The London Olympic games have finally come to an end with India getting six individual medals (2 silvers and 4 bronze) and accounting for their best medal haul in the marquee event. We can now say that the sleeping giant has finally woken up.
But what was the scenario in 1996 when a 49-member contingent landed in Atlanta for the Olympic games? Nobody was expecting any medals from India, because India’s last Olympic medal came in 1980 Moscow games. Just one man fought against all odds, as if he was destined to win a medal for his country. That man was none other than Leander Paes and he was India’s wild card entrant in the 1996 Olympic games . The bronze medal won by him in the men’s singles (tennis), not only placed India’s name on the medal tally but also instilled in us confidence that we too can win an individual Olympic medal at the Olympics.
In the round of 64 Paes defeated 11th seeded Richey Reneberg of USA 6-7,7-6,1-0(r) when Reneberg retired with an injury. In the round of 32 he defeated Nicolas Periera of Venezuela in 2 straight sets of 6-2,6-3. In the pre-quarterfinal Paes was up against 3rd seeded Thomas Enqvist of Sweden whom he defeated in 2 straight sets of 7-5,7-6. In the quarterfinal Paes defeated the 14th seeded Renzo Furlan of Italy again in 2 straight sets of 6-1,7-5. In the semi-finals he was against the top-seeded Andre Agassi of USA and though Paes tried to create an upset , he lost 7-6(7-5),6-3, but not before he had put up a very brave fight. Now, he had to play for the bronze medal and he was against Fernando Meligini of Brazil and despite losing the 1st set 3-6 to Meligini, Paes, playing with an injured wrist, came back strongly to win 2 straight sets 7-5,7-6.
History had been created and Leander Paes had ended India’s 16 year wait for an Olympic medal and was only the 2nd Indian after K.D.Jadhav (who had won bronze in wrestling at 1952 Helsinki Olympics) to win an individual Olympic medal for India.The bronze turned out to be a turning point and India never returned empty-handed after 1996 Olympic games. Leander Paes was then conferred with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award(India’s highest sporting honour) in 1996-1997.