We’re about to enter Week 3 of the Rio Olympics and so far India have not won any medal. If this column were being written by former cricketer (and current Twitter legend) Virender Sehwag, there would be a joke here about the performance of our contingent being a tribute to Aryabhata—the Indian mathematician credited with having established the concept of “zero”.
However, since Sehwag isn’t writing this column, and since no one is sure if jokes about India at the 2016 Olympics are appropriate, here’s a little primer to help you walk the fine line between insightful and offensive.
Are we allowed to criticize our Olympians?
Yes. It’s called freedom of speech.
So why did writer Shobhaa De get attacked for what she said? Didn’t she just voice what all of us were thinking?
For those who missed it, De last week tweeted words to the effect that the Indian athletes’ presence in Rio was a waste of money and opportunity, and that they were there primarily to take selfies. The problem with this message wasn’t just the dismissive tone, it was also factually incorrect: No trip to Rio is a waste of money and, honestly, would you not take a selfie if you found yourself on the Copacabana?
So her tweet was terrible. But isn’t this exactly how we react when the Indian cricket team loses? Why should we treat our Olympians any differently?
Firstly, the fact that you make scapegoats of cricketers after every unexpected loss isn’t very nice. There’s a bigger difference, though. There are fewer grey areas in cricket—as a team, mostly, you either win or lose. This is not the case with most Olympic sports: While a fourth-place finish in an elite field is disappointing, being fourth-best in the world at your chosen sport—being fourth-best in the world in anything for that matter—is actually a remarkable achievement. So please don’t (over)react the way you did after India crashed out of the group stages in the 2007 Cricket World Cup.
Isn’t that accepting mediocrity?
Not at all. There are 11,551 athletes in Rio—that’s the cream of our species. If you really think about it, there is little that is mediocre about the Olympics (except perhaps the broadcast, which truly was a mess in the first week).
But nothing ever changes! We go into the Olympics with great expectations, which get shattered as soon as the Games begin...
Wrong. We had zero expectations when Leander Paes won the men’s singles tennis bronze in Atlanta 1996. Even less when Karnam Malleswari picked up bronze in the women’s 69kg weightlifting event four years later. In 2004, when shooter Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore made the podium in the double trap, we were shocked that the colour of the medal was silver, not bronze. Four years later, in Beijing, we returned with three medals (including Abhinav Bindra’s gold) and in London 2012, the tally went up to six—both these hauls came as a surprise. Of all these, it’s only in the last couple of editions that we’ve gone into the Games with any real expectations.
Fine, but after years of being on an upward curve, why have we fallen so sharply in Rio?
In Beijing eight years ago, three of our athletes made the medal rounds (semis/final depending on the event), and all three won medals. In London, 11 of our athletes made it to the medal rounds, and six of them won medals (food-for-thought aside: can you name the six?). This year, we’ve had seven athletes reach medal rounds so far (with our wrestlers still to come) and three of them—Bindra, gymnast Dipa Karmakar, and the tennis pairing of Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza—have just fallen short of bronze. And while this is a downward curve, what’s interesting is that we’re suddenly seeing finalists in zero-history sports—Karmakar, who finished fourth in the vault final, and Lalita Babar, who finished 10th in the steeplechase, being prime examples. This suggests that there is greater self-belief in our athletes, even though facilities back home remain comparatively rubbish and there really isn’t a sporting culture to speak of.
Okay, but doesn’t the fact that they’re losing in the finals point to a lack of mental strength?
Again, easy answer: If they lacked mental strength, they wouldn’t have been competing at the Olympics.
So you’re basically saying we shouldn’t criticize our Olympians…
Nope. Go ahead, but do try to understand the nuances of their sport, see their performances in the context of where they come from and the giants they are up against. If you do this, chances are you won’t be cribbing about selfies.
P.S.: The six medal winners in London were Vijay Kumar and Gagan Narang (shooting), Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt (wrestling), Saina Nehwal (badminton) and M.C. Mary Kom (boxing).
Deepak Narayanan has been a journalist for nearly 20 years and has worked in publications across Mumbai and Delhi before relocating to Goa, where he is researching the side effects of binge-eating fish thalis. He tweets at @deepakyen.