“Baron de Coubertin said the Olympics were not about winning but taking part, but we tend to take that literally.”
In an article for BBC before Athens 2004, senior sports journalist Rohit Brijnath tried answering the question that was asked repeatedly for years, decades even, in the 20th century: how come a country with a population of a billion people (and more) had so little to show in terms of medals at the Olympic Games?
It’s a question that annoys many serious sports fans because population and sporting talent are not exactly directly related. It is also a question that has no comfortable answer even in 2020, as we keep hearing about India becoming a global sporting superpower soon, but that remains a conversation about the future.
But, things have certainly improved in the last couple of decades with the 2012 London Olympics being the most successful outing for the Indian contingent. India bagged a total of six medals in that edition. The second best haul remains the three at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
On the occasion of International Olympic Day (June 23), here is a subjective look at the five biggest moments in independent India’s Olympics history:
Independent India’s first Olympics gold (1948 London)
India had won three Olympic gold medals in hockey even before the nation earned its independence from British rule. But the 1948 campaign was simply special because, for the first time, the team was to march under the tri-colour and not the British-India flag.
More importantly, it was considered to be a difficult campaign as the once all-conquering unit was now divided into two separate teams – India and Pakistan.
India had struggled to build a team after the partition and the federation had to call up many young players to build the squad as the formidable Punjab unit saw most of its stalwarts move to Pakistan. Despite the challenges, the defending champions were considered to be favourites and they lived up to that expectation.
The 13 teams were divided into two groups and India expectedly topped the standings to reach the semi-finals. They then defeated Netherlands 2-1 to make it to the summit clash against Great Britain.
Modern India’s most decorated hockey legend Balbir Singh Sr. scored a brace as India hammered their former colonial masters on their own home turf 4-0 to clinch the gold medal. The win must have soothed the hearts of people who had suffered in the aftermath of a bitter partition.
“As our national anthem was being played and the tri-colour was going up, I felt that I too was flying with the flag. The sense of patriotism that I felt was beyond any other feeling in the world,” the late Balbir Singh had recalled at the Chandigarh Press Club.
“I still remember that before the match started, the Wembley stadium was reverberating with the noise of English fans. As we took an early lead and later on pumped in another goal, after half time, some English fans started rooting for India, saying make it half a dozen goals,” he remembered.
“It was a proud moment for all of us when we defeated England, which had until a year ago ruled India for a long period, on their own turf [in 1948].”
Paes ends long wait (1996 Atlanta)
India’s last hockey gold came in the 1980 Moscow Games where apart from Spain none of the top hockey playing nations took part. The country had not won a single medal since then before 1996. Worse, the only individual Olympic medal for India till then had come way back in 1952 at Helsinki, thanks to wreslter Khashaba Jadhav.
When the Indian contingent left for Atlanta, no one was realistically expecting a medal and least of all from tennis. After all, the world’s best were to be in action during the Games and for his all good form in the run-up to the Games, Leander Paes was a rank outsider and needed a wild card to just get an entry.
But Paes, who is aiming to participate in his eighth Olympic Games at Tokyo next year, was a man possessed. Fortune also favoured him as world No 1 Pete Sampras withdrew from the Games citing injury and the Indian faced-off with his replacement, Richey Reneberg, in the opening round.
The Indian brushed past third seed Thomas Enqvist and 14th ranked Renzo Furlan to reach the semi-finals where his run was stopped by eventual gold medallist Andre Agassi.
In the semi-final, Paes had snapped a tendon between his wrist and elbow and had to put his hand in a cast for 24 hours before the bronze medal play-off against Fernando Meligeni. The Indian lost the opening set but then found his zone, which helped him turn things around and end India’s 44-year wait for an individual medal.
Malleswari becomes first women medallist (2000 Sydney)
The legendary PT Usha fell agonisingly short of winning an Olympic medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and no other Indian woman had even come close to the podium before or after that. That was until Karnam Malleswari rewrote the history books in Sydney in September, 2000.
Malleswari had moved to the 69kg weight category as she could not reduce her weight in time to participate in her favourite 63kg category, and critics had even questioned her selection as this was going to be her first international event in the higher weight category.
But on that day, Malleswari began with 110 kg weight in snatch and went up to 115 and managed to lift 130 kg in clean and jerk for an aggregate of 240 kg. She went for broke in the final clean and jerk attempt with a weight of 137.5 kg but could not register a clean lift.
Despite the disappointment, it was a big day for the Indian Olympic movement as this was the first time that any Indian woman stood on the podium.
“That a girl could win an Olympic medal came as a shock to everyone. Back in those days expect cricket, there wasn’t awareness about other sports in India and what it meant for a woman to win a medal for the first time in 100 years. It took time for people to understand my achievement,” she told Scroll.in in an interview recently.
It took 12 years for another Indian woman to stand on the podium: Saina Nehwal (badminton) and MC Mary Kom (boxing) bagged bronze medals at the 2012 London Olympics. Later, PV Sindhu (badminton) and Sakshi Malik (wrestling) added a silver and bronze respectively in the 2016 Rio Games.
The one and only individual gold (2008 Beijing)
Abhinav Bindra’s name has been etched in gold in India’s Olympic history thanks to what he achieved at Beijing 2008.
Another shooter Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore had managed to win a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Games but the Indian national anthem had never been played at the Olympics since 1980 and never in an individual event. Bindra changed that with one shot to remember on August 11, 2008.
Bindra had reached his second consecutive 10m Air Rifle final at the Olympic Games and was fourth in the qualifying round with a score of 596/600. He had made winning a medal in Beijing his life’s goal with the way he prepared for the Games, and the 10 shots in the final were to make or break his years of hard work.
The 2006 world champion began with an impressive 10.7 and did not shoot anything below 10 to stay in gold medal contention and then clinched the deal with a near perfect 10.8 to beat local favourite Zhu Qinan by 0.8 points.
“When you win it, you don’t realise or recognise it. But over time, you do. It is something we as a country were waiting for and it happened on that particular day. The glass ceiling had to be broken, someone had to do it and I feel fortunate that I was the one who was able to do it. Now that it has been done, we are hoping that a lot more people will be able to do it,” Bindra had told Scroll.in about the day.
For now, the wait continues.
Sushil Kumar’s second medal (2012 London)
If winning just one Olympic medal is an extraordinary achievement, winning two is exceptional. Especially for an Indian athlete, because of the rarity of such successes.
And that is why Sushil Kumar’s 2012 London Olympics silver is all the more special.
Sushil, who had won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, had a tough draw in the 66kg freestyle weight category in London as he faced defending champion Ramazan Sahin of Turkey in the opening bout. The Indian lost the opening round but came back strong to clinch the second and third to advance.
But it was the semi-final against Kazakhstan’s Akzhurek Tanatarov that really showed the mettle of Sushil. The Indian had eased through the opening round but his opponent bounced back in the second to force a decider.
The Kazakh had the momentum with him then and quickly took a 3-0 lead. But Sushil fought back by pegging Tanatarov down with a leg attack and clinched the deal by lifting his opponent on the shoulder and throwing him down.
However, the effort took a toll on the Indian grappler as he felt dehydrated and vomited after the bout. The final, which was held within a few hours, witnessed a subdued Sushil as he went down in two rounds against Japan’s Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu.
The result of the summit clash notwithstanding, the medal underlined Sushil’s claim to be counted among the country’s greatest Olympians.
Do you agree with our list? What would be your top five? Tweet to us @thefield_in.