Let me push straight off the starting blocks, to employ an athletic aphorism, seeing as we are all still wallowing in the warm afterglow of the Olympic Games just concluded in Tokyo. A word of caution. I may step on sensitive toes while offering my personal take on how the country has reacted to what our boys and girls have achieved in the land of the rising sun. I shall not be treading warily on eggshells. With special reference to the Indian context and the gallant show displayed by our sports heroes who have come away with one gold, a brace of silvers and four bronze medals, making seven in all. This is not an earth-shattering collective performance for a country the humongous size of India, but it is a more than encouraging start, and our medal tally represents the highest ever for the country in four decades of the Olympic Games. So, congratulations and salutations to all our sports warriors who have acquitted themselves with great passion, panache and pride.
Yes, we would have been overjoyed if shuttler P.V. Sindhu had bagged the gold medal (walloping a few Chinese along the way), ditto with wrestler Bajrang Punia and weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, boxer Lovlina Borgohain (love the name), and our gallant hockey teams – men and women, but we rejoice at whatever colour of metal their mettle delivered. One does not look at Olympic medals in the mouth, particularly when they have been hard won. (Even the mighty Djokovic went medal-less). Then again, Neeraj Chopra did the near impossible, winning India’s first ever gold in a track and field event – the javelin throw. The way in which he expressed, retrospectively, that he was absolutely certain of out-throwing his rivals, reflected a certain insouciant charm and confidence rather than braggadocio. Chopra also showed that he was politically savvy in stating that he would have liked to have shared the podium with fifth placed Pakistani, Arshad Nadeem, bringing more glory to Asia. Not just a handsome face, our Neeraj! The resultant euphoria that erupted across the length and breadth of the nation was perfectly understandable, in contrast to the level-headed calm with which the young athlete responded to all the adulation that deservedly came his way. To say nothing of the moolah. This was manna from heaven.
While commending the medal winners, let us spare a thought for the likes of our women’s hockey team, golfer Aditi Ashok, discus hurler Kamalpreet Kaur and grappler Deepak Punia (shared surname with Bajrang a happy serendipity), all of whom fell within a whisker of bagging a bronze. In sum, India was placed 48th in the medals table, its highest ranking in 40 years. I am still trying to get my head round how we were ranked 23rd in the 1980 Moscow games with just one solitary medal – the men’s hockey gold.
That said, it would be entirely appropriate to mention another Indian javelin thrower, Padma Shri Devendra Jhajaria. ‘Devendra who?’ I hear you ask. He was the only Indian to win two gold medals at any Olympic or Paralympic games – one at the Athens Paralympics in 2004 and another in 2016 at the Rio Paralympics. When you consider that he achieved this with just one arm, the mind boggles. Sadly, Jhajaria already joins the swelling ranks of India’s unsung and forgotten heroes. He wings his way to Tokyo once again where the latest edition of the Paralympics gets under way shortly.
We now move to the not very pleasant side of India’s heart-warming Olympic story. This is where the eggshells and sensitive toes come in. If I were pushed to give it a working title it would be something on the lines of ‘Clambering on to the bandwagon.’ I fancy you know where I am going with this, dear reader. Your agile brain would have leapt to the conclusion, correctly, that I am about to express considerable angst over the manner in which pretty much anyone who was anyone in our country – the news media channels (both print and television) and through them, ministers and their minions, aka petty babudom, sportspersons, past and present, from all disciplines, columnists and authors, well-known personalities from the world of arts and entertainment, going all the way up to the top of the social and political tree, the PM and the President included. The forums became thinly-veiled excuses for opposing factions from the political spectrum slinging mud at each other, praising our sports heroes’ remarkable feats in the service of the nation while we had to endure venom-spewing antagonists every day preventing the passage of normal business in parliament. While political parties from every hue were united in showering unstinted encomiums on the athletes, they did not lose a moment to extol their own virtues in the process.
