Of the many things Dutee Chand said and tweeted after her first-round exit in the women’s 100m at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, this was the most revealing: “I was really scared and nervous. This is a completely different atmosphere, everyone was so (much) taller than me."

Excuses, excuses, says the cynicism brigade. After all, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who won the 100m in both Beijing (2008) and London (2012), is 8cm shorter than Chand. The woman who replaced Fraser-Pryce as sprint queen, Elaine Thompson, is only 7cm taller at 1.67m. But Fraser-Pryce and Thompson come from Jamaica, an island whose unparalleled athletic tradition dates back to the London Olympics of 1948, in which Arthur Wint won gold in the 400m. It’s not uncommon for crowds of more than 30,000 to watch Champs, the national school championships that have been the springboard to greater things for Usain Bolt, Fraser-Pryce, Thompson and so many others.

Chand clocked 11.69 seconds in her heat, nearly half a second off the Indian record (11.24) she had set in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a month earlier. She claimed she wasn’t prepared for the 11pm start—her bedtime—but was candid enough to admit that at 20, and after two years away from the spotlight while fighting the International Association of Athletics Federations (Iaaf) rules on hyperandrogenism, she had much to learn.

“It was my first Olympics so I was not aware how to go about it," she said. “Hope I will be better prepared next time."

But will she? Her journey to Rio spanned 36 hours and three flights in economy class, while officials, whose sole contribution to Indian Olympic campaigns is causing national embarrassment, schmoozed in business class. Her coach did not travel with her. He had accreditation issues, with most Indian passes having been diverted to undeserving hangers-on.

Of those who did challenge for a medal, Dipa Karmakar had to do without her personal physio till the eve of her final. His travel to Rio was initially deemed “wasteful". Meanwhile, the chief medical officer attached to the team, Pawandeep Singh, just happens to be the son of Tarlochan Singh, vice-president of the Indian Olympic Association. This is how we rock ‘n’ roll.

Let’s not cut down on the carping though. One of India’s prominent “social commentators"—self-proclaimed—tweeted last week: “Goal of Team India at the Olympics: Rio jao. Selfies lo. Khaali haat wapas aao. What a waste of money and opportunity."

Without going into how qualified she is to comment on athletic excellence or otherwise, let’s examine the issue of money and opportunity. An online retail site gifted Chand a pair of spikes before she left for Rio, after she complained that the ones she was using were worn out. Lalita Shivaji Babar, who finished 10th in the 3,000m steeplechase, didn’t even buy her first pair of shoes until she was barred from running barefoot at the age of 16.

“I hadn’t even heard of adidas, Puma and Reebok," she told Ruralindiaonline. “I still remember those shoes. They were of a local company called Pama. It was much later that I started buying branded shoes fit for running."

P.T. Usha with her coach. Photo: Hindustan Times
P.T. Usha with her coach. Photo: Hindustan Times

Babar’s sense of satisfaction at reaching the final—the first Indian to do so in a track event since P.T. Usha in Los Angeles in 1984—has been interpreted by some as indicative of the lack of hunger among Indian athletes. But if you look at the numbers, you’ll see just how far she has come in the last couple of years, after switching from the marathon to an event that is arduous in a completely different way.

At the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, two years ago, Ruth Jebet, born in Kenya but representing Bahrain, won the steeplechase with plenty to spare. The next three girls crossed the line almost together. Babar won the bronze in 9:35.37, edging out Sudha Singh, her teammate and 2010 champion, by 0.27 seconds.

At the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, Babar smashed the national record in the heats, running 9:27.86. She finished eighth in the final and was the first Asian past the tape. Jebet finished 11th. A year on, Jebet finished more than 7 seconds ahead of the field, with Babar, who had set a national record of 9:19.76 in the heats, coming home 10th.

There’s a reason Jebet moved to Bahrain. A world junior champion in 2014, she’s one of many African and Caribbean athletes who have moved to the Gulf states, where they realized a while ago that money spent often translates into medals won.

Babar, who was employed by Indian Railways in 2006, has worked as a ticket collector at the Ghatkopar station in Mumbai. You can be sure that thousands who walked past her wouldn’t have had a clue about her athletic prowess. As for Jebet, from the time she was a young teen, her sole focus has been Olympic glory, which was achieved with a blistering run that took her under 9 minutes.

