Lin Yuwei and Jyothi Yarraji in the women’s 100m hurdles at the Hangzhou Asian Games, October 1, 2023 (Photo: Reuters)
FOURTH IS NOT acceptable anymore.
107 medals in the Asian Games and 111 medals in the Asian Para Games, 13 quotas in shooting for Paris 2024 and counting, Indian sport has taken some serious strides in 2023. But what is perhaps most important is that Indian athletes are no longer satisfied with a fourth-place finish. For the longest time, we have celebrated coming fourth. Almost, or a near-miss was satisfying. Not anymore.
This is a very different India. No longer satisfied with fourth-place finishes and near-misses, this is an India that wants to climb the podium every time we compete. Competing won’t do, winning is the real thing. In fact, winning is gradually starting to become a habit. Be it at the Asian level or at the Olympic level or in super series or world championships, Indians aren’t overawed anymore. Take the Jyothi Yarraji example in the Asian Games. A young athlete of 23, she was all of a sudden disqualified by Chinese officials in front of 80,000 home fans in Hangzhou. The decision was appalling and Yarraji needed to stand her ground and protest. She did. She in fact decided to run under protest, knowing full well that her fate was in the balance. Despite all the mental pressure, she finished on the podium, and with the Chinese athlete who had won the silver eventually disqualified, Yarraji finished with an Asian Games silver. To be able to do what she did in China under intense pressure defines the Indian mindset in 2023. It is a win-at-all-cost attitude that wasn’t the case in the past. And that’s what gives us hope going into the new year with the Olympics and Paralympics lined up for July-August 2024.
Soon after he had missed out in Rio 2016 by the tiniest of margins, Abhinav Bindra, clearly a once-in-a-generation athlete, had said to me with a lot of sarcasm (only he could say such things in a moment like that), “Now you will celebrate me bigger. We in India love fourth-place finishes. Perhaps they are more celebrated than even a gold medal. I don’t know why we do it but we do it. Fourth place isn’t a podium finish. As athletes, we don’t need sympathy. We need empathy and support, and sympathy isn’t support.”
Bindra, the hardest taskmaster, and perfectionist I know, had yet again hit bullseye. Fourth place is good but it isn’t good enough for a podium finish. For the longest time, Indians refused to accept this and were satisfied with having performed decently. In the 1950s and ’60s India, which was searching for an identity and was struggling with itself, such an approach was acceptable. For men like Milkha Singh, it was at times difficult to even compete. In the absence of proper facilities, what he did was exemplary. Justly enough, we celebrated his fourth-place finish in Rome in 1960.
Not anymore. This is an India where our athletes get the very best of training facilities. Under the TOPS scheme and other private initiatives, they have the best coaches and mental trainers, proper nutrition and diet, and every bit of sport science they need to excel in at the international level. The Odisha government now has a sport budget touching `1,300 crore and has created facilities that are the best in the world. With multiple high-performance centres and other grassroots facilities, talent can now meet opportunities in Odisha. Finally, we are seeing systems emerge and structures being put in place. With initiatives like Khelo India, there is an emphasis on the grassroots. In the aftermath of Tokyo, for example, the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) has done enough to create a supply line. In two years, we are starting to see results. Till a few years earlier, it was about one Abhinav Bindra or one Gagan Narang or a Saurabh Chaudhary. It isn’t anymore. For the first time in Indian sporting history, we have multiple shooters vying for spots in the national team in a single event with each of them capable of winning an Olympic medal on their day. And it is no longer certain that the shooter who has won the quota will travel to Paris. The competition is such that all will be decided in the trials in 2024 and on current form.
This is a very different India. No longer satisfied with fourth-place finishes and near-misses, it wants to climb the podium every time we compete. Competing won’t do, winning is the real thing. That’s what it is all about. Hunger and determination
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What is also significant is that it is turning out to be a nice blend of experience and youth. While on the one hand there is Manu Bhaker, Sift Kaur Samra, and Nikhat Zareen, on the other, we have senior pros like Mirabai Chanu, HS Prannoy, Satwik Rankireddy, and Chirag Shetty. While there is an Akhil Sheoran, there is a 14-year-old Tilottama Sen who has already won multiple medals on the world stage.
Abhinav Bindra and Sania Mirza were freak athletes. They happen once in 30 years. That’s what explains India’s wait for an individual medal for 44 years between 1952 and 1996 till Leander Paes finally broke the jinx at Atlanta. We can confidently say such a thing will never again happen in Indian sport. This is a generation that hates to lose and that’s already started to show in their performance.
This attitude is best summed up by the man who is perhaps the best embodiment of this transformation— Pullela Gopichand. PV Sindhu had just won her quarterfinal in Rio 2016 against Yihan Wang of China and the entire Indian media present was euphoric. One more win and Sindhu could finally end India’s medal drought. It was late evening in Rio that same day when I met Gopi at the gate of the Olympic Games village. It was past 9 PM and I had just finished a round of interviews with some of our boxers. Gopi was alone and was pacing up and down rather aimlessly. He hadn’t seen me and was somewhat surprised when I walked up to him. “Let’s talk after the match tomorrow,” he said when we were face-to-face. “I am tired of Indians coming fourth. I really can’t take another fourth-place finish. If she wins tomorrow, she is sure of a medal and once that happens, I will come with you to Christ the Redeemer and celebrate,” Gopi was in the flow.
That’s what it is all about. Hunger and determination. Not to fall short of a medal. Fourth isn’t good enough anymore. We need to get on the podium each time we compete. Every single time. We have started to dream, for dreams do come true. Ten medals in Paris 2024 could be the fulfilment of that dream.