As Sakshi Malik won a bronze on Day 12, over a billion people breathed a sigh of relief. The world’s second largest country had finally opened its account at the Olympic Games.
She had brought a medal home after 92 of the contingent had been unsuccessful in this quest. The Haryana born-wrestler won her bronze medal match after qualifying through the repechage rounds.
After Malik broke India’s duck, Chile, with a population of only 18 million people became the nation with the next highest number of Olympic participants, 42, to not win a medal.
India also became the first South Asian nation to win a medal at these Olympic Games, though with 118 participants, it clearly outnumbers all of its six neighbours, none of whom have been able to send more than nine competitors.
This also underlines the futility of a South Asian Games in an Olympic year, the South Asian belt the worst-performing of any region in the world, even below inhospitable terrains such as the Sub-Saharan belt.
India had won a solitary medal in the 1996, 2000 and 2004 games. The Beijing and London games were an improvement with three and six respectively, but 2016 has been a disappointment by all measures.
PV Sindhu's extraordinary performance at winning the women's badminton silver on her very first Olympic appearance only further highlights the doldrums the rest of the squad – barring Dipa Karmakar's incredible gymnastics display – is in.
Here then are six major shifts that are needed in India's Olympic strategy.
Drop the delusions of grandeur
Prior to Olympics 2016, mainstream media was flooded by predictions that the contingent, India’s largest ever, would come back with 10 medals and could even double its tally of six from the London Olympics.
In May, Sarbananda Sonowal, then the Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs, had said that he had “assessed inputs from various federations” and that the medal tally was likely to touch double digits. SAI promptly released a booklet which predicted that the contingent would win 12-19 medals.
The picture becomes clearer once you take into account the number of World Cup medallists, former Olympic medallists and high-ranked athletes among the contingent. Only four – Bindra, Dutt, Saina and Gagan Narang – had won Olympic medals previously. Barring Sania Mirza, Jitu Rai and Shiva Thapa, none of the other athletes were ranked in medal winning positions. Again, only a handful had won medals at their respective World Cups or Championships during the period between London and Rio.
Were any of these factors taken into account while preparing these “estimates”? The report does mention that it should “be seen as an assessment of potential to perform rather than actual prediction”. If this is how potential is assessed by the leading apex sports body in India, then our athletes are advised to get a second opinion for their own good.
Those who say that it’s the performance on the day that counts have lost touch with competitive sport. The world rankings are the best available measure of an athlete’s performance at the highest level over a period of time, illustrating their consistency and ability to perform day in, day out.
While the time spent in preparing these reports could and should have been better devoted to studying opponents, providing athletes with data of the opposition’s strengths and weakness, SAI and its bosses at the ministry lulled the athletes, the public and themselves into believing their own delusions and propaganda, cranking up the hype machine.
Worse still, they still seem to be living in denial. This is what Raninder Singh, son of Punjab Congress Chief Amarinder Singh and President of the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) tweeted out comparing the performance of shooting (zero medals) with other sports (zero medals except in badminton and wrestling).
Our failure to have an independent view of our athletes and their capabilities is possibly the biggest reason for this ongoing debacle in Rio.
Invest, don't just spend
India’s planned outlay for Sports as per the Union Budget for 2016-17 is Rs 900 crore. Not all of it goes towards Olympic preparations. But does this funding even reach the athletes in a meaningful way?
Considering the number of disciplines that Indians are involved in, this paltry amount does not come close to scratching the surface in terms of the investment that sports in India require. The fact that SAI cut its funding to several associations in the Olympic year does not help either.
The United Kingdom, continuing its impressive performance from the London Olympics, is in a tight race with China in Rio and for the first time looks to finish second on golds. But this has meant investing; each one of its medals has come at an average cost of £5.5 million (Rs 47 crores).
What is more interesting is that funding is provided through a targeted approach, each sport which does well gets re-assessed at the end of each year and is given a revised budget according to the results achieved in that year. This has meant that sports such as cycling, swimming and diving where athletes from the UK have done well have continued to receive extra funding due to their continued success. Sports which perform badly have their funding lowered.
In 2009, the sports ministry had got the right idea – they looked for sports in which Indians stood the best chance and chose athletics, archery, badminton, boxing, weightlifting, wrestling and shooting but inconsistent funding has seen a fluctuation in performances from the athletes in these sports.
In fact, funding has been so erratic that squash, yachting and volleyball each received higher funding than boxing, weightlifting, tennis and athletics in 2014-15. Close to an Olympic year, that is anything but good news.
