colour fluttering in the background is one of the most enduring images in Indian sport.
Four years later in Sydney came another bronze medal through a completely unexpected source in more ways than one – Karnam Malleswari in women’s weightlifting. At Athens in 2004 there was further reason to be jubilant when Rajavardhan Singh Rathore won a silver medal in shooting.
And finally given the dismal showing by Indians in the Olympics our cup of joy was overflowing at Beijing four years ago with Abhinav Bindra created history by becoming the first Indian to win an individual gold in the shooting event. As the icing on the cake, Vijender Singh (boxing) and Sushil Kumar (wrestling) won bronze medals to make it India’s best ever Olympic Games.
Does the gradual improvement in the last few Games suggest a trend? Can we hope for even better things at London? Traditionally Indian medal hopes have always centered round their wrestlers and the hockey squad though as events in the last few years have underlined we can also expect something from the shooters, boxers, weightlifters and tennis players.
Outstanding athletes have also had their moments in the sun but overall the disappointments have far outweighed the jubilant moments. One remembers for example the hype around Limba Ram as a prospective medal winner in archery at Barcelona but he flattered only to deceive and was nowhere in the reckoning.
This time too the archery squad led by Deepika Kumari are among the medal hopes. But of course she is not the only one. Also in the running for medals would appear to be the boxers, shooters and badminton players. The tennis squad can also finish among the medals provided they are prepared to shrug off the unpleasantness caused by the ego clashes that occurred last month.
Coach Michael Nobbs has said that he would be happy if the hockey team finishes among the top six, so the oft crowned Olympic champions are seemingly out of the medal hunt. It remains to be seen whether there will be a medal from an unexpected source.
It is gratifying to note that a larger number of sportsmen and women have qualified for the Olympics than is generally the case. This has resulted in the largest Indian contingent ever for an Olympic Games. How much this representation will translate into medals remains to be seen but one can be sure that the empty handed days will not be repeated. The Indians have not yet caught up with the rest of the world but in some disciplines at least, their challenge cannot be just shrugged off thanks to greater international participation and more advanced training methods.
In the meantime let us enjoy the unique and colourful spectacle that the Olympic Games are and the intense competitiveness and indomitable spirit it symbolizes. Nothing can equal the magic of this mega quadrennial event and from July 27 to August 12 London will be the cynosure of sporting fans the world over as the best athletes - over 10,000 from about 200 countries - vie for supremacy in 302 events in 26 disciplines in keeping with the Olympic credo of "faster, higher, stronger."