Olympics 2020 was postponed due to the covid 19 threat was held this year with many new regulations and strict measures. As the first large-scale sports event at the international level since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mega event happened with some kinds of adjustments by all the participants involved in it. They had to wait for around a year to fulfil their dreams, their training was disrupted, they suffered from travel regulations and so on. As expected, the United States of America (U.S.A) took the top position in the recently concluded Tokyo Olympics 2020 with a total of 113 medals, which include 39 gold medals, 41 silver, and 33 bronze medals. India, the second-largest population in the world, managed to occupy only the 48th position. Contextualising the event, this article is an attempt to critically analyse the performance of India in international sports events like the Olympics.
India At Tokyo 2020: An Overview
According to the Indian Olympic Association- IOA (2021), India’s first entry to an Olympics was at the Paris Olympics in 1900. At that time, the country was represented by Norman Pritchard, an Anglo Indian who was holidaying in Paris during that time. Since 1948, after independence, it began sending teams representing several sports– boxing, athletics, weight lifting, wrestling, hockey, etc. with officials for each of these sports- each selected by its respective National Sports Federations.
Till the Tokyo Olympics 2020, 6 medals — 2 Silver and 4 Bronze- were India’s highest tally in the 2012 London Games. In 2019, the IOA president Narinder Batra had expressed confidence that India will win at least ten medals at the Tokyo Olympics 2021. “With 126 athletes across 18 sports disciplines, India had sent its biggest-ever contingent to Tokyo Olympics. Indian athletes participated in 69 cumulative events across, highest ever for the country”, reported in LiveMint (2021). However, Indians won only seven medals in total in the event; 4 of these are Bronze, 2 are Silver and 1 Gold medal. And yet, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is concluded as the most successful episode in India’s 120-year history of competition in the international event.
The first medal in the event for the nation came in women’s 49 kg weightlifting, in which Mirabai Chanu won Silver. It was the first time the country won a medal on the first day in an Olympic Games. Medal No. 2 was by PV Sindhi as she won Bronze in women’s singles badminton. The third medal also came as Bronze by the 23-year-old woman welterweight boxer Lovlina Borgohain. Next was the turn of the much-awaited win by Men’s Hockey Team. Unfortunately, India had to be satisfied with another Bronze. Here, the interesting thing is that no member of the present Indian Hockey Team was born when the country last won an Olympic medal in the field. It was the timely performance of PR Sreejesh, Indian goalkeeper, who denied an equaliser to the opponents in a penalty corner with few seconds left on the clock to end the game. That sensational performance led India to have its 12th Olympic medal in men’s hockey. Ravi Kumar Dahiya contributed the next medal as he won Silver in men’s 57 kg wrestling. Bajrang Punia gave India the sixth medal and the fourth Bronze in this Olympics in men’s 65 kg wrestling. Indian wrestlers have been keeping their proud run of bringing back at least 1 Olympic medal from every game since 2008. However, India had to wait till the end days to achieve a gold medal. The only gold medal of the nation in Tokyo 20 was by Neeraj Chopra in men’s javelin throw. The official website of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic wrote, “Neeraj Chopra hurled the javelin into the sky – and it sent a nation to the moon, as India won an athletics gold medal at the Olympics for the first time”. Thus, he became the second individual Olympic champion after Abhinav Bindra (won a gold medal in men’s air rifle 10m at the 2008 Beijing Olympics). Through Neerav’s gold, the country also ended its 121-year wait for an Olympic medal of any colour in athletics.
Are we being too complacent?
In Olympics, the country that wins more gold medals is placed in the top position. Thus India finished at the 48th spot in the Tokyo Olympics. If Neeraj Chopra failed to achieve a gold medal, India would have been placed at the 64th spot. This was the country’s only second gold medal in over 40 years. Abhinav Bindra won the last gold medal for India in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where the country finished at the 51st spot. Times Now in an article titled “India Finishes Tokyo Olympics at 48th Spot, Delivers Best Performance in 4 Decades”, reveals, India’s position was at 57 and 67 in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, respectively. It shows that the country mostly ranks low in the medal tally since the international sports event started.
Why does the country perform so badly at international level sports competitions like the Olympics? The same questions are posed towards India every four years (except the Tokyo Olympics 2020, which happened after five years due to COVID 19 induced security threat). Our governments are always keen to raise India’s global profile and status. Sports-related activities in the country have been underfunded and stained by corruption for decades. Private ventures stepped in such a situation where elite athletes got training. Hannah Beech and Shalini Venugopal Bhagat of The New York Times (2021) quote Abhinav Bindra, the gold medalist in Beijing Olympics in 2008, “his success was rooted not in state support but family wealth. His father built a world-class shooting range in their home in the northern city of Chandigarh” (Beech and Shalini. 2021). It shows that the nation does not have sufficient infrastructure facilities for training its athletes, and India’s exposure to participating in international events is also low. It is also important to remember that the country established National Sports Development Fund (NSDF) in 1998 only, almost five decades after gaining independence.
The country’s previous gold medals were mainly in the field of hockey (1928-80). It includes six succeeding gold medals in the field. Now the question is how it lost its supremacy in hockey? One of the reasons behind the decline of Hockey in India can be found in the growth of other sports. For instance, Cricket, not there in the Olympics, by far became the most popular sport in India, having a lucrative domestic league Indian Premier League (IPL). Chinmay Pagar (2021) in an article titled “Hockey is NOT the National Sport of India? Here’s Why!” observes, “the growth of Cricket and people’s disinterest in hockey was the biggest reason behind the fall of once the greatest sport in India. The fanfare, prize money, brand endorsements, everything started flowing in Cricket’s direction, making it easier for the younger generation to choose the sport of their interest”. The list of reasons behind the poor performance of India in the Olympics is very long.
India has been participating in the Olympics since the beginning of the 20th century. However, it has won just a few medals so far. With seven medals –4 bronze, 2 silver, and 1 gold – the Tokyo 2020 have been the most celebrated Olympic Games in India’s history with the highest tally ever. India was the most successful nation in the history of the Olympic hockey competition. But, the country had to wait 41 years for a medal in the sport. The 23-year-old javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra created history with his gold as he became the first to win a medal in athletics. Surely, the first-ever medal in this field could inspire the young generation of the nation. Anyhow, India can proudly remember Tokyo 2020 as the most successful Olympic Games ever. However, some questions are still on the air: Why does the country punch well below its weight in international sports events? Why does it struggle to win gold medals in Olympics?
*Dr. Lirar Pulikkalakath is Assistant Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India.