Hopes go Down Under
IN July, 1996, Indian tennis idol Leander Paes became an arabpati -- the only one from a billion countrymen to win an Olympic medal -- ending a 20-year-old Olympic medal drought for the biggest democracy of the world.
And now four years later, when 10,300 athletes and approximately 5,100 support staff from 200 nations have re-assembled at Sydney to vie for 185 Gold medals, Indian sportspersons continue to grope in the dark, hoping that Leander Paes would once again salvage the nation's pride with yet another scintillating performance. The nation, rocked by the recent "match-fixing scam in cricket", has also fixed its eyes on the hockey team with a fond hope that it would end its "medalless" run for the past 20 years to return to its winning ways.
Abhinav Bindra (shooting) and Kunjurani Malleshwari (weightlifting, women) are the only other bright spots in 100-odd strong Indian contingent which has descended in Sydney for the biggest sporting event of the millennium. None of "Indian medal hopes" at Sydney qualify for Haryana Chief Minister Om Parkash Chautala's "bonanza" of Rs 1 crore, for none of them belongs to Haryana.
Unlike any of the recent Olympic Games, no expatriate will be joining our national contingent in the Olympic city. Some of our sportspersons, including athletes and the hockey team members, arrived in Australia a month before the Games began for acclimatisation.
In fact some of the expatriate Indian sportspersons had been dominating our national sports scenario, raising false hopes of an "elusive medal" each time the Olympic Games were held.
The participation of expatriates in the Olympic Games has been there from day one. In 1928, when India participated in the Olympic Games for the first time, Jaipal Singh was called from England to join the hockey team that returned home with a gold medal.
Of late, shooter Soma Dutta had been joining the national contingent in the Olympic cities though she could not finish among the top 10 in her events. Before her was Geeta Zutshi, the Asian Games champion middle distance runner from Haryana, who immigrated to the USA but could never return to the medal podium after her training abroad. And before her was Kamaljit sandhu, also an Asian Games gold medalist, who trained in the USA but could not progress beyond her 1970 Bangkok Asian Games gold medal in 400 m run.
In 1996, India also fielded a US-based swimmer Sunita Puri in the swimming events but she, too, ended among the "also rans".
Triple jumper Mohinder Singh Gill was also a "medal hope" before he participated in the 1972 Olympic Games. But he faltered and committed "fouls" on all three jumps to get disqualified from the event.
India's closest opportunities to get a Olympic medal other than hockey had been in track and field where both Milkha Singh and sprint queen PTUsha faltered at the final step. Equally excellent performance came from middle distance runner Sriram Singh. No other track and field star had ever been within a reach of Olympic medal.
Neither training abroad nor training by foreign coaches has helped India to come out of its "medalless rut". Since 1980 when the country started preparing its athletes for the 1982 Asian Games, foreign coaches, including Russians, Germans (East) ,Yugoslavians and Cubans, were given a free hand in training our sportspersons. Some of our teams had long training-cum-competition stints abroad. But the results are all before us. We are where we were 20 years ago.
Interestingly during these 20 years, India played host to a number of world events in various sports. With the exception of one or two, in most of these events, unlike other host countries who aspire to be in medals’ list, Indian contingents ended among the "also ran" categories. Now we are bidding for the 2002 Asian Games, the inaugural Afro-Asian games and also the 2008 Commonwealth Games. But the mute question is are we as a nation really prepared to compete with other nations, including developing nations, in such major sporting events?
What is wrong with us ? Why we a nation of a billion people cannot produce sportspersons of Olympic calibre ?This is, of course, no time to raise such questions as Olympic Games have already begun. But then we have to do some introspection. Every time , after the Olympic Games, we cut a sorry figure.
India's track record in Olympic Games has been far from inspiring. Gold medals in hockey from 1928 to 1956, a silver in 1960, a gold medal again in 1964 and then a bronze each in 1968 and 1972. In 1976, India were seventh and returned to the victory podium for a gold from a depleted field in 1980. But since then, the hockey medal has been eluding the country. Now the team led by Punjab's Ramandeep Singh Grewal will have to fight it out to bring the country back on medals tally. The task, though arduous, is well within the grasp of our contingent which is perhaps one of the most experienced squads in Sydney.
The Indian team's strength lies in its experience. Besides Dhanraj Pillay and Mukesh, the team has versatile players like Baljit Singh Saini, skipper Ramandeep and striker Baljit Singh Dhillon.
Other than hockey, our medal hopes rest on three individuals--- Leander Paes (and Mahesh Bhupathi) in tennis, Abhinav Bindra (shooting) and Kunjurani Malleshwari (weightlifting). Though the track record of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi during this Olympic year has been far from inspiring, they can still shrug off their lethargy and be a lethal combination to give India a medal or two in the sport.
They have played together only once this year and lost in the first round of the USOpen. The only worry about them is their fitness. Reports indicate that Leander Paes is not 100 per cent fit.
Chandigarh's Abhinav Bindra is a shooter to watch. He has done astonishingly well in the recent international events. He appears to be a shade better than what Jaspal Rana was on the eve of the last Olympic Games. With nerves of steel and excellent concentration, all that Abhinav needs is a little bit of luck and a good draw.
Kunjurani Malleshwari is India's best bet. This woman from the North-
East is certainly a potential medal winner.