And, back home in India, we will wonder why some of the hardware is not coming our way. One more time, we will hear the refrain: “A billion and more Indians and yet…” It makes us ask the question: are Indians merely bringing up the numbers? Time was when our athletes would satisfy themselves by qualifying for the Games but there has been a change in attitude after Leander Paes broke a 44-year-old jinx at Atlanta in 1996 when he won a bronze. Four years later, weightlifter Karnam Malleswari brought home a bronze from Sydney and double trap shooter Rajyavardhan Rathore gunned down a silver in Athens in 2004.
For the first time, there is a realistic chance that India returns from an Olympic Games with more than one medal. And this has happened not merely because of the enormous Government support but also some quiet private effort. India’s Olympic medal aspirations have been fuelled by Mittal Champions Trust that has supported 13 sportspersons in their journey to Beijing while ace shooter Gagan Narang has been helped by the Olympic Gold Quest, promoted by sporting legends Prakash Padukone and Geet Sethi.
Narang has been in good form, setting a new world record a few weeks ago in Hannover; pugilist Vijender Kumar stunned the boxing world with an upset victory over Athens Olympic Games best boxer Bakhtiyar Artayev (Kazakhstan) in the 75kg category at the AIBA Presidents Cup tournament in Taipei; the women’s archers have raised visions with fine performances while Mahesh Bhupathi, with Leander Paes and Sania Mirza for company, will remain sentimental favourite to produce a rabbit or two out of the hat.
“Every one of us who has qualified will be going there with the hope of bagging a medal,” says 23-year-old Gagan Narang. “But it all comes down to the day of the competition and whoever strikes the right chord, walks into the range in a perfect mental and physical state, will walk away with laurels.” While there would be as many as nine Indians shooters at the Olympic Games, Narang is the only one of that bunch to win a medal on the world stage this year, claiming bronze in a World Cup in Beijing. But his world record 704.3 point effort in Hannover early in July points to his fine preparation. “By any standard this is a wonderful performance and it is above the world record score. I feel it might take a lot of time before anyone can break this record,” says National shooting coach Sunny Thomas. “I am extremely happy he is training and shaping up very well for the Olympics. However, there is a lot of difference between shooting a high score in a training session than in a competition, that too along with some of the best shooters in the world. I am very sure this will boost his confidence.”
Narang himself says that the score of 599 in the qualification round at Hannover gave him a lot of confidence. “Shooting 599 at any competition is immensely satisfying and it is an indicator of current form. My aim is to shoot consistent scores and if I am able to achieve that, the rest will follow,” he says. His colleague and 10m air rifle rival Abhinav Bindra has not had much to show for after the World Championship in 2006 but can be expected to make that big push on the Olympic stage.
Four of India’s five boxers who will be at the Games are from Bhiwani Boxing Club in Haryana. If the draw does not pit them against tough opponents in the early rounds, Vijender and Akhil Kumar are among those who can make their way to the medals. “What else do I want? I am the happiest person on earth and am waiting for them to win the country’s first Olympic boxing medals,” says their club coach Jagdish Singh.
Truth to tell, he is not the only one who is waiting. The ageing tennis maestros Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi will remain India’s sentimental favourite to get a gold, not withstanding the fact that they have been squabbling off the court. Their fans will hope that Lee and Hesh will rediscover their on-court chemistry that made them household names in India in 1999. Of course, when they finally came together for some pre-Olympic competition, they did reach the final of the Ordina Open.
It was a matter of shame and shock that the men’s team did not qualify for the archery competition. It was left to Mangal Singh Champia to qualify for the Games when he got silver in the Asian Championship. He can mount a challenge but India will have to bank on the women archers to deliver the goods. National champion Laishram Bombayla Devi, Dola Banerjee and Vardeneni Pranitha can power India to the final of the team event.
So the next time you hear someone say “A billion Indians and yet…”, stop him or her to ask what her or she is doing about it besides merely lament. And better still, do something yourself – play sport and encourage people to leave drawing rooms and take to participatory sport so that India can have a few Olympic medals instead of seeking one or two every time.