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Like Dipa Karmakar, World Champion Neeraj Chopra could have won our hearts at Rio de Janeiro

18.62K   //    15 Aug 2016, 04:23 IST
Neeraj Chopra: Junior World Champion in Athletics

Much has been said and written about the performance of Indian athletes at Rio de Janeiro. Many have tried to diagnose why an overpopulated country has fared so poorly at the biggest sporting extravaganza so far. 

Before every Olympic Games the expectations of people of India from its participants are sky high. While the number of medals predicted this year crossed the best medal haul of six, the final results have been disappointing. After one week of the Games, our athletes have failed to fetch a medal in spite of spirited performances from many, the latest being Dipa Karmakar.

But along with the institutional inefficiencies, 'we, the people of India” are equally responsible for the plight of our sportspersons. Before going any further, let’s refer to the case of Neeraj Chopra, a hero, that clearly illustrates we don’t care much for our sportspersons (other than cricket) who try to bring laurels to our country.

The 19-year-old javelin thrower stormed into the record books by becoming the first ever Indian to set a World Record in any athletics event (that includes both senior and junior levels). His throw of 86.48 metres at the javelin finals of the World U20 Championships at Poland’s Bydgoszcz.last month was enough to fetch him a gold medal and stand at the podium at a World Athletics meet. How significant his achievement was, particularly in Indian context, can be gauged from the below-mentioned table showing the distances achieved by the podium finishers at the 2012 London Olympics.

2012 London Olympics - Javelin Throw Finals
1Keshorn Walcott84.58
3Antti Ruuskanen84.12
4Vitezslav Vesely83.34
5Tero Pitkamaki82.80
2*Oleksandr Pyatnytsya (DQ)82.63

*Oleksandr Pyatnytsya was stripped of his title and ordered to return his silver medal after testing positive.

The gold medallist in this event at the 2012 Olympic Games was Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad and Tobago who recorded a throw of 84.58m in his best attempt, which is 1.9 meters less than Neeraj’s feat. 86.48 metres is not just a junior world record; Neeraj is now at the ninth spot in the overall list of season leaders, taking into account even the senior athletes all over the world.

    • Neeraj failed to qualify for the Olympics after falling short by 77 centimeters in the SAFF Games. The men's qualification mark is 83 metres while Chopra recorded a distance of 82.23. Although he tried gunning for the qualifying mark in a few competitions, including in the Asian Under-20 Championships, he failed to make the cut. It was only after July 11, the last day of the deadline for Rio Olympics entry in athletics, that 86.48m happened.

Although Athletics Federation of India President Adille Sumariwalla wrote a letter requesting for Chopra's wildcard entry to the world body chief Sebastian Coe, it was not granted – in spite of a special wildcard rule being present. Also, Neeraj Chopra is not in the news anymore; we only talked about him for a brief period when he was trending on Twitter. 


This is where the problem lies

Because of several factors, it so happens that the recognition of sportspersons is closely related to the place they hold in our hearts. The more popular a sport, the more lucrative it appears and hence more the likelihood of it being pursued by youngsters. Isn't that the reason why people never used to talk about Dipa Karmakar before April, when she qualified for the competition? 

It is not a coincidence that so many teenagers across India sweat in the nets so that they can one day make it to the Indian Cricket team. This is nothing against cricket, but about how the sport has acquired such a place in our minds that it has negatively affected other sports.

How well a sport is received in a country is to some extent determined by how well it is doing in that sport. But then most sportspersons in India are either from lower-income families or upper-income households; the middle class is almost absent. The reason for that is somewhat along the lines of 'being an engineer is a better option than being a sportsperson'.

The very people who stay away from sports and who are apathetic to a sportsperson’s cause are the loudest when it comes to criticizing them for their poor performance. And then, the role of government as a medium to provide sporting infrastructure to its people is a factor too.

It'll be wrong to say that the government doesn't look after the athletes who are representing the country. But the question is whether this assistance is because of the Government’s commitment to uplift sports or because the stories are widely reported in the media. One way to check this is to look into the assistance Dipa Karmakar got until the Rio Games. Many times, government officials have mistreated distinguished sportspersons and it has only been rectified after being reported in the media.

Neeraj Chopra or Dipa Karmakar is not the problem. The system is. If we wish to encourage the next generation of India to win medals at the Olympics, then we need to give all the present athletes a place in our hearts right from this Independence Day.