London: It’s not just the speciality curry house outside the main press centre that gives the London Olympics a rich Indian flavour; there are other interesting ingredients too.
Thursday morning, for instance, Amitabh Bachchan carried the Olympic torch for 300m at Southwark amid much cheering from fans and the Games organizers. Among others who were in the relay in this leg was non-resident Indian steel tycoon L.N. Mittal, showing the global impact of Bollywood and Indian business.
There’s more. For Friday’ night’s opening ceremony, impresario Danny Boyle has used a number from his Slumdog Millionaire composer A.R. Rahman as part of a medley of international numbers. Just in case you did not know, the late mother of Sebastian Coe, head honcho of these Games, was half-Indian, Tina Angela Lal being her maiden name.
Saina Nehwal. Photo: AP
So far so good, but it is how the athletes fare on the field that will determine India’s global impact in the sphere of sport. Is the country finally coming of age as a sporting nation?
“You guys have only been good at cricket, and not so good at even this in recent times, so do you really expect anything?” asked Barry Bun, otherwise a mason but now part-time volunteer for the Games, which he found “irresistible” even if it meant being without income for several weeks.
Bun’s compunctions are not unfounded, but are nevertheless restricted by a stereotypical understanding of Indian sport. After several decades of disappointment and lament, India’s athletes picked up three medals—including a gold—at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. There is now promise of more.
The 81-strong contingent—the largest ever—could be indicative of a rise in India’s sporting prowess. Moreover, these athletes are not only spread across more disciplines than ever before for an Indian squad, but several athletes have also shown impressive form leading up to London.
The archers, men and women, who begin their campaign through the preliminaries at—of all places—Lord’s, the home of cricket, have been hugely impressive and experts have predicted that winning a medal or two in this discipline will be a cinch.
The Wembley arena hosts the badminton event where Saina Nehwal—in sterling touch in the past couple of months—is a strong contender to break the hegemony of the Chinese. The doubles pair of Gutta Jwala-Ashwini Ponappa is capable of a surprise too.
In tennis, the hallowed environs of Wimbledon have been given a face-lift for the Games—and have had some restrictions imposed too. No Pimms to be available because of branding issues, for instance, which prompted Andy Murray’s mother to reportedly say, “What’s the point in going there then?”
But Indian supporters might be interested. Tennis has hogged the headlines for all the wrong reasons and driven the country to cynical despair. Yet, Leander Paes and Sania Mirza form among the strongest mixed doubles pairs, so good news could follow the weeks of bad news.
Shooting is the other area where India’s marksmen are highly rated. Add wrestling and boxing—including the women’s section which has the remarkable M.C. Mary Kom—and there are enough reasons to be optimistic about an encore in the three disciplines that yielded the three medals at Beijing.
Not to forget, there is also hockey, the abiding hook with the Olympics—in terms of achievement, medals and pathos. By any reckoning, India are not among the top six or seven teams in the world. But having qualified for the Games, who is to say that the team can’t rise above its potential.
In fact, this is the essence of the Olympics. Such is the surcharged atmosphere and the deep desire to excel, for self and country, that linear logic often becomes meaningless. We’ll have to wait and see if India’s impact on these Games is restricted only till the opening ceremony or goes beyond.
Ayaz Memon writes a fortnightly column in Mint, Beyond Boundaries.