Tokyo Olympics showing: India should reach out to its South Asian neighbors to help them lift standards

India can offer to lend a helping hand in a new shared spirit of sporting togetherness that can bind South Asia, writes Sirshendu Panth for South Asia Monitor

Sirshendu Panth Aug 10, 2021
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Tokyo Olympics

Euphoria has gripped India after the country came up with its best showing ever in the Olympics by bagging seven medals, including a rare individual gold. However, the seven other nations from South Asia had to return empty-handed from the Tokyo Games. As the curtain came down on the latest edition of the Olympic Games, the South Asian region, despite the Indian sparkle, finished as regional laggards in the multi-disciplinary meet.

A look at the medals tally brings out the harsh truth of the poor quality of sporting competition dished out by the South Asian competitors. Despite being home to nearly a quarter of the world population, the 167 competitors – 94 men, 73 women – representing the eight South Asian countries could win only 0.65 percent (seven out of 1080) of the medals. In terms of gold, the scene is more dismal – 0.29 percent (one out of total 340 shining yellow pieces).

In all, 93 countries, many of them minuscule in size and population, got podium finishes at Tokyo, which held the Games a year later than scheduled, given the coronavirus pandemic. The smallest medal-winning nation San Marino, whose woman trap shooter Alessandra Perilli earned a bronze, is a microstate in Europe with only 34,000 inhabitants and an area of 61 square km – smaller than even most of the small towns of the South Asian region.

At the forefront of the South Asian challenge – or, to be more specific, the nation scripting the only success stories from the region – is India, the world’s seventh-largest country, and the second-most populous. Its count of one gold, two silver and four bronze pieces bestowed on India the 48th rank in the standings and 33rd in terms of the total number of silverware.

Hard-earned glory

But still India’s performance has earned plaudits, with some of its medal winners having come from its small and remote villages that lacked even the rudimentary sports infrastructure.

Take the case of the current toast of the nation, the good-looking javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, who has become only the second Indian to pick up a yellow metal in an individual event – the first one being shooter Abhinav Bindra, who did the country proud in the 10-meter air rifle event in Beijing 13 years ago. Before taking to javelin throw, the then obese Chopra had to cycle 24 km from his home in Khandra village of Haryana’s Panipat to Madlauda to attend a gymnasium

The farmer’s son has reaped the dividends of his hard work and grit as he ensured the country’s national anthem was played in any Olympics venue after 13 long years. In the process he became the first medal winner of independent India in athletics in which India has seldom been counted among the best, leaving aside some gallant performances by Milkha Singh in 1960 and P T Usha in 1984, both finishing fourth.       

Equally astounding is the story of Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, a 27-year-old girl from Nongpok Kakching - about 30 km away from Imphal, capital of the northeastern state of Manipur, who won India’s first-ever silver in weightlifting (49 kg). Every day, on way to her training center, she was given free lifts by kind truckers as she could not afford the bus fare.It was in the fitness of things, that after her historic medal win, Mirabai did a lavish lunch and gifts for these truckers, “without whom my dream would have never come true”.

The other Indian silver winner was Ravi Kumar Dahiya in 57 kg freestyle wrestling. Another wrestling bronze came India’s way in 65-kg freestyle in which Bajrang Punia established total domination over Kazakhstan’s Daulet Niyazbekov in a decisive bout.

India’s ace shuttler P V Sindhu, also created history by smashing her way to bronze in women's badminton singles to emerge as the first Indian female athlete and second Indian to win two consecutive Olympic medals for individual events. She had claimed a silver in badminton in 2016.

Boxer Lovlina Borgohain, hailing from another northeastern Indian state of Assam, punched her way to a bronze medal finish in the women's welterweight event. The 23-year-old, who shares her birthday with Mahatma Gandhi, is only the third Indian boxer to win a medal at the Olympics.

Indian hockey’s resurrection

Last but not least is the great resurrection of Indian hockey on the Olympics stage. The men’s hockey team once considered the superpower of the sport  - eight Olympic gold medals being indication enough of its one-time supremacy – earned the bronze with a gritty display, that floored teams like Great Britain and Germany. An Olympic medal has come after 41 years, the last one – a gold – was won 41 years back in Moscow, thanks to the depleted field due to a boycott led by the US and its allies.

