New Delhi: It is now common knowledge that India is fielding its largest-ever contingent at the Olympic Games in Rio—118 at last count, after three athletes failed dope tests (though one of them, wrestler Narsingh Yadav, has been exonerated and is waiting for clearance, and the other two are waiting for the results of their B sample).

But this is also the best trained Indian contingent ever to head for an Olympic Games, and in this lie signs of a true change in India’s sporting culture. There are many reasons for this change, including a wave of awareness about sports following the medals India won at the last two Olympics—its first individual gold in the form of shooter Abhinav Bindra in 2008, and its richest haul of six medals, including the first back-to-back individual medal winner in Sushil Kumar, in 2012.

But the most immediate reason for the rapid rise in the quality of our athletes is that they have been empowered to chart their own training schedules and venues, even while being funded by the government. Till 2012, an Olympic hopeful had little option but to attend the training camps set up by the Sports Authority of India (SAI). If they wanted to be in contention to represent India at international sports meets, and if they wanted government funding, they had to do it under SAI’s thumb.

In the last four years, this has changed. Athletes can now train anywhere in the world, with whoever they want to, and still receive the funds earmarked for them. This has freed them from both the rampant and fractious politics of Indian sports, and the outdated facilities and coaching expertise of India’s training centres.

Dutee Chand, the athlete from Odisha who overcame great odds and helped overturn a global rule on gender testing, will be the first Indian sprinter to run at the Olympics since 1988. She chose not to train at SAI’s camp for women track athletes, and worked instead with a personal coach at the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad.

Also see: An interactive graphic on India’s Olympic contingent

Almost all members of the 12-strong Indian shooting contingent, India’s best medal hopes at Rio, trained in various parts of the world, working with personal coaches.

Dipa Karmakar, the first Indian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics in 52 years, also worked entirely with her personal coach, though she based herself at a SAI facility in New Delhi.

Having set their own trajectories to Rio, the athletes have spoken with unprecedented optimism about their chances—a happy balance of mental and physical readiness.

Bindra told Mint that a gold medal at Rio is not just a desire, but “a need, a complete need". He wants to end his shooting career at Rio atop the podium.

Karmakar missed out on a medal last year at the Gymnastics World Championship by a minuscule margin (and was consoled by none other than Montreal Olympics star gymnast Nadia Comaneci), and hopes to change that at the Olympics.

“I really enjoyed my time in Rio during the qualification event," she said. “The weather was like India. And, inside the gym, there were so many people shouting my name that not for once did I feel I was in a foreign country."

Badminton player Saina Nehwal, who won a bronze at the London Games, hopes to do better, and few will bet against her winning a second medal. She has spent the run-up to the Olympics honing her fitness.

“I do believe I am in the prime of my career," Nehwal said. “On a day when I am 100% fit, I know I can defeat anybody in the world."

Wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt, who, like Bindra, will be competing in his last Olympics, also says that he has never been fitter or stronger.

“I have got some of the best help in the world, both medically and in strength training," he told Mint. “Let’s see if I can be beaten at Rio."

This Olympics is also critical for the future of women’s wrestling. In 2012, Geeta Phogat became the first Indian woman wrestler to qualify for the Olympics. It had come after a decade of bitter and sometimes violent struggle to get women into wrestling, which is considered an exclusively male domain. This time, three women have qualified—Geeta’s cousin Vinesh and sister Babita, and Sakshi Malik. Each of them has the potential to win a medal, and even if one of them wins, wrestling’s male bias will be a thing of the past.

How many medals can India win? Putting a number to it is a fool’s exercise, but expect more than the count at London in 2012. Every extra medal is progress.

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