Athletes from other countries have overcome grinding poverty to win Olympic medals, so why not Indians? John Akii-Bua, who grew up herding cattle in a family of 43 children, ran 47.81 seconds in the men’s 400m hurdles final in 1972, a time that not one man could match in the semi-finals in Rio. He trained in a weighted (25 lbs) vest and often ran three laps of the hurdles at one time.

But look at the old videos and you’ll also see what a superb physique he had. Tall, lithe and with tremendously powerful legs, Akii-Bua’s was a body made for the hurdles. Indian athletes, who have to battle with the abject lack of sporting culture, also lag behind when it comes to physical attributes. Stand Chand next to Dafne Schippers, silver medallist in the 200m in Rio (Thompson won gold), and it’s not hard to guess which one is at the pinnacle of her sport.

The one athlete India had with the physique to challenge the world’s best didn’t achieve as much as she should have. When she went to Los Angeles in 1984, everything was in P.T. Usha’s favour. The girls who had finished in the top 5 at the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki were all missing as a result of the Soviet Union-led boycott of the Games.

In 1984 alone, eight athletes from the Eastern Bloc had run under 55 seconds, with Margarita Ponomaryova smashing the world record in June (53.68). Five girls from the Soviet Union and Birgit Uibel of erstwhile East Germany would finish the year with times that were better than the gold-medal winner in Los Angeles.

Usha, just 20 at the time and called “Yoosha" by the American commentators, won her semi-final in 55.94. The decision to concentrate on the 400m hurdles had been taken just over a year earlier, with O.M. Nambiar, her coach, recognizing the opportunity that came with the event being a relatively new one.

The final, though, was all about one woman. Nawal El Moutawakel was two years older than Usha and studying at Iowa State University, where she had raced against the likes of Judi Brown and Sandra Farmer, who also made the final. The night before the race, El Moutawakel sat down with two of her coaches and watched hours of tape, noting down her opponents’ strengths and weaknesses and her own.

The coaches advised her to go flat out from the start, instead of conserving energy for the final 150m. In her own words, El Moutawakel went off “like a bullet". Usha’s sprinting ability, which would fetch her many medals at the Asian level, allowed her to claw back distance in the home straight, but the margin of victory was emphatic—El Moutawakel crossed the line in 54.61 seconds, and Usha came fourth at 55.42.

Logically, Usha should have been at her peak in 1988, but a heel injury in the run-up to Seoul played a big part in her finishing seventh and last in her first-round heat. It’s telling too that she never improved on her time from the 1984 final. Debbie Flintoff-King, the Australian who won gold in 1988, was four years older than Usha and finished sixth in Los Angeles. By Seoul, she had shaved more than 3 seconds off her LA time.

Had Usha gone to the US and become part of the collegiate system that is home to pretty much every top athlete and swimmer, who knows what she might have achieved? Nambiar was a hugely committed coach, but he lacked the know-how to take his ward to the next level. It’s a familiar story in Indian sport.

Going to train in the US or Europe isn’t cheap, and that’s where the sports ministry—currently headed by someone who can’t tell one athlete (Srabani Nanda) from another (Chand)—and private funds have a role to play. Just look at the example of Great Britain. In Atlanta, where India finished 71st in the medals table, courtesy a bronze for Leander Paes, Britain were in 36th place with just one gold.

John Major, then coming to the end of his years as prime minister, took the unpopular decision to utilize national lottery funding for elite sport. With far-sighted individuals such as Dave Brailsford (cycling) and David Tanner (rowing) at the helm of planning and preparation, Britain is now second only to the US when it comes to golds won. According to The Guardian, roughly £5.5 million (around 47.4 crore) has been invested on every medal won in Rio.

Manish Singh, who finished 13th in the men’s 20km walk, beating the silver medallist from London along the way, has worked as a waiter in a small restaurant in Uttarakhand. He too didn’t own a proper pair of shoes till recently. When we mock these people, what we’re really doing is shining a light on our own apathy and callousness. India, sadly, is no country for a sportsperson. Not unless you play cricket.

Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief of Wisden India.

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