Olympics fever has well and truly gripped India, especially since the country has sent its strongest ever contingent to the quadrennial Games.
I am, needless to say, extremely pleased to see how Indian sports has metamorphosed over the last few years. Many more youngsters are stepping up to the plate now; they are hungrier and feistier, and ready to surpass the legacy that our generation created.
For instance, look at track and field athlete Neeraj Chopra. The javelin star has astounding strength, and the throw of 87.36 that he made in South Africa to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics was absolutely brilliant.
Not since the glory days of Indian hockey have we sent so many athletes to the Games who are top-ranked in their disciplines and favorites to win medals. But still, we need to be wary of getting complacent.
The Tokyo Olympics will be different from its predecessors in many ways. Apart from the normal pressure of expectations at the Games, there will be COVID-19-induced anxiety as well. And the restrictions could well go on to influence results.
Maintaining focus will be harder for all athletes this time. But being part of the Olympics is also an opportunity of a lifetime, and one that needs to be cherished. You are the king at the Olympics, and the Olympic village is your domain.
To succeed at the Games, athletes need to temper their free spirit with discipline. The fun activities need to be balanced with a strong work ethic. The athletes are there to do a job, and they should never lose sight of their target.
Back when I represented India, there was no social media. Not many really knew who Vijender Singh was. And we were all content with direct human interaction.
We did a lot of things together in Beijing, but never lost sight of our aim. We were clear about our over-arching goals: to bring glory to the nation, and to improve the state of Indian sports.
I was largely in the shadow of Akhil Kumar and Jitender Kumar back then, and that turned out to be a blessing. Everyone was talking about the duo, especially Akhil. In fact, when I won my first round against Badou Jack of Gambia 13-2, everyone thought I’d get knocked out in the second round.
I went up against Angkhan Chomphuphuang of Thailand next. Chomphuphuang had got the better of me just a month before, but I managed to pull off an upset and beat the crowd favorite 13-3.
People began taking notice of me only after I reached the quarterfinals in the middleweight division. But I was in touching distance of a medal at that point, so I decided to stay away from the limelight for a while longer.
The rest of the event was more or less a blur, but I believe my decision to keep my head down and focus on my own game helped a great deal.
Our athletes at Tokyo Olympics 2021 know their goals clearly; they have a benchmark set by their predecessors
The current batch of boxers has many strong contenders, and I believe staying away from social media until their events are done could work wonders for them too.
India has taken a very strong boxing contingent to Tokyo, to say the least. Nine boxers from the nation have made it to the Games, which is really commendable, and none of them are underdogs. They are all well-versed with the intricacies of the sport and have plenty of experience.
Vikash Krishan sadly lost due to an injury, but Mary Kom, who has prior Olympic experience, is still in the mix. Krishan and Kom will play a part in mentoring the youngsters in the team - the likes of Amit Panghal and Simranjit Kaur.
There is a lot of vibrancy and energy in the team, but it is crucial to rein some of that it in when the time calls for it. Using your energy efficiently and productively is of utmost importance, and I believe that shouldn’t be too difficult a proposition given the expert advice and assistance on their side.
We did not have access to such assistance. In fact, we never had anyone to motivate us. We knew we would be the pioneers in whatever we did, and so we set our own goals.
By contrast, today’s athletes know their goals clearly. The benchmark has been set by their predecessors, and they work accordingly.
An athlete’s mentality takes a lot of time to evolve. Our seniors were like the Sher Singh Rana character from the movie Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. They used to think that it was enough to get a tracksuit with ‘India’ written on it. Merely reaching Olympics was a big thing for us.
But when we entered the Village, we realized there were thousands like us. We did not stand out there. Needless to say, that was an eye-opener for my generation.
And yet, we knew we could stand out by virtue of our abilities. We knew we could bring about change with our performances, and that is exactly what we did.
What Sushil Kumar did at the Olympics is no small feat. Getting one medal is tough already, but he managed to go one better. I personally feel that that is still the best performance by an Indian at the Olympics.
I don’t think Sushil’s heroics will be matched anytime soon. However, I do believe it is a matter of time before my feat of claiming a bronze at Beijing 2008 is replicated.
The nation will have new heroes to follow very soon. And it is up to us to stand up and applaud when that moment arrives.