Neeraj Chopra1-1628485696094
Tokyo: India's Neeraj Chopra reacts as he competes in the final of the men's javelin throw event at the 2020 Summer Olympics Image Credit: PTI

Finally, the moment was ours too and it was worth its wait in gold. As Neeraj Chopra stood on the podium with the Tricolor fluttering and rising in the background, there was euphoria in India. 13 long years since Abhinav Bindra’s target was spot on, the sounds of the national anthem resonated once again from television screens.

The festivities have only just begun. There are ice-cream offers and a former India sports minister has popped the champagne, after all India has finished with its highest medal tally of 7!

There is much to celebrate for those who had promises to keep, going miles as they did without sleep. The handful who came so close and yet ended so far, are heart-broken but we didn’t forget Milkha Singh, P T Usha and Dipa Karmakar and we won’t forget them either.

This is where our Tokyo Olympics story ends. But another tale, albeit not a new one begins.

Business as usual

One gold medal from a country of 1.4 billion people — how does that even add up? In countries where expectations meet success, it will soon be business as usual. The biggest story coming out of the US contingent was not the medals but Simone Biles. In India, we are so starved for sporting success that Neeraj Chopra and the other 6 will be part of an endless round of felicitations, and then cricket will take over again.

I often say an Indian champion in an Olympic sport is a winner despite the system and not because of it and deserves every accolade, every cash price and piece of land that comes his or her way. Politicians with not an inkling of the game have been running sports federations as fiefdoms not for years but for decades.

Fortunately, with the involvement of corporates and private players, professionalism is creeping in, but corruption and nepotism is endemic and will not disappear overnight, the Indian Olympic Committee’s suspension once by the IOC is a testament to that.

Neeraj Chopra’s German coach reportedly criticised the preparations for the Olympics, questioning both the facilities and the lack of proper nutrition for the athletes before the games. Chopra and Bindra, the only two individual gold medallists have both trained abroad and the pattern is the same for elite individual athletes depending on sponsors. For those who can’t afford it, competing in top events exposes the world class facilities that they are deprived off.

An elusive change

Fortunately, this time numbers due to COVID-19 were restricted, else it is anyone’s guess as to how many officials would have landed up in Tokyo. During the opening ceremony of the games, broadcaster Sony TV cut to a bigger box of sports minister Anurag Thakur while the viewers were left scrambling trying to spot the Indian contingent.

Till the time the politicians don’t realise that they are not doing our athletes a favour, change will remain as elusive as a gold medal.

Shortly after the fiasco in shooting, Raninder Singh, president of the National Rifle Association of India and son of Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh publicly promised an overhaul of the coaching and support staff. But after two disastrous Olympics, shouldn’t Raninder Singh himself resign?

In search of rankings whether it was shooting or archery, why was quality dispensed for quantity of foreign tours giving false hope to a country whose fans can be shallow and shrill. Anjum Moudgil had to post a public apology on behalf of the shooters after the trolling on their performance went out of control.

For years, Indian hockey suffered because officials clung to their obduracy in resisting foreign coaches or adapting to the physicality and financial cost of AstroTurf. Tokyo is a turning point, both the men and women’s teams have dredged Indian hockey out, one dribble at a time from the burden of past glory. It’s been a long time coming but the future is promising.

Rural India, new talent hotspot

But in rural India which is now the bastion for sports like wrestling, boxing, weightlifting and hockey, the fight may not always be about talent, it is also about survival. Many of our girls at Tokyo found in sport an escape from the horrors of poverty and patriarchy. Most of our athletes today are from middle class or lower class, and their aspirations for a better tomorrow is the real fire in the belly. Becoming a champion may sometimes be a bonus.

Silver medallist Mirabai’s images of sitting on the floor of her house and eating, shocked social media, but what did Twitterati think — or perhaps they just didn’t think?

Without even a clock at home, hockey captain Rani Rampal’s mother kept awake through long nights so Rani would leave for her training on time. Neeraj Chopra, the son of a farmer, left his village at the age of 14 for better training.

There is something in the hinterland — whether of Haryana, Punjab or Manipur — that sees the kind of sacrifices that we can’t imagine, let alone experience. The images of boxer Satish Kumar, playing with seven stitches above his chin and eye is what folklores are made of. His wife reportedly begged him not to play the next bout, but he did.

Excellence in sports

And yet, once the Olympics euphoria is over — give, it another week or two, a wrestling result will make a tiny column on the back page and Spelling Bee a big front headline. Can those who have traditionally considered sport to be no more than an indulgent hobby — perhaps barring cricket, afford to crib about our lack of sporting success?

To excel in sports, we first need a sporting culture, and this is the real grass roots training.

In schools, the physical education class is the first to be cut when extra studies are needed and in senior school the pretence is over, and these classes just disappear. We can keep asking corporates for more funds but till parents change their mindset and allow a child to live her dream and not theirs, we can slowly resign to sports becoming a predominantly rural phenomenon.

As we were discovering our heroes under a Tokyo sky, casteist slurs were being hurled back home at hockey player Vandana Kataria’s family after the team lost in the semi-final. Vandana, one of the key players in the team is a Dalit and these acts remind us of the sacrifices our sportspersons make so that we can sing the national anthem from the comforts of our drawing room.

If you want to hear it again, give your child a javelin or a hockey stick — there can be no better tribute to this story. Otherwise, it will be just another conversation on a hot August day.