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Rio Olympics 2016: While athletes have disappointed, there are a number of questions that must be answered

India had many close moments at the Olympics but have not been able to bag a medal yet.

Saina Nehwal
Saina Nehwal had a disappointing Rio 2016

India sent a 119 strong contingent to the Rio Olympics and barring the hockey team and possibly Sania Mirza (for her no.1 doubles ranking), none of our higher ranked medal aspirants could come even close to winning a medal. The only ones who were one win away were Abhinav Bindra, Dipa Karmakar, Sania Mirza & Rohan Bopanna, Hockey team, Atanu Das, Vikas Krishnan and PV Sindhu (her semi-final encounter is due). While this short list of players gave us some hope, it’s the others who have let the country down badly.   

Disappointing return

The disappointing Rio Olympics return will start temporary debates about facilities, about officials travelling, about economy class travel and other sundry excuses.

But that would be missing the whole point.

Indian athletes have certain ‘blocks’ at the biggest stage and most of them need better mental and physical preparation in future. After Glasgow Commonwealth Games 2014, I had detailed the poor conversion rate Indian athletes had after reaching finals – a meagre 33% – and questioned if this was an indicator for Rio 2016. Am afraid it was.

Excuses no more

When a player is ranked in the world’s top ten, then he/she has done it either with or despite the system, the facilities, the Babudom and the corruption. We aren’t the only corrupt country in the world. Nor the only disturbed one.

Iran, Romania, Vietnam, Kenya, Kosovo, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia and Georgia have all won medals. Some of these countries are massively affected with civil war, poverty  and/or frequent terrorist strikes.

That India’s talent tapping system is improving can be gauged by the fact that we sent a 119 large contingent. In 1996, only 49 competitors had sailed. In 20 years we have more than doubled the count of athletes qualifying for Olympics.

There were reports which suggested that for Rio, the ministry approved players reaching Rio even earlier (than usual) to acclimatise better and had spent more money than before to ensure a better return from the games. 

Note, these are sports which many don’t follow in India. These sportspersons don't even remotely face the kind of pressure our cricketers face, day in day out. When these sportspersons fail, they aren’t criticised long; but if they shine, they become stars of a massive nation. The upside, very high, the downside, not so low. Isn’t that motivation enough?

Central & State sports ministers needs to answer

PM Narendra Modi has always promised us maximum governance. That should mean corporate style ruthless execution and also key posts linked to key performance indicators. For the Rio Olympics showing the centre should make the sports minister accountable. The state sports ministers too. There is no better and objective appraisal than reading the performance at Olympics, World championships and other mega events. 

There are enough reports suggesting how our ministers were huddled inside posh hotels and missed cheering boxer Vikas Krishnan’s bout, discuss thrower Seema Antil or Greco-roman wrestler Ravinder Khatri. Officials have been found busy taking selfies with tired athletes, more interested in partying, inadequate medical staff, ill qualified medical staff travelling. When you are on a corporate travel and miss meetings scheduled at the destination, you get stern warnings. That should be the procedure here.

Since the central sports minister was appointed only two months ago, doing a reshuffle is unfair but he still needs to come out and give a fair assessment of the situation. There should be a detailed press conference where officials should be allowed to ask them questions on what went wrong, what steps the government took the last two years, how much of it got materialised, what are mitigation steps and action plan for immediate next three months?

The government should make it clear, going ahead, that performance in biggest events would be considered the most objective appraisal mechanism. Such an assessment procedure will ensure in future ministers do everything needful - grant, provide, assist athletes and federations to give off their best.

Mental or Fundamental?

Deepika Kumari
Deepika Kumari was another star that succumbed to pressure

When an athlete (and I won’t get into naming and personal shaming) is ranked in top six of the world in successive Olympics, you expect the athlete to put up some fight at the grand stage. Yet when they crash out at the qualification stage in an event and is not the best performer in the sport, it does affect the morale and performance of the team, as a unit. 

