Columns | 2021: The Year In Review: Playtime with Boria Majumdar
Triumphs and Tears
The year India undid one hundred years of Olympic underperformance
17 Dec, 2021
WITH THE OLYMPICS, Paralympics, T20 World Cup, European Championship (Euros), not to mention all the annual events, including grand slams and Diamond Leagues, finally taking place, 2021 has been an incredible year for sport. More so after what happened in 2020 when with lives at stake, it was essential to minimise all forms of physical contact. The world wasn’t prepared for Covid and no one really knew if it was possible to resume sport in the midst of a raging pandemic. In 2021, sport came roaring back thanks to the intervention of science and the discovery of vaccines and therapeutics.
The Paralympic Resurgence: A More Sensitive Country
From the perspective of Indian Olympic and Paralympic sport, it was a breakthrough year. It was in 2004 that Devendra Jhajharia, who won his third Paralympic medal in Tokyo, was travelling to his first Paralympic Games. Unlike in 2021 when the prime minister, sports minister, members of the Sports Authority of India and a lot many others wished Jhajharia and gave him a send-off, in 2004 there was one person who had accompanied him to the airport. It was his father. And as Devendra very pertinently recounted, “My father said to me if you win a medal toh badlao aayga. Agar har jate ho toh kuch nahi badlaega”. Devendra went on to win gold in Athens and in the very next year the Union Government accorded recognition to the Paralympic Committee of India. Since then it has been a long and difficult journey. Lack of support and facilities meant athletes would have to run from pillar to post to play sport. It meant they would have to struggle that much harder than any able bodied athlete would ever dream of. With Rio 2016, the struggle started to pay off when India won four medals, having sent a contingent of 19 athletes. Tokyo in a sense completed this change and was a true ‘palat de’ moment for Indian sport. From the way para athletes were given a send-off to the number of sponsors who came forward, including big brands like Thums Up, MPL, JSW and others, Paralympics in India finally got its due. Fifty-four athletes winning 19 medals, including five gold medals, was a telling statement. More so when we think that the cumulative medals tally between 1968, when we first participated at the Paralympics, and 2016, when we won four medals, was 12. Tokyo is a 425 per cent improvement on the Rio number.
The Neeraj Moment: Tokyo 2020
It was about 7:30PM Tokyo time on August 7th when India won its sixth medal at the Tokyo Games. For me, it was a sense of relief more than anything else. Having seen the disappointment in Rio, it was indication that Indian sport was starting to make a comeback. Medals from PV Sindhu, Mirabai Chanu and Lovlina Borgohain meant the women were on song and it wasn’t a bad Olympic campaign after all. While we were all excited about Neeraj Chopra that evening, none of us had any idea of what was to unfold later on. Having seen Neeraj at qualification, it was logical to believe he had a chance. Yes, there was Johannes Vetter, but the German wasn’t at his best in qualification and many believed he could wilt in the heat. Could it be Neeraj’s night then?
The first throw set it up: 87.03 metres was indication Neeraj wasn’t overawed by the big stage. The few Indians at the stadium, which included media, athletes and officials, had found voice. The world too wanted India to win. It was India walking the path of sporting respectability with Neeraj Chopra. Trying to undo 100 years of underperformance on the Olympic stage. And then, the second throw happened. The moment Neeraj had his hands up, we knew it was a fantastic throw. What we did not know yet was if it was enough. Had he crossed his first throw and broken his own national record? That’s when the measurement flashed on the scoreboard: 87.58m and we had all started to lose speech.
It was good enough for an Olympic gold and Tokyo was a true watershed in the history of India’s Olympic encounters. With serious government support now a reality and with the private sector doing its bit, we can expect much more from Paris 2024 when the dream of winning 10
medals can surely become a reality.
The Hockey Resurgence
Contrary to men’s hockey, which was first introduced at the Olympics in 1904 and thereafter was played in 1920, women’s hockey had to wait for long and was first introduced at the Moscow Games of 1980. In fact, when women’s hockey was first introduced at the Moscow Olympiad in 1980 as a medal sport, India was one of the six teams that contested for the honours. The other nations in the fray were Zimbabwe, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Austria. India began its campaign by defeating the Austrians 2-0 at the Young Pioneers stadium in Moscow. Despite the victory, the coach, Kartar Singh, seemed dissatisfied. Speaking to the media he had declared, “I would say what you saw was 50 per cent of the true capabilities of the team.” Interestingly, the Indian girls began with the battle cry “Sat Sri Akaal”, as their male compatriots had done at the Moscow Games. Eventually, however, the girls fell short and were out of medal contention, finishing fourth.
Tokyo was a true watershed in the history of India’s olympic encounters. With serious government support now a reality and with the private sector doing its bit, we can expect much more from Paris 2024 when the dream of winning 10 medals can surely become a reality
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It was after a period of 36 years that the Indian women’s team made it to Rio 2016, itself an achievement of sorts. However, losing all their games was a huge setback and not many had given them a chance going into Tokyo. To beat Australia in the quarter-final and fight Britain till the very last minute in Japan was the stuff of fantasy and all of a sudden Rani Rampal and her team were the real “Chak De” girls the country had always wanted to celebrate. They are real, not reel, and the sport has received a huge fillip since Tokyo.
If the girls finished fourth, the men went a step better and won a medal for the first time in 41 years. And the manner in which they fought was the standout feature of the campaign. Down 1-3 against Germany in the bronze medal contest, India displayed eight minutes of real magic and eventually went on to win 5-4. Each one of us who covered that game felt privileged to see the fight. Till the very last second, the game was in the balance and that’s what sport is all about. For hockey, this medal is far more than a bronze and can go a long way in galvanising support for the sport in India.
Mission Domination in Cricket: An Unfinished Quest
Yet again, India lost a high stakes final in 2021. While we came second to New Zealand in the World Test Championship, it doesn’t take away from the fact that we held the Test mace for four years in a row. We know we have the bowling attack to pick 20 wickets. We know we have a very good system of workload management in place. We know we have the 99 per cent. And now it is the quest for that 1 per cent that should drive Virat and his team in red-ball cricket and Rohit and his boys in the white-ball realm. The home stretch is what is missing. That final sprint where Usain Bolt would look back and celebrate. That final push that allows Novak Djokovic to go past Stefanos Tsitsipas and win at Roland Garros. That final pass under pressure that made Maradona the greatest. For Virat, the bulk of the work has been done and it is the story of the 1 per cent that will drive him the next few months.
In white-ball cricket, it wasn’t a great year with India failing to make the World Cup semi-final. With Rohit Sharma now appointed captain and Rahul Dravid in charge in the changing room, all of India would be hoping for a change of fortune in ICC tournaments in 2022. With another T20 World Cup just 10 months away, Rohit has a chance to make an immediate impact. It is a format that is consumed and watched by millions in India and is the perfect stage for him to get the monkey off his back and loosen the noose that has been tightening for a while on a team that has not won an ICC trophy since 2013.
Looking ahead, 2022 is a big year for Indian sport. With a cricket World Cup and two multi-discipline games in one year, the stakes will be at their highest. With Covid still a reality, the challenges are real and it will be interesting to see how India and its athletes get ready in the coming months.
About The Author
Boria Majumdar is a sport journalist and the author of, among other titles, Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians
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