In 1990 when I went for the Asian Games, P. T. Usha was the toast of Beijing. The story of Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis, immortalized by V. Shantaram in a movie, was a popular cliché to follow, but I must admit that the name didn’t seem to ring a bell with any of the locals I met. That story was stillborn.
“Oosha”, however, seemed to strike a chord with almost everyone I met. Not surprisingly, for the Payyoli Express, as P. T. Usha was popularly known, was the queen of track and field in Asia. She had dominated almost every sprint event from the 100m onwards in the continent for almost a decade, and despite her failure to win a medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, her fame in Beijing seemed untarnished.
Everywhere, Usha was top of the pops. Once I was treated to a meal by a local who wanted to know more about her, how she had trained, what people thought of her in India, etc, etc. A translator facilitated this conversation and by the time we had finished the meal, my host was even more enthralled. Unfortunately, the Beijing Games were not too kind on Indian athletes, including Usha, but that’s another story.
China then was a world apart from what it is now. The capital city seemed like it had not yet completely gotten over the “Revolution”. Beijing was still populated with people dressed in the “Mao uniform” riding bicycles, McDonald’s had just about made its entry, poverty was still evident in the housing and other aspects of life, the economy was not a matter of worldwide awe and debate. To put it briefly, China was more a slumbering giant than the superpower it is today.
But there was evidence of massive churn taking place. The world of sports, particularly, was symptomatic of this and over the fortnight that the Asian Games were held, the outstanding talent of the Chinese and their grim determination to become the best in varied disciplines, not merely badminton, table tennis and gymnastics, was evident.
Incidentally, China’s progress vis-à-vis India at the Asian Games makes for an interesting comparison. In the inaugural Games in New Delhi in 1951, India won 51 medals to place second to Japan in the medals tally. China had opted out of the event, but from all available evidence they would have made hardly a ripple had they participated.
Indeed, China was a reluctant player in most major international sports, but the potential it had became known when it made an entry into the Asian Games in Tehran in 1974. It finished third in the medals tally with 106 medals, Japan topping again with 175. By the time the Games returned to Delhi in 1982, China had drawn level with Japan—with 153 medals each. India were way down the ladder with 57.
In 1990, Chinese domination was established comprehensively as the host country won a whopping 341 medals. Next best South Korea was way behind with 181. India was eighth with 23 medals, less than half of what had been won in the inaugural Games in 1951. There was a recovery of sorts with 54 medals in Doha in 2006, but China remained unreachable with 316 medals.
The point of highlighting this trail of medal tallies is to establish that while China’s progress has been linear and exponential—leading to it becoming the highest medal winner in the Beijing Olympics in 2008—India has traced a stuttering, sputtering, inconsistent line that rises, falls, rises, falls as dramatically as the angiograph of a heart patient. In a nutshell, it reflects the ill-health of Indian sport since independence.
Incidentally, it has often been argued that India’s lack of sporting success can be attributed to poor socio-economic conditions. I was a subscriber to this myself, but as the graphic reproduced here from a study done by Ernst and Young in March (India…Get, Set, Go) reveals emphatically, this theory is flaky.
For instance, countries with much lower GDP than India, such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Zimbabwe, have won more medals. Where these relatively “poorer” countries have benefited is that whatever their economic handicaps, they have been able to develop a sports ecosystem that has enabled excellence. India—for reasons ranging from government apathy to public/sponsor disinterest—has been unable to develop such an ecosystem yet.
It can be argued with forceful logic that countries with huge populations can get bogged down with their own weight. As the graphic The Beijing tally shows, even China’s medals per million are meagre; in fact, the second least. But the fact remains that it has been growing at a faster clip than India, which is the worst of the countries listed here.
It won’t be as easy winning honours at the Asian level even now. With China, Japan, the Koreas, Iran, Indonesia, etc, in the fray in the Games starting Friday in Guangzhou, competition will be excruciating even for stellar performers such as Saina Nehwal, Vijender Singh, Gagan Narang, Abhinav Bindra, Sharath Kamal and sundry shooters, grapplers, archers, etc, that make up the contingent.
That said, there is a strong feeling of achievement and pride in the Indian psyche now. Indians want to be winners, not merely participants. Is there a change in the offing after the spectacular success of Indian athletes in the Commonwealth Games, where we finished second in the medals tally? The next fortnight should provide some answers.
Ayaz Memon is a senior journalist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org