They too do us proud who strive medal-less

Large Olympic contingent not a waste of money: experts answer social media critic

By Charu Sudan Kasturi and G.S. Mudur
  • Published 10.08.16
Amitabh Bachchan

New Delhi, Aug. 9: Dattu Baban Bhokanal will not bring home medals for India from Rio. But today, the 25-year-old son of a Maharashtra stone-crusher came within six seconds of quietly extending a little-known but growing romance between India and Olympics rowing.

Bhokanal, who narrowly missed a semi-final place in the men's single sculls after finishing fourth in a quarterfinal from which the top three were to progress, is India's only rower at the Olympics.

He is also one among a growing band of Indian contestants who have, over the past few Olympics, either qualified for the medal stages of their event or stood at the cusp of doing so.

Their progress has coincided with a steady rise in India's medals tally and success rate.

That hasn't deterred critics from contrasting the growing size of India's Olympic contingents with the paucity of the country's medals haul. Social commentator Shobhaa De today suggested that some in the Indian squad had been on a junket to Rio.

But the swelling Olympic delegations reflect a rising number of medal contenders and qualifiers who have made it through a rigorous qualifying process against heavy odds, said athletes, Olympic historians and sports medicine experts.

"There's a big difference between what we did in the past and what's happening now," Nalin Mehta, co-author of Olympics: the India Story, an account of the evolution of India's participation in the Games, told The Telegraph.

"Earlier we used to send people who we knew would crash out in the first round. Now, a huge chunk of the contingent consists of people who on their day could make it to the medals or at least the final rounds."

Mumbai-based De had earlier today revived a longstanding debate asking whether India was justified in sending 120 competitors to Rio when the country's best Olympics haul to date, at London 2012, was just six medals.

"Goal of Team India at the Olympics: Rio jao. Selfies lo. Khaali haat wapas aao (Go to Rio, take selfies and return empty-handed)," De tweeted. "What a waste of money and opportunity."

She later blamed "official apathy" for India's poor Olympics record and said it was difficult for athletes to "compete with this hurdle".

Without referring to De or her tweet, superstar Amitabh Bachchan tweeted: "India Rio, PROUD of YOU!! Do not dismay failure... to them that lament loss, look around... any of our neighbours seen anywhere??"

Shobhaa De

A review of India's recent Olympic performances shows a rise not just in the medal counts of its expanding contingents but also in the success rate per participant.

For instance, if a team of 57 had earned 3 medals in Beijing 2008 - at a 5.3 per cent chance of success per contestant - a larger contingent of 83 won 6 in London four years later, at a 7.2 per cent success rate per head.

This after the medal-less misery between 1984 and 1992 and the single-medal sterility of Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004).

India's current success rate per head puts it on level terms with other emerging economies that are not traditional Olympic powers, such as Brazil and South Africa. Their figures were 6.6 per cent and 4.8 per cent in London respectively, although Brazil won 17 medals overall.

Such parity is a far cry from Atlanta, where India's 2 per cent strike rate pitifully lagged Brazil's 6.7 per cent and South Africa's 5.6 per cent, showing that the growing delegation size may not be the "waste" De believes it is.

A larger contingent of potential medal winners or serious contenders helps mitigate, to an extent, the unpredictability of sports, raising the likelihood of some or other contestant from the team coming good on the big day.

Participants spend years preparing to deliver their best, but the outcome on the day they compete with the best from other countries is influenced by multiple factors.

"It may be disappointing not to see medals, but it would be unfair to blame individuals or teams," said Janki Rajapurkar, a Mumbai-based sport psychologist who has worked with Commonwealth and Olympic Games contestants. "What happens on a specific day of the event is unpredictable."

Besides, the difficulty of qualifying for the Games shows up the fallacy behind the idea that a country can bloat its team with no-hopers at will.

Only two of India's 120 Rio Olympians, both swimmers, are participating under a "universality quota" meant for nations that didn't qualify.

"Entries into the Olympics are restricted - strict criteria regulate participation," said Ashok Ahuja, former head of sports medicine at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, and one-time chairman of the Indian Boxing League's medical commission.

"In measurable events, such as athletics, only those who can pass specified timings can participate. It's not easy. For most, even qualifying is a struggle."

All of India's archers at the Olympics have trained at the Tata Archery Academy in Jamshedpur, where they did physical exercises from 6am to 7am before practising their archery skills for eight hours - every day for four years.

Academies and non-profit organisations that support sportspersons with training and fellowships have over the past decade helped prop up a large number of Indian Olympic participants.

"The creation of a talent pipeline will certainly help Indian archery," said a former Tata Steel sports wing chief and Arjuna Awardee archer, Sanjeeva Singh.

"Several people have taken up archery because they see a future. I'm sure that some day our archers will claim an Olympic medal."

Criticism of those who participate but don't win medals as freeloaders reflects a lack of understanding of the struggle athletes go through to reach the Olympics, said Saraswati Chand, sister of Dutee Chand, India's 100m women's champion who will run in Rio.

"The Olympics are the final frontier of sports," said Saraswati, herself a former athlete. "And our athletes get there on their own."

Most members of the Indian contingent would have spent more than 10,000 hours of practice over a decade, without the advanced facilities many of their overseas rivals enjoy, to reach the Olympics, said former golfer Irina Singh, now a sports psychologist.

"Indian athletes get less exposure than many of their foreign counterparts, do not get to train under the same conditions and infrastructure, yet are somehow expected to perform as well," Singh said.

"Our athletes who miss out by a whisker on medals or on qualifying need tweets of support, not brickbats."

When the Olympics end on August 21, the vast majority in the Indian delegation will return without any medal.

Yet Indian sportspersons are already treading boundaries previously beyond the country's imagination, revealing a success that may not show in the medals tally right away, said Mehta.

In 2012, India reached the final of the single sculls and the lightweight double sculls. By reaching the quarterfinals and nearly making it to the semi-finals, Bhokanal had kept India competitive in the sport.

The largest component of India's Rio contingent is not of shooters or wrestlers - the country's traditional medal hopes - but of athletes, an unprecedented 37 of whom have qualified.

And Dipa Karmakar, the first Indian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics, has already reached the final in the individual vault.

"This shows the growing bandwidth of Indian sports and athletes," Mehta said. "Will that give us a huge haul of medals immediately? No. But it gives us hope for a future that didn't seem possible."