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New Delhi/Incheon: How do you judge India’s performance at the just-concluded 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea?

Simple addition suggests a climbdown: We won 65 medals at the Doha Asian Games in 2010, and we logged 57 at Incheon. Delve deeper into those numbers, and two things stand out—women have moved up substantially in the medal tally in the last decade and now have an almost even share of medals as men; and India has maintained its overall standard in those disciplines in which the Asian Games offers world-class, almost Olympic level competition.

In track and field events, women won nine medals, including two golds, while the men managed four, with no golds.

One of those golds came in the most heartening of circumstances. The women’s 4X400 team, which set the Games Record in 2010, was banned a few months after the competition after testing positive for performance-enhancing substances. The athletes were thrown out of their training centres after the ban, but they did not give up on the sport. This year, when the ban was lifted, two of those runners—Mandeep Kaur and Priyanka Pawar—made an immediate comeback to the team (Ashwini Akkunji, a member of the quartet in 2010, also made a comeback and came fourth in the 400m Hurdles at the Asian Games). The 4X400 team set a new Games Record at Incheon, and defended its gold. If there was vindication needed that the 2010 result was not dope-influenced, it could not have come in a better way.

In boxing, too, women outpunched men three medals to two (including a historic gold, India’s first, from Mary Kom).

Is there reason to focus our training efforts more on women?

“Of course they should, at least in athletics," says Mandeep Kaur. “Look at the odds we had to fight to win this medal. We had no coaches, nowhere to train. Where will the next relay team come from if things stay the same?"

P.T. Usha, who won four golds and a silver at the 1986 Asian Games and now coaches Tintu Luka (gold, 4X400m; silver, 800m), says track and field athletes do not get the kind of competitive exposure they need, despite proving themselves to be among the best in Asia.

“The girls are only competing in big events like the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, but they need to travel for smaller international tournaments more frequently," Usha says. “They need that if you want performances like these."

“It’s excellent (the way the women have performed)," says Viren Rasquinha, chief executive officer of Olympic Gold Quest, a not-for-profit organization that supports Olympic athletes with funding and expertise. “We have a very quickly growing number of female stars—Mary Kom, Sarita Devi, Saina Nehwal, Geeta Phogat; it’s very inspiring. But when it comes to training and funding, we don’t base anything on gender. Whoever has the potential, boy or girl, from Punjab or Tamil Nadu, it does not matter, should get the right backing."

Rasquinha’s take is that India’s performance has been “slightly below par" this year, though curiously, in the events in which the Asian Games has Olympic-level competition, India has kept its standards.

Indian wrestling, in which some of the world’s strongest compete at the Asian Games, continues to make steady progress. Yogeshwar Dutt won India its first gold in wrestling in 28 years, and the overall count went up from three bronze medals in 2010 to one gold, one silver and three bronze medals this time. This, despite the absence due to injury of India’s most successful wrestler, Sushil Kumar, as well as its most promising woman wrestler, Geeta Phogat.

“And of course, hockey," says Rasquinha, a former captain of the national hockey team. “Hockey makes me very happy."

India won the gold in men’s hockey for the first time since 1998, and secured a direct entry to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

If there is one discipline where India failed to make an impression, it is men’s boxing (two bronze medals), but this was expected. India’s boxing federation has gone through a lengthy ban imposed by the sport’s world governing body AIBA (International Boxing Association), starting December 2012 and ending last month. The ban was enforced after elections were found to be rigged, and continued as the boxing federation imploded with infighting. The boxers bore the brunt of this administrative failure. They could neither compete in international events nor train abroad. It was made worse by the fact that in this time, the rules of boxing underwent some sweeping changes—the use of headgear was stopped for men’s boxing, and the scoring system changed completely.

“The ban by the world body definitely hit us very badly," says G.S. Sandhu, the chief coach of the Indian team. “Since the 2008 Olympics, we have been winning medals regularly and then suddenly there was this complete halt. We were forced to just compete against each other. What is the point of that?"

Mary Kom, who won the gold in women’s boxing (India’s first at the Asian Games), has the last say on India’s showing: “We have been poor in sports for a very long time, and we say our focus is on improvement," she says. “Then we should improve many times over every four years. Have we done that? No."

Suprita Das is a senior sports correspondent for NDTV and was reporting from Incheon.

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