The medal has propelled India to its highest-ever world ranking, number three, but more than that, it is the hope of a new dawn that has filled the hearts of the followers of hockey in the country.

Also heartwarming was the performance of the women’s hockey team, who missed the bronze by a whisker, ending fourth. It was an unbelievable improvement for a side that had finished way down in the 12th spot four years back in Rio Olympics.

Two other Indians - Aditi Ashok in women's golf and Deepak Punia in men's freestyle wrestling (86 kg) – came within sniffing distance of medals, but in the end had to be satisfied with the fourth spot.

Positives and disappointments

The other South Asian nations could not make a splash in terms of medals, but several of them took home some positives on which they can build in the future.

Take Pakistan for instance. Without a medal since the 1992 Olympic Games, two of its competitors came up with memorable performances in Tokyo.

Javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem, who idolizes India’s Chopra, reached the final, triggering high hopes both at home and among the contingent in Tokyo. However, in the end, the boy from an underprivileged family in Mian Channu, a small city in Khanewal District of Punjab province, got the fifth position.

But in the process, Nadeem became the only Pakistani track-and-field competitor to qualify directly for the Olympics and the first sportsperson of his country to make the cut for the final in an athletic event.

Talib’s campaign in men’s 67 kg weightlifting competition stopped short of a medal position. He earned fifth place, but his overall tally of 320 kg was just 2 kg shy of the bronze medal.

Nevertheless, the biggest setback for Pakistan came well before the Games started, when its men’s hockey team failed to qualify for the third time in succession. The former world number one team, with three Olympics golds, three silver and one bronze in its kitty, now has a poor world rank of 18th.

Bangladesh had pinned all their hopes on archers Ruman Sana and teenager Diya Siddique. But while Ruman fell in the second round of men’s recurve individual event, Diya was eliminated in the opening round.

In the recurve mixed team, Ruman and Diya lost the pre-quarterfinal to top-ranked South Korea by 6-0 sets.

The four other Bangladesh competitors made quick exits, as the country’s challenge ended in the first week of the competition.

Sri Lanka, which had bagged silvers in track events in the 1948 and 2000 Olympics, made its debut in artistic gymnastics. However, its small contingent could go nowhere near the medal rounds.

Ahead of the Games, the spirits had soared in Bhutan, as its archer Karma made a direct entry into the women's individual recurve at the Games by getting to the semifinals and pocketing one of the three available spots at the 2019 Asian Championships. This is the first instance of a Bhutanese competitor getting an Olympic quota spot in any sport.

Karma, however, lost in the first round in Tokyo. In judo, swimming and shooting, the Bhutanese challenge petered out in the opening round.

With all their competitors getting universality slots, that is given to ensure a country’s participation in various disciplines, Nepalese and Maldives athletes returned home without much of a fight.

Civil-war-torn Afghanistan, which surprised everyone by winning one bronze medal each in the 2008 and 2012 Games, was not that lucky this time.

They fielded five competitors – one of them a woman – but all of them bit the dust in the preliminary rounds.

Lessons from the Games

The Games may have ended, but there are lessons that all the countries of the region could learn. For India, the government’s generous grants for advanced training and infrastructure, coupled with several corporate houses pumping in good amounts of money, seem to be working. Capable foreign coaches and arrangements for training abroad have benefited the competitors.

But at the same time, the failure of the highly-rated shooters and archers demands a post mortem. As in the past, archers like Atanu Das and Deepika Kumari seemed a bundle of nerves.

The shooters, who brought at least one medal in three of the last four Games, came up with poor performances. This is one discipline that had an all-Indian coaching staff, and the absence of foreign gaffers may have proved crucial. The pressure of high expectations, equipment malfunctioning, the inexperience of the likes of young talents Saurabh Chaudhary may have led to a downswing in performance.   

Similarly, other nations also need to sit down, do post mortems and try to plug the loopholes to come up with better shows in future competitions. And with India shaping up much better than its neighbors, it can offer to lend a helping hand in lifting their standards in a new shared spirit of sporting togetherness that can bind South Asia.

(The writer is Editor, South Asia Monitor. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at s.panth@spsindia.in)

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