The 2020 Summer Olympics, officially the Games of the 32nd Olympiad and branded as Tokyo 2020, mark 100 years since India sent its first official contingent to an Olympics. In these 100 years, Indian athletes have won 28 medals, 11 out of them in hockey, and only one individual gold medal – by shooter Abhinav Binda in Beijing 2008. In 7 days of Tokyo 2020, India has won only 1 medals and its wait for another gold medal isn’t over yet. The last time the Olympics were held in Tokyo, in 1964, the Indian hockey team won its sixth gold after a gap of one Olympics. In the 1960 games at Rome, Pakistan hockey team pushed India to the second spot.
After Bindra, the last time someone came close to getting a gold medal was at Rio Olympics in 2016 when shuttler P.V. Sindhu reached the finals of the badminton singles. She became the first ever Indian woman and youngest to win the silver medal at the Olympics.
A century of Indian Olympic history is a story of early hockey dominance, the shooting stars and the weightlifting glories. It is filled with a number of highs and heartbreaking lows. India never came close to being in the top league of countries in the medals tally. It is sad, even frustrating, that a country of one-billion-plus people cannot win even one gold medal. The country, which is more populous than India, dominates the medals tally at every Olympics. China prepares extensively for this marquee event and is immaculate with their execution in every sport they participate. For them, the largest population in the world means a strong talent pool. In India, this doesn’t hold true. For a variety of reasons.
Before we discuss these reasons in detail, let’s take a look at the historic medals tally of the Summer Olympics. The United States (USA) has participated in 27 Olympics and won the most medals – 2,523 (1,022 gold, 795 silver and 706 bronze). China has played only 10 Olympics so far and is already at the seventh place with 546 medals. After Tokyo 2020 ends on August 8, the country is sure to climb up at least two spots, overtaking Italy and Germany. India has participated in 25 games but won only 28 medals, including only one individual gold medal.
In the 21st century, China has consistently been in the top 3 countries in the medals tally, its best performance being in 2008 when the games were held in Beijing and China won 100 medals to top the tally. With this kind of performance, there’s certainly no comparison between India and China but we chose to discuss China due to the population advantage, which India also has.
But population alone doesn’t win medals. More than 400 sportspersons from China are participating in almost all sports at the Tokyo Olympics. The Indian contingent comprises 228 members competing in 18 sporting events. India has been sending a large contingent for the last three editions of the Olympics. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, 117 Indian athletes participated (63 men and 54 women) in 15 sports. In the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, India sent 83 athletes, 60 men, and 23 women, who competed in 13 sports. In the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, 57 athletes in 12 sports represented India.
Even though the size of the contingent has increased, the tally has been woefully low, barring the 2012 London Olympics in which India won six medals, its biggest haul till date. This year, only 1 silver has been won, and the gold medal continues to be elusive.
In China, kids are pushed into sports and are encouraged to take it up as a profession. The large population of the country leads to cutthroat competition in every field and only the best get selected and go on to become world beaters. In India, sports are never a priority for children. Every parent wants their kids to excel in academics, land jobs, preferably in the government, and do well in life. And for the selections, the best don’t always get selected – corruption in sports administration is the bane of selections.
Indians who chose sports as their profession are either from affluent families, which can afford to send their children to the best of training facilities, or from the poor families, which don’t really have a choice. The middle class is insouciant. Whenever a sporting star sparkles in India, there’s a flood of stories of struggle and lack of resources. The shooters, who have won medals for the country, have mostly come from affluent or not-so-poor families, and the wrestlers, boxers and weightlifters, from the second category.
When Chanu Saikhom Mirabai opened India’s run at the medals tally by winning the silver medal in 49kg weightlifting, the Indian media was full of stories of her modest childhood and her hard work and grit.
For the last few editions of the games, women have saved the day for the country. Six women – Karnam Malleswari, Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, P.V. Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Chanu Saikhom Mirabai – have won medals since the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Malleswari became the first Indian woman to ever win an Olympic medal when she won the bronze at the Sydney games in the women’s 69 kg category in weightlifting. When women’s boxing was introduced as a sport in the 2012 London Olympics, Mary Kom earned herself a bronze medal. In 2016 Rio Olympics, P.V. Sindhu became the first ever Indian woman to win the silver medal at the Olympics, by reaching the badminton final.
India’s first brush with the Olympics came at the 1900 Paris Olympics where Norman Pritchard, country’s sole representative, won two silver medals in the 200m sprint and 200m hurdles. At the 1924 Paris Olympics, India made its tennis debut. Five players (4 men and 1 woman) played in the singles events. Two pairs played the men’s doubles and one in the mixed doubles. The 1928 Amsterdam Olympics marked the beginning of Indian hockey’s magnificent run. The Olympics were not held in 1940 and 1944 due to World War II and in 1947, India gained independence from the British. The 1948 London Olympics, hence, were India’s first Summer Games as an independent nation. India sent its largest contingent – 86 athletes across nine sports – for the 1948 Olympics and the Indian hockey team was the dominant force again, as it returned with its fourth Olympic gold medal and discovered a new star in Balbir Singh Sr.
India did not have a memorable time at the Olympics in the 1980s – it could not win a single medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The run extended into the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as well. Legendary athlete P.T. Usha came close to the podium but finished a heartbreaking fourth in the 400m hurdles in 1984. India’s medal drought was broken by tennis ace Leander Paes, who won bronze in the men’s singles event at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Four years later, weightlifter Karnam Malleswari rewrote history as she became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal with her bronze. Army officer Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s silver in the men’s trap at Athens 2004 was India’s first individual Olympic silver and first shooting medal.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics was a watershed moment in Indian Olympic history as shooter Abhinav Bindra claimed the nation’s first individual gold in the 10m Air Rifle event. Boxer Vijender Singh and wrestler Sushil Kumar also won bronze medals, ensuring that India won multiple medals at single Games for the first time since 1952. The 2012 London Olympics saw Saina Nehwal win India’s first Olympic medal in badminton. Sushil Kumar bagged his second Olympic medal while Gagan Narang, Vijay Kumar, Mary Kom and Yogeshwar Dutt also won to take India’s medals tally for that edition to six, the country’s biggest haul at the Summer Games till date. At Rio 2016, PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik were India’s only medallists, the first time that the nation’s medal tally was made up of entirely female athletes.
But these are small consolations. For a country as big as India, these seem peanuts, maybe not even that. Sport in India is never accorded the priority that it should get for the country to excel at the sporting events such as the Olympics. India has few sports schools where children are encouraged to take up sports full time at a very young age. China, on the other hand, has close to 5,000 sports schools, and the country also gives subsidies and funding to athletes.
In India, most sports academies are marred by corruption. Sports administrators have other considerations than performance in mind when they select players for different levels of competitions. They often gobble the funds meant for players, leaving them in quandary and to fend for themselves. Photos of sports hostels in pitiable conditions and sportspersons stranded at bus stands, railway stations and airports are a common sight.
If India wants to come any close to the top performers at Olympics, it needs to mend all this. Let’s have more sports programmes to push kids into them from an early age. Let’s not burden them with heavy school bags when they should be spending more time on fields and courts. Let’s get our priorities right – like China has – and show the world that we are inferior to none.
I don’t want to be writing a similar piece during the 2024 Paris Olympics.