After 6 days of Olympic action, Team India is in a very familiar position. The hype has died down and the dust has cleared, and eventually, the usual suspects are the only ones doing their job. 

First things first, Saina Nehwal is proceeding through her draw as expected- with an aura of someone who expects to win a medal. Anything less than a Silver, though, and she WILL be the first to admit that she’s failed.  
The surprise of the Indian contingent is male shuttler Parupalli Kashyap reaching the quarter-finals after 3 fine victories. The young lad, who not only trains at Hyderabad’s Gopichand academy but bears a strong resemblance to the Indian legend- has stormed through a draw that involved beating the Vietnamese World No. 11. He is visibly fitter and eons quicker than he was earlier this year, and his smashes are the talk of the draw.
In all probability, he will be facing the First Seed Wei Chong Lee in the quarter-finals. This is a stage where most Indian players falter, a round before the medal round, often exposing their brittle nerves and lack of expectations. But Kashyap’s style of play demonstrates that he cannot go down without a battle. A loss in the quarters could mean a disappointing end to a promising campaign- and rather than backing him with a ‘You surpassed our expectations, well played’, nothing but a victory must be accepted in this crucial round.
As we speak, the doubles pair of Gutta-Ponappa has NOT been reinstated in place of one of the 4 disqualified teams (for throwing away their matches) after launching an appeal. We can discuss about how unjust that is, and about how badly the Olympic committee handled this situation- but a realist would admit that they were never India’s best chance at a medal, anyway. 

Indian Archery has arguably been the biggest disappointment of the Games. As of now, every Archer is out of competition, and Deepika Kumari- the World No. 1- has been eliminated in the round of 32 in Singles competition.
India’s youngest Boxer Shiva Thapa crashed out in his first round, but most of the others including Vijender Singh managed to go through to their next rounds.
In Tennis, the much-hyped Bhupathi-Bopanna combination crashed out in their second round to the French.
In Shooting, Gagan Narang managed to win India’s only medal so far- a Bronze. Abhinav Bindra failed to make it to the Final. 

There are certain points I’d like to raise, putting aside the rest of our disappointing Rowing, Judo and Hockey (losses to Netherlands and NZ) results aside.

The collective gasp of victory that Gagan Narang elicited with a third place finish in the 10m air rifle Final is exactly what is wrong with this country’s sporting mentality. 
He won a bronze, yes, and 8 years of disappointment was brought to an end due to his stubborn determination and competitiveness. He said this was the only medal missing from his collection, and that now he is a satisfied man. 
There are a lot of things wrong with this statement. We are a patriotic and emotional people. We are well aware of the fact that we haven’t really been upto Olympic standards in the last 50 years, and every medal is a victory- however few, whatever colour. 
Behind every Olympian from the heartland of India, there is a touching story of human spirit triumphing over poverty and years of suppression. The point is- atleast 80% of the Olympians in the world have been through the same amount of hardships, and not all of them are born privileged. They are in London for a reason, because they’re the best in their sport in their country. They have overcome insane odds to just reach there- especially the 15 and 16 year old swimmers and gymnasts, who don’t really know what a childhood is. 
They chose this life for themselves, as did women like Mary Kom and Deepika Kumari, as did veteran boxer Jai Bhagwan and Vijender Singh. Even after achieving success in their fields, they are still relatively unknown for the four years between these events. The Indian media, their coaches and their teams claim that they qualify for London with only one aim- a medal. But if anyone managed to watch Deepika Kumari, the teenager who was favorite to reach atleast the final 8, she was smiling in between set losses to British Archer who wanted it a lot more. The British girl was the one going against the odds, just as Kumari had done all her life- it’s just that Kumari looked star-struck and happy enough to just be present at her first Games. She’s 18, and has plenty of opportunities ahead of her. But she isn’t just any 18 year old. A big experience for her, no doubt, and a learning curve that will give her plenty of perspective over her next 10 years of Archery- but she didn’t seem too upset after crashing out in her first round. She may shed tears privately in her dressing room, but at that moment, at Lords in windy and overcast conditions, Kumari wasn’t the athlete she was meant to be. We deserved more.
The same goes for most of the other Indian athletes representing their country. They have all done their states proud by being there, but surely, in a country with 1.2 billion people, there has to be a sense of perspective. There has to be someone, somewhere, that understands that the Olympics isn’t an annual event, and it certainly isn’t an ‘experience’ for athletes that pride themselves on being the best. It is business, it is their final exam, their mega-presentation, their Grand Slam Final. No matter how much one gains psychologically out of going to their first Games, they NEED to understand that they are there to compete with the world’s elite sporting machines. 

