With 13 stitches on his face, Satish Kumar shouldn't have been allowed to box in the quarterfinals of the super heavyweight category at Tokyo 2020. Yet, this Subedar Major of the Indian Army convinced the doctors. He lost the match to world champion and eventual gold medallist Bakhodir Jalolov. But the way he fought – going in for attacks like a wounded tiger – he won hearts.
As I watched those harrowing nine minutes of Satish in the ring – my heart thumping loud – I wanted to hug the gentle giant and give him a gold medal just for his spirit. I felt the same for the Indian women’s hockey team who lost their first few matches but began hunting like a pack of wounded lionesses to go further than anyone expected, losing the medal by centimetres. Aditi Ashok too lost a medal in golf by one shot but her coming from 200 ranking to finish fourth has to be the story of the steepest rise this Olympics.
To me, Satish, the Indian Women's Hockey team and Aditi, performed better than even gold medallist Neeraj Chopra who won Gold but didn't reach his best throw of 88.07 meters. Same with Mirabai Chanu who won silver but lifted 8kg less than her personal best.
Don't get me wrong for I have tremendous respect for both Neeraj and Mirabai who're among a handful of athletes in India with both talent and world-class mental toughness, especially if you consider those with literally number one global ranking, like boxer Amit Panghal who lost tamely in the first round.
The seven medals at Tokyo 2020 have raised Indian hopes sky-high. The dumb social media warriors want seven golds in 2024, the wise know that's impossible so they wish that by the 2028 Olympics, India be among the top 10 medal-winning nations.
That is a tall order because we'll have to win seven times more medals if we go by Italy's tally who came 10th and won a perfectly rounded 10 golds, 10 silvers, and 20 bronze. From six medals in the 2012 Olympics to two in Rio 2016 to seven now, India’s progress has been dismal. Hence you won't be wrong to liken India's gold-silver-bronze medals of 1-2-4 with the Ram Lakhan song ‘one-two-ka-four’, i.e., an illusion, a scam which can go ‘four-two-ka-one’. Like between 2012 and 2016, we could easily go down in 2024 rather than up.
But it need not be like this.
India is almost the most populous nation in the world and is the country with the most physically and perhaps genetically diverse population. We have people who are racially tall and good for games that requires height, people who are born short and stocky – like in parts of NorthEast and are perfect for sports like table tennis and weightlifting. Hence with a consistent focus in the right direction, we can increase our medals tally seven times in seven years to turn the current 10th position Italian flag sideways and put a chakra in the centre, i.e., get India in 10th spot.
But to do that we need to get at least these seven things right.
1. MINDSET: First and foremost, we need the right mindset. The mind must be trained as much as the body. Hence, for each discipline, mental-toughness coaches are needed. Someone like Mary Kom who refuses to stop fighting or quit would be the sort of mindset trainer to look for to teach how to fight when the chips are down, to find the reason to win after repeated losses.
There’s another thing Mary Kom has that few in India do: the ability to not let success get into her head. That’s a fatal Indian flaw that has seen only two Indians winning medals in individual events in two different Olympics: P V Sindhu and wrestler Sushil Kumar.
Without this ability to go after a medal time and again, to defend one’s victorious position, we’d be lucky even if one of the six individual medal winners this Olympics – statistically speaking – wins another Olympic medal ever again.
2. TAKING CARE OF SPORTSPERSONS: Ravi Dahiya said that his village has given three Olympians to the nation. At least now it should get basic facilities like 24x7 electricity and decent roads. Many Olympians have not yet been given the money promised after their victories years ago.
Aditi Ashok had to drive three hours to and from the Olympic village and golf course. On the last, crucial day, the event was preponed due to a storm warning and Aditi had to get up at three in the morning to rush to the venue. Thus she neither had proper sleep nor time to warm up before her most crucial game just because unlike the three women who won medals, she couldn’t afford an Olympics-approved hotel nearby.
She also said how she couldn't utilise the government's Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) properly because she qualified for the Games only 60 days before Tokyo 2020.
Vinesh Phogat lost because her personal trainer and physio weren't allowed and she was given the shooting teams physio. She had also had Covid twice in the past year.
Gone are the days when sports-persons could have alternate careers. Today competition is so intense and tools to improve one's game are so many that sports have become a life-consuming and expensive affair. Sports-persons need every penny they can get if they are to live up to their potential.
An individual is part of an ecosystem. Hence those around a sportsperson should equally be taken care of like the coaches, support staff, and family. Thus instead of merely congratulating winners, the PM would have done great to swiftly condemn men who hurled casteist slur at Vandana Kataria's family while she was still played at the Olympics.
A sportsperson to whom a hundredth of a second could mean the difference between victory and defeat, concentration is the most precious commodity. Nothing should be allowed to affect that.
