It was the spring of 2004. Another Indian contingent was heading to the Olympics unsure of what it would return with, and Milkha Singh, the sprinter who personified India’s efforts at the Games for the better part of a century, was on his sunbathed lawn in Chandigarh. Milkha, already 74, related his life story over tea first, then beer — the refugee from Pakistan, the young army recruit, the budding athlete, the Asian Games champion, and the heartbreak at the Olympics. “The problem here, young man,” he said all of a sudden in Punjabi, understanding what the reporter in front of him was trying to get at, “is that people remember Olympians every four years.”
In the autumn of 2008, the Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi was buzzing with the hubbub of triumph. Sushil Kumar, fresh from his bronze in Beijing, was talking in a loop to a herd of camera crews about his extraordinary diet of almond milk and ghee, his devotion to his guru, and the code of the akhada. In the middle of one of his regulation soundbites, he impulsively veered off-script: “I’m happy that you’re all here today,” he said, as if addressing a gathering beyond, “but I wonder how many will be here a week, a month, a year from now.”
Milkha died last month a legend, leaving behind a legacy that will far surpass his 1960 failure to secure the medal he passionately chased. Sushil, 38, who turned the Beijing bronze into silver in London, is in jail on charges of murder following a gang war that erupted in his revered gurukul. If Milkha exemplifies light in the journey of Indian Olympic sport, and Sushil the darkness that can engulf it, the real story of the Indian Olympian lies in the penumbra between them.
Struggling to survive
The Indian contingent in Tokyo this year will have all the shades of grey that have come to define the quests of men and women who don blue shirts with the Five Rings emblazoned on them. Though a mix of glory and struggle defines all sport, the two elements are never more stark than they are for these athletes who are in constant battle — against a body that tells them it can’t take more punishment, against minds that plead with them to stop, against financial insecurity, against a life of obscurity with no real-world skills, and against a system of political interference and red tape that seems designed to treat them as second-class citizens.
For too many years, India’s non-cricket athletes have woken up at the crack of dawn, in government hostels or under the tutelage of local village coaches — unsure of what the future holds. They put on frayed kits, keep their chins up, and head to the gym. The problems that they worry about as they’re going through the motions often have little to do with sport. Like jesters in a monarch’s court, they rely on the generosity of people with power, or the favours of some corporate house, to take their dreams forward. There is no institutional strength to sustain them, or give them a measure of control.
They know it’s a classic Catch-22: you won’t get the support you need until you become an elite athlete, but you won’t become one until you have that support.
The records they chase seem unattainable, and the Olympics qualifying mark becomes their only hope. It later turns out that many of those who get there were aiming too low. After years of climbing a blind cliff, they gaspingly reach the top, hands bloodied, bodies bruised, and raise their heads above the threshold to see the might of the mountain ahead.
The contrast with their international opponents is stark: the US collegiate system, where a dozen gold medal hopefuls train together; the Chinese assembly line that rolls out the next champions on demand; and most astonishingly, the British resurgence project. In 1996, when Britain returned from Atlanta with one gold, it reengineered its sporting structure, put the power in the hands of the athletes and coaches, and vowed to win 35 medals at Beijing 2008. Four years later, it won 11 golds; 16 years later, 29; and then 27 at Rio, where it finished ahead of China in second place.
To be fair, in a limited context, India too has seen an Olympics revolution after the three accidental medals in Beijing — one from Abhinav Bindra’s singular obsession with excellence, one from Bhiwani boy Vijender Singh, and one from Sushil. It flicked a switch somewhere within the amorphous community of brave strugglers. It sparked a sense of belonging that led aspiring athletes to put posters of Vijender Singh and Sushil up in the training gym at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, and joyously add mugshots to the wall of fame as other colleagues won medals at world and Asian championships. The message was clear: Whether anyone else cares or not, we do.
For the first time in 2012, the Indian contingent left for London hungry for glory. The Games turned out to be path-breaking — not so much for the medals around the necks of Gagan Narang, Vijay Kumar, Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom, Yogeshwar Dutt, and Sushil again, but for how many others got into contention. And the drill was repeated in Rio 2016.
Before the Rio Games, I mapped the preparations of some of our medal hopefuls — trained with Bindra at his private shooting range in Zirakpur, did cardio with Yogeshwar in a sports hostel in Sonepat, watched discus thrower Vikas Gowda tower over his colleagues in Delhi.
The running theme among these elite Olympians, with medals and finals between them, was that change was coming: Funding from the government, corporations investing in sport, and NGOs such as the Olympic Gold Quest managing elite athletes — every aspect of this structure had improved in the last few years, but it wasn’t enough.
“The question for us, as a society, is do we really want sport to reflect who we are as a people. If the answer is yes, then how we approach Olympic sport must change. Medals are not won by what athletes do on the day of the competition when the world’s eyes are trained on them. They are won by what is done in the years in between, away from the spotlight,” Bindra told me. “It’s never easy, but here it is harder than it should be.”
So when we watch the Tokyo Games, when we cheer for the Indians in contention — and the pages that follow will tell you that there will be many — let’s spare a thought for what it has taken for the Indian Olympian to get there. Why we must not care about them only once in four years. They deserve our support, but more than that, our attention.
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