Target sports, not individuals
The approach to Olympic success should not be based on individuals; it should be based on sporting success leading to individual brilliance. There are case studies throughout the world on countries maximising their potential and dominance in particular sports: US Gymnastics in the last two decades, the archers of South Korea, Cycling in the United Kingdom, China’s table tennis and badminton programs, Belgian hockey, German football and others.
US Gymnastics, for example, did not take off till the 90’s. The Karolyis, Nadia Commaneci’s earliest coaches had defected to the US and the authorities had made note of this. A lot of aspiring gymnasts who were of legal age to compete were sent to the Karolyis to train together.
The US would become the dominant force in gymnastics over the next two decades, producing world-class talent which would go on to win multiple team golds at the Olympics. In the process, starlets such as Simone Biles, Nastia Liukin and Mary Lou Retton were born.
To ensure that the funding doled out to federations is put to good use, each sporting body must have a target and added incentives to meet these targets. There must be accountability and each federation must have Key Result Areas (KRAs) to be monitored each year. Federations should be run professionally and there must be accountability for the funding each of these sports receives.
Improve the scouting process
A common theme among the majority of the contingent in Rio is that these athletes come from impoverished backgrounds. Currently, only Shillaroo, Sonepat and Dharamshala are the only three out of 22 cities which host the national camps conducted by the Sports Authority of India (SAI).
SAI seems to have missed a trick here by not setting up more full-time scouting centres in the rural hinterlands of the country. As an average of eight to ten years of training are required for an Olympic athlete, scientific testing of suitable candidates in the age range of six to eight years old may prove beneficial.
While the National Sports Talent Contest Scheme, SAI’s flagship scheme for talented 8-14 years old supposedly scouts for optimum-aged talent, the introduction of science in this process is a must.
Science ensures two very important things: elite talent is not missed out on, Dipa Karmakar’s rejection by SAI makes a case for this; it also makes sure that the selection process is more transparent and less biased.
Injuries to various Indian athletes suggest that despite the introduction of sports science and sports medicine in India, we have miles to go in this regard, before we can join the world’s elite.
The fact that urban spaces are shrinking coupled with the assumption that rural households are more likely to send their children to sporting centres than parents in cities, given that some may see sport as a way out of poverty, make Tier-II and III towns excellent centres for the tapping of talent.
The current message for aspiring athletes is this; you’re on your own till you receive international recognition and win some medals on the world stage. Instead, why not catch them early and let them develop to the heights of their potential?
Launch high performance programmes
Scouting the farthest corners of the country may yield a sizeable talent pool, but then comes the hard part: turning talent into medal contenders.
The agenda of trainers must include exposing their wards to as much competition as possible. This means pitting them against one another from an early age, allowing cross-competition within age groups, and ensuring frequent match-ups against players around the world.
This needs to be backed by full-time residential programmes – unlike the existing ones at SAI hostels – where young athletes get to work with world class coaches. Although the SAI does have a number of elite level performance programmes, it seems to believe that appointing a good faculty is all it takes.
Simple but crucial factors such as monitoring of nutrition from an early age, simulating conditions from countries which are more successful, regular assessment of performance, backed by video and software-led analysis of trends and competitors make for a high performance centre.
Such centres need to be a few in number, but with the best facilities, so that all the top performers in a sport can take one another on and improve their skills, technique and match-play before taking on the rest of the world.
Such programmes will also help athletes complete the transition from junior to senior levels, a point which currently sees a lot of bright young talent in the country discontinue their sporting pursuits. Sustainability and talent retention is one of the biggest chinks in the armour of Indian sports, and this needs fixing.
Learn from winners
India has a number of world champions, even if not all of them play Olympic sports. They can be mentors both in terms of actual skills as well as in imparting mental strength, strategic thinking, competitive play, and preparations.
Has chess maestro Vishy Anand ever been asked to guide Olympic athletes? Surely he would be able to teach them a thing or two. As would India's top cricketers, from Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid to Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar. What about billiards champions Michael Ferreira, Geet Sethi and Pankaj Advani? All of them know how to win, and would be delighted to pass on their knowledge.
Then there are the medal winners and world champions in the Olympic sports. Why are Abhinav Bindra and Gagan Narang and even Rajyavardhan Rathore not being asked to help India's younger shooters through formal programmes? Just look at the difference Pullela Gopichand has made as India's badminton coach.
The way forward is not difficult to map. All it needs is the will. And, possibly, the exit of politicians and greedy sports administrators, who should be replaced with people who have actually played sports and built their lives around it. India does not lack in champions.