The Rio Games are done and dusted. India’s medal tally lies in single digits, it reads a dismal 2. Another Asian country, the only one comparable in terms of population, had reached triple figures at home in 2008, topping the gold-medal tally.
But India, as all experts will tell you, cannot follow China’s model, because we are “light years behind,” whatever that means. Instead, the usual process of conducting a post-mortem inquiry into the Rio debacle has started, with the sports ministry expected to submit a report by the end of September. One wonders if the sports ministry will examine its own efforts or those of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in its report.
The National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) became the first federation to ask for a review of its Rio performance followed by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI).
The only step in the aftermath of Rio which looks to the future, however, is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement of the setting up of an Olympic task force for the 2020, 2024 and 2028 Olympics.
That is the only good news, however. The troubling aspect of the statement is that the task force will comprise “members who are in-house experts as well as those from outside.” In-house experts? The same people responsible for the mess that the country’s Olympic programme lies in currently?
Whether the administration has the vision or not, here are the people who should be closely involved with guiding India's Olympics strategy.
Abhinav Bindra: the boss
It’s not clear who will head this task force or whom it will report to. But as the only sportsperson in India’s Olympic history to have won an individual gold medal, Bindra has the best claim. His recent statements on social media and in interviews make it clear that he has been thinking deeply about it.
Bindra’s pragmatism is palpable: “So, in the aftermath of Rio 2016, let us decide what we want. If lip-service, and a dash of celebration and outrage is what we're after, we have achieved our goals already. And achieved them handsomely! But if we want something more, we have to work for it. We can't wait till next year, next week, or even tomorrow. The time to start is now.”
The ace shooter also countered the NRAI’s idea to set up a review panel with him heading it. His assertion was bang on: India’s performance cannot be changed now, but it must look towards the future.
In fact, appointing Bindra should be obvious, considering that he made it to the very top despite all the hurdles that the system had thrown in his way. His strategies on his gold-medal journey can be implemented for all athletes, with additional support thrown in.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: the administration man
The fact that politicians run sporting bodies and federations in India is always rued. The charitable explanation for netas failing their sporting bodies is that they do not understand the troubles that the average athlete faces.
For once, though, there is a minister who understands these hardships, someone who’s won an Olympic medal. With Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore in the Council of Ministers, it is rather baffling that he was chosen for the Information & Broadcasting Industry instead of Sports, which had to deal with Sarbananda Sonowal first and then Vijay Goel, both quite clueless.
Rathore has the distinction of being, after Norman Pritchard in 1900, only the second Indian man to win an individual Olympic silver medal, which he did in the Men's Double Trap shooting event at Athens in 2004.
It's probably wishful thinking to expect the sports ministry to be scrapped, considering the all governments' obsession with wielding power over sports federations. But, at least, let India’s flagbearer from Beijing be the interface. If our Olympians have to put up with political interference, it’s best that it comes from an old friend.
Pullela Gopichand: the sensei
Like Bindra, Gopichand has managed the incredible in a country with no sporting infrastructure. A former badminton ace himself, he has created an environment in which Olympic champions are bred and nurtured, with the programme bearing fruit not once but twice in the space of just eight years.
It’s not just badminton that Gopi can help with. He knows what it takes to create a centre for excellence, how to manage it day in, day out, how to challenge the best – China, in this case – in its field.
Gopi has shown how it can be done. We may never have another Olympic coach as focussed and result-oriented as the former All-England champion.
Karnam Malleshwari: the pathbreaker
Great things weren’t expected of the contingent in 2000 heading to Sydney. Leander Paes had won a bronze in Atlanta four years earlier, but that had been the country’s first medal in 16 years. PV Sindhu's silver medal in Rio, the first for a woman Olympian from India, has come at a time when awareness about equal gender rights on the sports field is mounting.
One woman who succeeded in an era when it was almost impossible for anyone but cricketers, footballers, tennis and hockey players to make a mark on the international stag was Karnam Malleshwari. Malleshwari’s bronze in the women's 69 kg weightlifting at the 2000 Games in Sydney should have come as an impetus for the promotion of women in sports in the country.
Sixteen years later, when India’s only medallists in Rio happen to be women, it would be wise to consult the first of India’s five women medal winners at the Games. After all, it was she who got the ball rolling for the likes of Sindhu and Sakshi Malik.
Viswanathan Anand: the mastermind
Psychologists and mental conditioning coaches may do a good job, but if there’s one Indian who knows how to win the battle in the mind, it has to be Vishy. It’s difficult to find another Indian sportsperson who has dominated his or her sport at a global level like Anand has.
The maestro from Chennai was the first player to win the World Championship in three formats" Knockout, Match and Tournament. Chess may not be an Olympic sport, but with many of our athletes in Rio going close to a podium finish, it's that additional mental strength that will get them to the top.
Rahul Dravid: the unvanquishable
No one signifies consistency and determination like Rahul Dravid does. Countless hours of padding up in the nets, putting that forward defence into action, staying the course without giving in to impatience, recklessness or a rush of blood to the head – all hallmarks of a tough, gritty competitor.
In his playing days, the opposition found Dravid a master combatant. Whatever you threw at him would come back at you with double the force. Hence, The Wall. After a career spent at the crease, Dravid has gone back as a mentor not just for the India U-19s but for other nations too. India's future Olympians have a lot to learn from him.
Responsible corporations: the private powers
This tweet by Saina Nehwal encapsulates the one important need that our authorities have never been able to grasp, support to India's athletes not just when they’re on top, but when they’re injured or recuperating or going through a lean phase.
From supporting Nehwal and Sindhu to identifying Dipa Karmakar’s talent before the ministry stepped in with its Olympic scheme, a handful of companies are setting a model for the private sector. Perhaps they can join in.
Some of these firms have been tireless in their pursuit of sporting talent and excellence, filling in the crucial gaps in the sporting ecosystem. The athletes supported by these foundations no longer have to worry about subsistence, but can focus on winning medals, which is what they should be doing.
Since it's mandatory for two per cent of a company's net profits to be devoted to fulfilling its corporate social responsibility, the private sector has the potential to do what all the federations have failed at. It's time to a seat at the table to those who have contributed.
Not Vijay Goel: the avoidable
From getting athletes’ names wrong to mis-stating the medals they have won, there seems to be no end to the number of headlines that sports minister Vijay Goel has made on a daily basis over the past two months.
US President Barrack Obama reportedly refused an invitation to the Olympics once because he thought that his presence would distract the other athletes. Goel thought his his being in Rio might inspire them.
With a number of issues cropping up with regard to arrangements for the athletes in Rio, it was clear that Goel had failed at this aspect of his job. Irrespective of the contingent's performance, Goel's failures must be recognised and dealt with. Goel and his entourage have embarrassed him, the Indian contingent, the Government of India, and viewers back home. Rio’s organising committee would agree.