State government bosses announced handsome rewards to the winning athletes, which was fine and dandy, then spoilt it all by taking credit for the winners’ honours. Depending on which party was ruling that particular state, the opposition went hammer and tongs in their trenchant criticism of this tasteless self-aggrandisement, forgetting momentarily that a mirror image fiasco was taking place in their own state elsewhere in the country. As for the media, television in particular, it looked as if nothing else was happening in the country. The pandemic was forgotten as was Pegasus, petrol prices and a temperamental monsoon. Every television anchor and correspondent was hyperventilating with overweening pride, some even shedding a crocodile tear or two, the emotions threatening to overflow the banks. Many of them were full of personal anecdotes about ‘how I advised Sindhu on her footwork,’ or ‘how a young Aditi would come running to me seeking advice on the long putt.’ It is refreshing to note that Aditi herself took a more hard-nosed view of her performance. ‘To finish fourth in the Olympics is the worst feeling, but I hope to do better.’ A sensible head on young shoulders.
One correspondent even went to the extent of saying that he will be in Tokyo and should the Indian girls win a hockey medal, he will cry his eyes out while singing Jana Gana Mana at the podium ceremony. Sadly, our girls narrowly failed to make the cut for the bronze medal, thus leaving our correspondent alternately dry-eyed and lachrymose. If we sought balance and a sense of proportion in the way in which the nation ought to have responded, expressing quiet pride in what a handful of our athletes achieved coupled with a steely determination to better ourselves next time round, it was not forthcoming. The way the nation responded, it looked as if we had bagged 100 medals. Prakash Padukone, former All-England badminton champion and co-founder of Olympic Gold quest, a not-for-profit organisation promoting sports excellence, had this to say, ‘What concerns me is the complacency which is likely to have crept in after all the adulation and publicity once the bronze medal was within our athletes’ grasp. An overdone celebration is always a distraction. It does more harm than good. It is premature and makes it seem that the event is over. Players are confused, there is no incentive to go for gold as recognition and appreciation reach saturation point.’
Nowhere was the obsession with India’s Olympic performance more tellingly demonstrated than during a panel discussion on one of our English television news channels. Mr.Virendra Sharma, Labour MP in the United Kingdom, when queried on why his government was imposing needless quarantine regulations on Indians coming into the UK with a valid double-dose Covishield certificate, replied with a complete non sequitur. He held forth at length on the brilliant performance of the Indian athletes at the Tokyo Olympics, and how the Indian diaspora in the UK is over the moon with pride and joy. He finally, almost reluctantly, managed a few words on the quarantine imbroglio, promising to take the matter up with the Boris Johnson administration.
Enough said, methinks. Let me reiterate once again that we as a nation have every reason to be massively chuffed at how the ‘Seven Samurai,’ as one newspaper colourfully described them (Hockey counts as one unit), brought pride and glory to the nation. However, we must have the maturity and reflect that seven is not the greatest return for an investment on the largest ever 124 strong contingent that went to Tokyo for the 2020 Games. It is a time for sober reflection, particularly for all those who have had precious little to do with the performances but wish to bask in the limelight that does not shine on them. One can only recall the stirring words of the founder of the Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin – The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.
For now, those words should serve us in good stead and perhaps, provide cold comfort.
Postscript: The title of this piece, Citius, Altius, Fortius, the Olympic motto translates from Latin into English as Faster, Higher, Stronger. Mottos always sound so much grander in Latin. Now here’s my beef. On 20 July 2021, the Session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved a change in the Olympic motto ‘that recognizes the unifying power of sport and the importance of solidarity.’ They decided to add the word ‘Together’. So now the Olympic motto will officially read ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together’ or in Latin, ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius – Communiter.’ Which adds nothing and ruins everything. Why can’t people leave well enough alone? The motto was doing just fine all these decades with just three words and now the IOC had to go tinkering around and add a completely superfluous fourth. Committees!