India's Neeraj Chopra
India's Neeraj Chopra Image Credit: AFP

When P.T. Usha missed a bronze in women’s 400-metre hurdles at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 by one-hundredth of a second, it was the closest that India had got to an Olympics track-and-field medal since Milkha Singh’s fourth-place finish in 400 metres in Rome in 1960.

For the next few months after Usha’s Los Angeles disappointment, if one happened to be at the cinemas anywhere in Kolkata (then Calcutta), the customary pre-screening, 15-minute-or-so slot earmarked for a Films Division documentary invariably featured clippings of Usha’s Los Angeles run — culminating in flashes of a teary-eyed Usha on the giant screen and an almost choric gasp emanating from the packed audience at the theatre, in shared agony of having missed glory on the world stage by less than a hair’s breadth. ‘Usha’s loss is our loss’ — that was the general feeling all around and quite rightly so.

Insatiable thirst to touch the sky

Those grainy, almost sepia-tinted visuals of Usha’s run and a nation’s collective heartbreak made me realise two things: First, here is a lady from a very humble background, trying to defeat all those concomitant odds that come packaged with the ‘blessings’ of a ‘developing world’ and a ‘third-world economy’, in her insatiable thirst to touch the sky.

And second, no matter our unalloyed love for sports, we Indians are given to an almost celebratory over-indulgence into the stoicism of soaking up a bitter loss — any loss for that matter! As the buzz all around was all about a “oh-so-near-and-yet-so-far”, I wondered — or feared, rather — that may those collective gasps of agony at Usha’s loss not be the end-all and be-all of Indian sports.

Rather, I hoped and prayed for a resurgence at some point: Let Usha’s valiant effort light a candle of resolve somewhere, in someone across this vast land who would not just wallow in the self-pity of a ‘glorious loss’, but dream of securing that yellow metal on the biggest sporting arena of all. We had done it in hockey once, winning gold at the Moscow Games in 1980.

But that was a team game. Winning an individual gold — and that too in a track-and-field event — has its own charm, its own share of fairy-tale narrative, sparking an epiphany of sorts, to be weaved into the collective consciousness of a nation and its people for generations to come. 
Abhinav Bindra, the harbinger of hope

Fortunately, the wait was not too long as Abhinav Bindra struck gold in shooting at the 2008 Beijing Games. And now, with Neeraj Chopra winning the javelin gold in Tokyo 2020, that ghost of an elusive track-and-field medal has finally been exorcised with a Midas touch!

“When I was studying in 7th standard, one chapter was there where we studied about the Olympics. And I used to think, ‘What are the Olympics?’ I never thought I would actually participate in the Olympics.”

These are words from none other than Usha herself, in an interview with Scroll.in, as she quite succinctly put forth the very reason why bridging that one-hundredth of a second’s gap, that made the difference between success and failure in Los Angeles that afternoon in 1984, was actually a matter of bridging not just a hair’s breadth of a gap between a third-fourth place finish, but that of bridging an ocean that separated a cocooned mindset steeped in self-pity from the determined roar of a champion who would stop at nothing.

Turning the tide

For far too long, India’s pursuit of excellence in the sporting arena, particularly in a multi-disciplinary mega event such as the Olympics, has been mostly about being happy with consolation prizes and a meek reconciliation with the reality of being a ‘second’ or ‘third-best’.

The tide had started turning from the Summer Olympics in London in 2012, when India won a best-ever six medals. In Tokyo 2020, India has already bettered that tally with seven medals so far. In that sense, India’s Tokyo showing should be seen not just as a signpost, but a watershed of many more similar successes in the years and decades ahead.

Happy in our own small world

When Usha said, “I never thought I would actually participate in the Olympics”, she was being brutally honest. That indeed was the mindset that was all-pervasive and typical of India’s pursuit of sporting brilliance. The world’s second-most populous nation would collectively gasp at a missed opportunity of winning an Olympic medal and then happily get on with the task of filling up its cricket stadia, because sports, for many of us, would begin and end at those 22 yards of a bald patch!

For generations since Independence, the cricket pitch for most of us Indians held out that promise of an oasis of sporting excellence in the midst of mediocrity. And we seemed to be happy in our own small world — looking no further!

Firing a passion

Fortunately, the likes of Bindra, Chopra, P.V. Sindhu, to name only a few, and those men and women in blue, wielding their hockey sticks for Team India, have given us enough reason to believe that we won’t miss the woods for the trees for too long.

If the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) can attract head hunters from across the globe, if this nation can fund a Mars Mission at a fraction of a cost that goes into the making of a Hollywood flick, if this country can produce some of the finest minds that adorn the boardrooms of the most sought-after corporates in the world ... then surely, pursuit of Olympics glory can and should be a way of life for us and not necessarily a matter of staid institutional policy statement that does mere lip service by naming sports awards and stadia after the political gentry.

It has taken 37 summers to convert Usha’s heartbreak into a gold, it should not take more than three more to convert Chopra’s solitary success into multiple golds.