Before most of you begin to mutter about how India’s system is defunct, and that other sports aren’t supported enough, is CHINA the way to go then? Should we be as hard, communist and rigid about everything in order to reach the level they are at? Is that the only way? Or maybe the Australian and American ways, where kids are lured with sports scholarships, and not MBAs and fancy degrees, to various Ivy League Schools? Where sports is a way of life, and NOT a hobby. Where the Olympics is not about IF the medal can be won, but HOW MANY can be won.
Population surely can’t be a problem, because China are defending Olympic Champions. But in India’s case, it is the clear lack of literacy and education, something that rises from a population burst- a vicious cycle of no return that started early last century, without a structure in place. It is precisely the reasons journalists are afraid of actually stating facts- facts like how ashamed they are to represent such an unsporting nation in the most sporting event in the world, how they can’t understand why a Gold is so hard to achieve in such a massive nation, how countries like New Zealand, Kazakhistan, Lithuania, Latvia, Fiji, Bahamas and even Iran manage to produce medal contenders in almost every sport. New Zealand, with a population that is less than New Delhi, even has a football team that is competing with the likes of Brazil in the same group.
Lack of literacy and overall ignorance, our tendency to make excuses about how hard life is in the bigger cities and smallest villages, our tendency to accept hardships with a shrug- is also the reason behind why films made by Sajid Khan and Rohit Shetty do very well. No worldly-wise or exceptionally educated person in their right minds would accept such cinema elsewhere. They are smart businessmen, and cater to the ‘masses’- which constitute 85% of this nation. They are content with selling mediocrity, the lowest form of art, to people who can’t tell an R from a T. Selling cigarettes and alcohol isn’t too different from what they do.
It is our acceptance of this mediocrity that rides up to our sporting mentalities at the top. We are happy just to compete, why? Because we’ve gone through hell to reach there. A medal is just an icing on the cake, of course. But do nations like Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria say the same thing when their runners win Gold year after year, Game after Game? Their conditions are arguably worse, but the difference is- they don’t harp about what they can’t do, they play to their strengths. The climate, conditions, financial environment allow them to take part in only a few events- but they really push their backsides off to be the best at it. Long-distance running, football, athletics. Have you heard of an Olympic Game without a Kenyan winning a marathon? Gold, no less. Not silvers and bronzes. Failure at Gold is treated like the end of the world. 

Meanwhile, India’s strength- Hockey at one time- is now its most embarrassing weakness. There is ineptitude and mediocrity all over, because even a single game win is celebrated as if the Hockey team consists of the most impoverished beings on Earth battling it out with one leg and no hands. Watching Indian hockey is like watching the once-mighty West Indies cricket team- each good moment, though rare, is held onto like a mother’s dying breath. History is forgotten, rightly so, and Ordinary is the name of the game. The system is a mess, they say. Cricket is given much importance, they say.
It is, therefore, no coincidence that India cannot excel at any sport that does not include direct battle or contact with the opponent. They fail at a sport that requires them to fight their own inner demons first, and requires them to concentrate on their own weaknesses and strengths, irrespective of their opponents. Archery does not consist of opponents shooting arrows at eachother. It involves a target, and shooting a10 is all that matters. It is a no-touch competition, where athletes concentrate on outdoing themselves first. The Indians couldn’t get past a single first round. It is no surprise that not a single Indian swimmer makes it to the Olympics. It is no surprise that none of us make it to the prestigious running events either.
Sports like Cricket, Boxing, Tennis and Hockey- the more ‘conventional’ ideas of team sports- are the ones that the Indian mentality is tuned to, ones that we’ve grown up on, and ones where failure really hurts. Our underachievement in cricket and hockey over the years, therefore, kills most Indian fans- because they are at a loss of excuses to explain it. 

Shooting is the same as Archery, but it is not a coincidence that the more privileged competitors in India- people who can afford their own training, and are well off- are the ones excelling at the sport. No thanks, to the rest of the country. Their money can buy what most other first-world countries consider normal- a solid training regime- and results follow.
Bindra and Narang are happy recipients, and they have nothing to be ashamed about or defend. The point is to build on your strengths, and not revel in being an underdog. Hence, it was a bit disappointing to see Narang celebrate wildly after winning a Bronze medal. Here is a man who was the best shooter in the world for 304 good years, who has won 2 World Championships and innumerable other Golds all over, held two world records, and the man is ecstatic on coming 3rd. Is it because of the pressure of his country’s inadequacies and consistent underachievement at this event, or is it because he was genuinely happy? Is it because he is AWARE of the fact that every medal-winner will be treated as a God and gain instant fame in a country that accepts loss as a way of life? Maybe if he lived in another country, like Great Chess Champion Vishwanathan Anand has done (Madrid, Spain), he’d have a different perspective about winning and losing. He’d actually feel upset at not winning a Gold. But of course, if a journalist says it, most hard-nosed sentimental Indians will question his own merit first- asking him if he knows the PAIN Narang has gone through to get here.
It is his job. It is his art. Nothing but the best, is what he has striven to achieve- as his results often show. 

Eventually, promoting every Indian athlete as a participant in India’s great Poverty Porn brigade is good to watch, maybe even inspiring, and heartwarming. It makes for good entertainment. Having programs like the Gold Quest is good for the long run, but they’re still not sure what sport Indians are born to play. We have no clear strength, and many weaknesses. But we patriotic lot, will find an explanation for that- thanks to so many cultures, climates, languages and lifestyles in a single country. 

But when it comes down to putting your head down, and closing out every ordinary Indian expectation and voice from your head and accepting nothing but victory at any cost, India is the real DARK CONTINENT. 
However cruel it may sound, the infamous girl in red-and-blue that intruded on ‘proud’ India’s contingent during the Opening ceremony- could actually be a depressing message, a fitting statement to a country where anything goes, as long as you’re ‘good enough’.

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1 Comment

  1. monal

    August 4, 2012 at 12:16 am

    what a refreshing article.the Indian psyche singled out. It does not like the loneliness of the long distance runner. Prefers to hide in crowds,teams..whatever

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