3. ODISHA MODEL: It’s being called the Odisha model and could be our quick fix to the top ten in the medals tally. Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik not only sponsored both men's and women's Indian hockey teams, but he also brought international competition to the state so that our boys and girls could get global exposure. It proved crucial as the men's team won Bronze after 41 years and the women's team lost it by centimetres.
Ideally, the central government should do this. But it is tough to expect much from a government that has money to fund vanity projects like a new PM residence but reduces sports budget in an Olympic year. That shouldn't deter states which, like Odisha, can become patrons to particular sports based on the games popular in the region. For instance, West Bengal and Goa can support football. Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka – which has produced some great athletics, can take up track and field. Gujarat can perhaps take up Golf, Maharashtra gymnastics, while the North East can support weightlifting, boxing, table tennis, etc. Matriarchal Meghalaya could support women athletes unilaterally.
An interesting addition to this could be a PPP model. The private sector today is much more conscious about reputation and branding than in the past. Thus, a collaborative approach between corporates and individual sports can be worked out based on their branding needs like JSW. For instance, a steel or cement company could help out in sports that require toughness like boxing, karate, weightlifting, etc. A car manufacturing company could support speed and endurance runners.
4. KEEP BAD SPORTS OFFICIALS AWAY: Most athletes are young and volatile but it must not be forgotten that they are the ones who bring in medals. And the greatest impediment to the nation’s medals tally, are these officials, notoriously corrupt and nepotistic and full of themselves. As a rule, the players should be believed over officials.
While we dissect the performance of athletes, closer scrutiny should fall on sports officials and coaches to see if they eased the road for their athletes. Jaspal Rana – who’s now raising a stink – was fired for Manu Baker’s bad shooting performance. He should also not be allowed to handle any other female national shooters as it would be a conflict of interest owing to his own daughter Devanshi Rana also being in contention in shooting events. The officials who poorly handled the needs of Aditi and Vinesh should also be summarily dismissed and those who excelled should be awarded handsomely.
Another rule of thumb should be that unless one has some genuine health problem, every obese sports official should be fired. If they can't keep themselves fit, they can't be expected to run the game in an efficient way.
5. MORE EXPOSURE: Some believe that India's great show at this Olympics can partly be attributed to the Commonwealth Games that were hosted in Delhi in 2010. Yes, there was corruption there but the sports-persons and aspirants found exposure and inspiration in them. The exposure hockey players got in Odisha also improved their game exponentially.
6. FOCUS ON WOMEN: Tokyo 2020 has been the most gender-neutral Olympics in history with 49% female participation. Interestingly, five out of the six countries that sent more women in their contingent – USA, China, UK, Australia, and the Russian Olympic Committee, were in the top six. Only Canada ended up 11, which is still better than India.
Even for India, at one point it seemed only the women will win medals this time as the first three were won by them. Focusing more on women athletes is not only the quickest way to more medals at the Olympics, it’ll also help with gender parity in society and thus help the nation in the long term.
7. SCOUTING PROGRAMS: The most important change Indian sports needs is to have a serious talent scouting program. Neeraj's first trainer had him try out different sports before honing in on javelin. It's a statistical truth that for a nation as big as India, potential sports winners are born all the time. What we thus need is no different than the rebirth-scouts who look for the next Dalai Lama, sure that he has been reborn: talent scouts who are sure they will find the next Olympic gold medallist if they look hard enough. We need such scouts in the thousands.
Maybe we need a scouting academy where retired athletes can be trained in the art of spotting talent. The only reason a tiny nation like the UK wins so many medals, why USA – one third the population of China – or China itself which almost beat the USA at the medals tally – wins so many medals, is because of their talent scouts whose sole job is to spot the raw clay that can be moulded into international medals.
Many of these countries run scouting programs in schools that are funded also based on the talent they can provide to the nation. In contrast, the only scouting program India runs is called coincidence – a handful lucky find the perfect marriage between their talent and the sport ideal for them.
The world's second-smallest country at 33,000 people (no larger than a small locality in any city of India) is San Marino. They won their first medals this year: one Silver and two Bronze. The tiny Bahamas with 3.89 lakh people won their first medals too – two Golds and are higher up than India on the medals tally. Bermuda with a population of about 70,000 won a Gold.
The Bahamas sent 15 athletes to the Olympics. San Marino sent five. Bermuda, only two.
To prevent us from the shame of performing worse than these tiny nations in 2028, we better find women and men with the spirit of Satish, Aditi and the women’s hockey team and start training them starting today, so that instead of seven, India can win seven times more medals in seven years.
(Satyen K. Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. He loves to let his pen roam the intersection of artificial intelligence, consciousness and quantum mechanics. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)
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