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Why India should not be disappointed with the medal tally from Rio 2016

Even if India's medal count is zero at the end of Rio 2016, there is no reason to feel humiliated.

The state of Indian sports is at an all-time high, the public’s interest in sports must not falter now

There is some discontent within India regarding the lack of metal being brought back home from the Rio Olympics. Looking just at how it looks on paper, this discontent is understandable.

There are a record 119 athletes who are representing India this time. Ever since the 1996 Atlanta Games, at least one medal has been accrued to the country – three were brought from 2008 Beijing and six from 2012 London. Going by mathematical calculations, the figure this time should have been around 10. But with only 22 out of the 119 athletes still remaining in contention at the end of Monday’s action, there is a lot of hair-splitting being seen among some sections of fans as to where these medals disappeared.

However, sports hardly functions like mathematics. Just like it was destined under the inscrutable logic that governs sport that six Indians would finish in the podium places in London, it may be destined that not even one Indian manages to do so in Rio. This, however, must not be any reason to feel humiliated, or to be frustrated with our sportspersons, or even our administrators.

We can be frustrated with history, with how other countries have pulled ahead of us in terms of facilities required for the grooming of world-beating athletes. We can be frustrated with how there needs to be a winner and a loser in sports. But we cannot afford to be frustrated with anything else. The state of Indian sports is at an all-time high, no matter what is written on paper.

There have been uncountable positives for India in Brazil – Dipa Karmakar’s fourth place finish in the Vault final and Lalita Babar’s 10th place finish in the Steeplechase final being two of the most sensational. 

There have been other heroes who have won hearts and made us proud too – rower Dattu Bhokanal's 13th place finish in the Single Sculls has not made as much news as it should have. At least one medal each in archery and shooting medals has eluded us by the tiniest of margins. Boxer Vikas Krishan lost in the quarter final to disputably the best boxer in his weight category. Had the draw been more favourable, a silver might have been guaranteed, as suggested by his dominance in his first two bouts.

Medals in wrestling and badminton still remain a possibility, but even if we go back to our tally of 0, last recorded at 1992 Barcelona, we should still give a rousing welcome to all the Rio 2016 participants as they return home. Simply by participating, they have transported the visuals of alien sports into the domestic spaces of a million Indians. Perhaps in a few corners of these domestic spaces, great dreams have been kindled over the last 10 days. 

The story of Eric the Eel and lessons to be taken from it

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well”,  said Baron Pierre de Coubertin, International Olympic Committee founder and father of the modern Games.

The story of Eric the Eel is an illustration of how this maxim of ‘fighting well’ works. Eric Moussambani Malonga is a symbol of the Olympics, of how an individual can inspire the lives of the ordinary with a show of spirit against normally ordained bounds. Not just that, he is a symbol of how just being on the biggest stage in the world can reap returns for the nation in the long run.

Eric ‘The Eel’ Moussambani hailed from Equatorial Guinea, a tiny, oil-rich state in west Africa. He represented his nation as a swimmer in the 2000 Sydney Games, forever remembered for registering the slowest time in the 100 metre freestyle event – 1 minute and 52.72 seconds. His time was a full minute and five seconds slower than the eventual gold medalist, and it was also seven seconds longer than it had taken the Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe to swim exactly twice the distance in the same pool the previous day.

However, like most of the athletes on show at the Olympics, Eric’s story is about much more than those excruciating two minutes in the pool. It is a story that bears some resemblances to the stories of the 119 who have fought under the tricolour in 2016.

His country had been given a wildcard to send their first ever swimmer to the Games by the Olympic committee. He had heard an announcement about this on the radio, had turned up for the swimming trials in the true spirit of an adventurer, and had found that he was the only one who had. Consequently, it was decided that Eric was his country’s best swimmer, and he was asked to train for the Olympics.

Eric’s training for the next three months consisted of swimming in a 13-metre pool, the largest available in his country, and swimming in a river with fishermen and the occasional crocodile.

Eric Moussambani finishes the historic race – the slowest 100m freestyle ever

As he entered the Olympics swimming arena and a 17,000-strong crowd looked on, Eric was seeing a 50-metre size pool for the first time in his life. With the same spirit that he had turned up for the swimming trials, Eric jumped in with gusto. He gave it his best, finishing the first 50 metres within 40.97 seconds. However, the trouble started as he turned back, as he tried to swim longer than he ever had.

“This guy, he’s not going to make it”, said the surprised commentator, as Eric seemed to thrash about in the pool without covering any distance. His legs had stopped moving. It had become all about completing the race. The crowd, equally surprised, got into the act. They cheered him on at their lustiest, feeling a duty to get behind him so could finish.

Eric the Eel heard them, though no one had heard his unbelievable tale yet. With some reserve of strength conjured up from somewhere, he strove on towards the finish line without touching the ropes, touching the wall as the clock read an unprecedented 01:52.72. “I feel good”, he said briefly to the camera moments afterward.

The story of ‘The Eel’ became one of the biggest stories of the 2000 Olympics, but that was not where his journey ended. Moussambani is now the national swimming coach of the Equatorial Guinea team, a job he took over in 2012, and he is striving to send representatives from his country to subsequent editions. There are several 50-metre pools in his country now.

He is the holder of the national record for the 100m freestyle – 57 seconds – a whole 55 seconds shaved off from the first time he tried it. He had said before the Rio Olympics – "I still have a dream. I want to show people that my times have improved, that we have swimming pools in my country now and that I can now swim a hundred metres."

Forever in our hearts, a video of Eric’s iconic swim – 

Might Eric’s story be read to have resonances with some of India’s athletes at Rio 2016?

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