It was a very different Olympics this time- a year late due to the pandemic, no crowd, and really no one knew what to expect. There was an air of expectation from the Indian fans though- with this being the biggest contingent, India has ever sent, for an Olympics.
It started on a good note for India. Mirabai Chanu got a silver on Day 1 in weightlifting. She tried hard for the gold but her Chinese opponent was just too good. Mirabai was spontaneous and promptly declared that she wanted to have a Pizza to celebrate her success!
The next few days were quite a big disappointment- much was expected but the shooters especially flattered to deceive. But the likes of Saurabh Chaudhary and Manu Bhaker are young and their time will surely come. The archers fought well with a few good wins (especially the husband & wife duo of Deepika and Atanu) but couldn’t hit the Bull’s Eye when it mattered the most. The badminton contingent was in the mix too but there was heartbreak for the Men’s doubles pair (Satwik- Chirag) who got knocked out in the group stages in spite of good wins.
The spotlight was now on the boxing arena. Mary Kom lost a close one where she fought till the end. The unexpected good news came from Lovlina who defied all odds to give us a bronze, a first medal from the state of Assam. It was refreshing to see her being aggressive in the semis too against her much stronger Turkish opponent Surmeneli, who would go on to win gold. Lovlina is young and will surely improve more- exciting for Paris in three years’ time.
Then it was up to badminton and Sindhu. She kept her composure to best Yamaguchi in the quarters but fell short to Tai in the semis. She however, remained calm and gave us the win vs He Bingjiao of China in the bronze medal playoff, thus becoming just the second Indian to get individual medals in back to back Olympics (after Sushil Kumar in Wrestling).
The biggest improvement was in the field of Hockey. The Men’s team has been doing well for a while and they rebounded from a 1-7 loss to Australia in the Group stages to finish second in the group. A comfortable knockout win vs GBR got them a semi-final vs Belgium. In spite of a valiant effort, they fell short to lose 2-5 (a very flattering score indeed for Belgium as it was 2-2 till the 49th minute). In the bronze playoff, they were behind 1-3 to Germany and seemed down and out but made an incredible comeback to take a 5-3 lead. Germany hit one back and got a penalty corner with just six seconds left. The nation heaved a sigh of relief as Sreejesh made the most important save of his life to give India a first hockey medal in 41 years!
The girls were no less. Beaten back and blue in their first three matches, the eves beat Ireland and South Africa in their last two matches to squeak through to the knockouts. No one gave them a glimmer of hope but against all odds, they upset the mighty Australians in the quarters. They fought on in the semis (losing 1-2 to Argentina) and the bronze playoff (losing 3-4 to GBR). The most heart-breaking moment for us Indian fans was seeing the distraught girls after giving it their all vs GBR. They may have lost, but they won our hearts. The men’s and women’s teams ensured that the national sports was again in the limelight after ages.
Wrestling was another sports which has historically been a strong point for Indians. There was a good haul this time too. Ravi Dahiya fought hard and got a silver. His turnaround win in the semis from 2-9 down was just amazing. He was mature and calm and seemed more disappointed that he missed the gold, than he was happy to win the silver.
Bajrang was another strong contender and much was expected from him. He lost in the semis but came back like a true champion to win the bronze medal pay-off. The big heartbreak was Deepak Punia who had a lead till the very end in the bronze playoff but surrendered it to lose to his San Marino rival.
There were a few good performances in other sports- we did well in Equestrian and Fouaad Mirza reached the final- a first as an Indian in any Olympics. Bhavani Devi won a match for India in fencing for the first time ever. Avinash Sable ran a great steeplechase and just missed making it to the finals. The Men’s Relay team (4*400 m) broke the Asian record and Kamalpreet Kaur got a credible sixth position in the Women’s Discus Throw event.
Aditi Ashok was another underdog who was rewriting the record book in Golf. The world no.200 was in the top two for almost the entire four days and gave a tough fight to the eventual winner, world no.1 Nelly Korda. With her mom as her caddie, Aditi putted with composure and kept herself in the medal position. It was disappointing to see her finish fourth, after giving such a tough fight, as she ended one shot off the medal position.
The last medal hope was Neeraj Chopra, on the penultimate day in the men’s javelin competition. Neeraj was up against the heavy favourite, Vetter, from Germany. The 23 year-old made a dream start with his first throw and bettered it in his second- where he started celebrating just after throwing even before seeing where the javelin had landed. Such was his confidence! As Vetter fizzled out, Neeraj was getting closer to making history. As India held its breath and the rounds progressed, it was becoming clear that Neeraj had done enough with his second throw to get the gold. It was a historic moment- a first medal for independent India in athletics, a first individual gold since Beijing 2008 (Abhinav Bindra). It felt so good to see the tri-colour go up and to sing the national anthem during the medal ceremony.
So, seven medals in all including one gold medal- this was India’s best-ever haul in the Olympics (top 50 globally). Was this a success, or a failure? I would say we did well, but given the true potential, the best is surely yet to come. There are miles to go before we sleep. A few reflections on what can move us from good to great-
- We need to invest more as a nation in sports. More resources and infrastructure will make us future ready. Look at China, where they were 30 years back and look at them now. They will probably top the table this time, ahead of even USA.
- The other sports beyond cricket also need to be backed and given limelight. It was refreshing to see the country celebrate Neeraj Chopra’s win and forget the test match vs England for a while.
- The Indian sports bodies have already started investing more in certain fields like Shooting. But how can we give more exposure to our athletes and make them mentally strong? In Shooting and Archery, ties are decided by one point and our sportsperson buckle under the pressure.
- There is potential- they need to be groomed in the right manner. The smaller centres like North East are giving us medals. How can we harness the potential?
- The first three medals this time were all by girls. The only two medals in 2016 were by girls. How do we create an equal society where we give same opportunities to the female gender? Many parts of the country still follow a patriarchal set-up.
- How can we change the overall mindset? Where parents encourage kids to take up sports as a career option instead of blindly joining the corporate rat race after school?
So, it is time to celebrate the wins but equally let us not rest on our laurels. Let us plan for the next twenty years now so that we can dream about a top 10 position by then. So that we can see the tri-colour go up again and again… and get to sing the national anthem together many times…