Of near-misses and misfortunes: When India's moment of reckoning never arrived
The excitement was there for everyone to see. An 118-member contingent, spread across 15 disciplines, packed their bags for Brazil at the beginning of August, in pursuit of what they had been training rigorously for the past 12-15 months at least, if not more – an Olympic medal.
There were expectations, not just because of the number that were travelling, but because a lot of them, particularly in sports like shooting, badminton and wrestling, had generated that interest courtesy their performances in multi-nation events in the past 2-3 years.
A few confidently said that India would reach double-digits in the medal haul, but there was a quiet feeling that this contingent had it in them to meet, if not surpass, the high of London 2012.
The opening day didn't bring much to cheer about for India, with Jitu Rai providing the lone moment of joy courtesy his final finish. However, little did we know then that it was just never meant to be India's moment at Rio.
A few days later Abhinav Bindra came mighty close to opening India's account, and Gurpreet Singh finished 7th in his 25m Air pistol qualification when the top 6 progress through to the final. Saina Nehwal crashed out in the opening round of women's doubles as did Leander Paes in the Men's Doubles.
The Mixed Doubles pairing of Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna put in a mighty fine performance, but couldn't bite the cherry even once when they had two chances to do so.
Dipa Karmakar, that spirited young girl, showed us all what could be achieved with belief and hard work, finishing 4th and a mere 0.2 points away from a medal. As did Dattu Bhokanal, finishing 1st in the C final of the Men's Single Sculls for an overall ranking of 13th.
The Women’s archery team put in a good performance in the group stages, before faltering in the quarterfinals, and so did the Men’s hockey team who, after displaying a lot of vigour at the start, failed to keep calm at the crucial junctures to clinch a medal.
Much was expected out of Yogeshwar Dutt on the final day, but he couldn’t deliver, losing in the qualifying stage of the competition. And just like it how it had begun, the Olympics had finished with disappointment for India.
Something was amiss for the athletes. Whether it was luck, composure, competition, the Olympic stage itself or anything else, it was hard to pinpoint the real culprit. But the springboard that India needed early on just didn't arrive, and although as sports writers and supporters we hoped the drought would end, it just carried on.
Until, on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan, Sakshi Malik delivered the country's first medal, a bronze in the Women's Freestyle wrestling. After over 10 days, India were finally off the mark in Rio.
While Saina's exit was a massive disappointment and a huge dent to India's hopes in badminton, PV Sindhu's exploits began gaining momentum and we thought, "Right, are we on to something here?"
After five wins in the competition, she was in the final and on the cusp of something magical.
Suddenly, there was a spring in everybody's stride. The enthusiasm, that had gone away after the opening week, was back among all. And on a damp Friday evening, all of India got together to watch just one thing – badminton.
Sindhu had single-handedly put bums on sofa seats and was on the verge of creating history.
For someone who was at work covering this game, it was nothing short of incredible. As journalists or sports writers you wait for such days, and after she had won the opening game in dramatic fashion, the excitement grew exponentially.
The world champion, of course, stormed back to win the next two games and clinch the gold. However, Sindhu's achievement had helped soothe what had been a wounded campaign for India, and it remained its second and final medal.
A lot of views have already started coming out on what went wrong, and discussions on how to ensure such a result is never repeated again have begun to take centre stage. In my opinion, those talks can wait a bit. The Indian athletes have put their heart and soul for the past year and more to get this far, and it's time we appreciate their effort in becoming Olympians.
More than 70% of the contingent were debutants, who carried a lot of expectations on their shoulders. Hopefully, 4 years later in Tokyo, some of them can carry this experience and deliver there.
For that to happen, a lot of work remains to be done. But for now, Thank You.