Yet another day goes by without an Indian medal in Rio. What began as tragedy has become farce and is slowly transitioning into comedy. Of course, one must not approach sporting results with any sense of entitlement. Just because we won six very satisfying medals at London 2012 doesn’t automatically mean that we win at least another six in Rio.
Or does it?
Over the last few days, as the Indian campaign sinks ever deeper into despair, there has been a relentless tidal wave of instant punditry on the problems with Indian sport. (And this writer has played his part in this deluge.) Some of the issues raised are genuine. Medals are expensive and we perhaps need to spend a lot more money on our Olympics projects. And there is no doubt that sports administration in India is a mess and needs urgent cleaning up. Do we need a better ‘sporting culture’? I suppose so. But I have no idea what that means. More people playing sport? More people playing diverse sports? More social support for sports as a career? A healthier national lifestyle? I don’t think there should be any argument with that but translating that culture to medals is still anything but a given. I’ve also seen people blame ignorance for our medal drought. This I am more sceptical about. It is not like the average person in the UK is leaping over pommel horses every weekend. Or the average Hungarian is a keen fencer.
Winning Olympics medals is a complex problem with very many different types of solutions.
However, there is one strategy that is worth, perhaps, looking at. Especially in the light of Great Britain’s splendid performance in Rio so far. (And, as you will see, India’s medal haul in London four years ago.)
Let us glance through the list of British medallists in Rio. At the time of writing this piece, Team GB have won 41 medals. Of the 17 gold medals in this tally, almost half involve individuals—alone or in teams—who have won medals before in Rio. Indeed there are eight British competitors at Rio who have won three or more medals. Bradley Wiggins has won eight medals starting with a bronze at Sydney in 2000. This is his fifth Olympics.
Work down through the list of silver and bronze medallists and you see even more cases of British Olympians who have found success in multiple Olympics.
Which suggests that a nation’s Olympics project is not just a matter of finding talent of high quality, but also of sustaining them at the highest level once they have been identified. This is, of course, not just a ‘hack’ unique to the British squad. The Americans, Chinese and most of the other top Olympics nations all seem to get good mileage out of their athletes especially once they have won a medal.
Which is where India’s haul at London 2012 is worth looking at. London was, by most metrics, India’s most successful Olympics ever. India secured six medals across four disciplines.
So what happened to them?
Silver medallist Vijay Kumar has seen his shooting career go into decline, plagued by injury and a subsequent loss of form. Two years after London, Kumar had surgery to correct bad posture and a pinched nerve that, according to an Indian Express report, was so bad that Kumar “couldn’t summon the power to lift a gun and pull the trigger”. In January, he failed to qualify for Rio after the Asia Olympic Qualifying Competition in New Delhi.
Wrestler Sushil Kumar, the second silver medallist at London 2012 and a bronze medallist from 2008, will sit out the Rio Olympics after a prolonged, and acrimonious, battle against the Wrestling Federation of India and his compatriot Narsingh Yadav. Yadav won India a place in the 76kg men’s freestyle wrestling event. Kumar, who was injured during the qualification tournament where Yadav won a bronze, later demanded a trial against Yadav. The demand went up to the Delhi High Court that rejected it.
Meanwhile, Yadav himself was embroiled in a doping saga that has since been resolved. Thus, Sushil Kumar, the only Indian to ever win more than one individual medal at the Olympics, missed out on Rio.
The four bronze medallists in London were Saina Nehwal, Gagan Narang, Yogeshwar Dutt and Mary Kom. Nehwal has had a lacklustre Olympic tournament in Rio that was plagued by a knee injury. She was eliminated at the group stage. Nehwal has also slipped down the BWF women’s ranking from 1 in October 2015 to 5 right now. Mary Kom, who became a national hero after London, failed to qualify for Rio through two qualifying tournaments, and a wild-card application was rejected by the IOC in June. Gagan Narang came into Rio with high expectations, but was unable to qualify for the finals in any of his three shooting events.
Which leaves us with Yogeshwar Dutt.
On Sunday, Dutt has a chance to become the second non-Hockey playing Indian to ever win a second medal at the Olympics.
Comparing these performances to those of Team GB raises an important point. Sure, it can be hard to find new talent in India. Sure, they are subject to ridiculous administrators and poor funding. But surely once you produce a medallist who has overcome those hurdles and tasted that success, you want to nurture them and milk them for all the talent and experience they have? An Olympic medallist is a precious resource. But it appears that our difficulties with finding champions is only slightly worse than our problems with keeping them on top.