When an athlete is World ranked No.1 & 4, in two events in their discipline, and yet doesn’t even finish in top ten of both events there is reason to worry. When an athlete is ranked no. 5 and gets knocked out in the first round to a player outside the world’s top 50 or when a fighter is ranked third best in the world and loses 0-3 in the first round then tough questions will be asked. 

This is a stage for which they all have been dreaming, persevering and fighting it out for years.  A tough fight and performance worthy of their rankings was what was expected.

When the hockey team finishes in finishes in the quarters (last 8), they have at least played as per their rankings (Currently, no.5, although the were No. 7 two months ago). But we will come to hockey later.

The few bright sparks

There are some who have out punched above their weight. Notably, some veteran war horses – Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna had a combined rank of 11th in the mixed doubles event, hardly have played together and don’t have mixed doubles pedigree. Yet they finished in the semi-finals and gave their best.

Abhinav Bindra lost gallantly fighting tooth and nail, agonisingly coming close to winning a medal. He has now retired from the sport and India will forever be thankful to him.

Tripura girl Dipa Karmakar became the first Indian to make it to the finals of the individual vault finals in her debut Olympics, finally finishing a heartbreaking fourth. She scripted history by being the country’s first woman gymnast to qualify and managed to perform her much-appreciated ‘Produnova’ vault cleanly.

Also read: Rio Olympics 2016: CCI to award Olympian Dipa Karmakar

Bombayla Devi Laishram, ranked 69th in the world reached the Round of 16 (pre-quarters) in the individual event and was superb in the quarter-finals of the team event. She managed to outperform and over achieve – something which the big stage is expected to bring out from the best athletes.

Dipa Karmakar
Dipa Karmakar was excellent in her event

Her co-archer Atanu Das, ranked 22 in the world, got an impressive 5th place in the ranking event and only lost out in  the Round of 16 stage. That’s a massive improvement over his ranking and displays ability to stretch own potential to the limit.

Indian shuttler Kidambi Srikanth (ranked no.11), as I write, has made it to Round of 8 and will face Lin Dan later today, He has at least achieved beyond his potential at the grandest stage and we can only look forward to cheer with full gusto. More so for PV Sindhu, who beat the world no. 2 to reach the semi-finals earlier today. The big stage must get the best out of our best.

Hockey miss

If there was one team event, many in India were following closely, it was Hockey. After a fabulous showing in the Champions Trophy, two months ago, where they took the finals to penalty strokes, much was expected.

Instead what one saw was a familiar story repeated. In most of India’s games, they let in key goals in the last quarter of the game. It left them precariously placed at fourth in Group B and needing a win against Canada. Every team had spanked Canada left-right-centre till then – 20 goals scored against in 4 games.

But India managed a tame draw – again a goal granted in the last quarter. That draw cost India a third place and a less menacing quarter-final opponent, Spain. Spain lost their quarters easily to Argentina, whom India had comfortably beaten in group stages. That Canada draw made India face the best team in the event, Belgium, who had scored 21 goals and let in just 5 group stage goals (5 games). Expectedly, Belgium thrashed India 3-1 out of Olympics.

That Canada draw made India face the best team in the event, Belgium, who had scored 21 goals and let in just 5 group stage goals (5 games). Expectedly, Belgium sent India 3-1 out of Olympics.

The turning point of our campaign – a meek draw against the worst team!

Of all the teams that made it to the quarterfinals, India scored the least goals. Their 9 goals in 5 group games was a poor return when Spain & Australia had pumped in 13 goals. More was expected from the world number 5 team.

All the best to the future stars

We hope the athletes do some introspection and only come out stronger from here on. Media debates, government bashing and fault-finding may last a week, but the bigger picture must not be missed.

India’s Olympic medallists of this century are big stars. One of them is a minister for the current government – Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. Boxer Vijender Singh did a Bollywood film and has gone professional with his sport, notching up a 7-0 impressive knockout career wins.

Mary Kom had a Bollywood movie made on her life. Yogeshwar Dutt and Sushil Kumar have featured in many television shows. Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal are massive superstars. The list is never-ending. The motivation is never ending. The desire, determination and perseverance to be the best should be never ending too.

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