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Here’s To The ‘Also Rans’!

In the new millennium, India acknowledges that sports matter, paving the way for conscious efforts to create a more conducive environment for the blossoming of sporting talent. But this awakening is a double-edged sword

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Cricket is always going to be around, right under our noses. But for fans who have a wider perspective, and a deeper affinity for the world of sports, every leap year brings the mouthwatering prospect of the Olympic Games. In modern times, it has been the most revered birthplace of innumerable sporting legends since 1896, full of stories of gallant, historic achievements that continue to reverberate around the world in an endless awe-inspiring cycle. In 2020, if you lift your eyes towards the horizon, all roads lead to the iconic skyline of  Tokyo.

For multi-sport fans, the Olympic Games are the ultimate wonderland. Every moment is filled with a riveting story. Not just of the champions, but, because of the complex quota system that allows for the participation of the widest geography, stories featuring no-hopers who are also applauded at the finish line. It is because of this latter category that one can justly argue about the standard of competition at the Olympics being, perhaps, lower than that of a World Championship in a particular sport. But that is being unnecessarily cynical. For sportspersons, and fans around the world, thank God the Olympics still retain an unmatched aura.  

India’s love affair with the Olympics was rather slow to bloom after Independence. The hockey team’s performance began as a given. But by the time India’s international stature and media gathered steam, sadly, the game had changed, and Indian hockey’s fortune declined. It was a grave travesty of justice that India’s first post-independence individual Olympic medal  K.D. Jadhav’s wrestling Bronze at Helsinki in 1952  went minimally acknowledged and negligibly rewarded. My good friend, Leander Paes, finally reignited the Indian individual medal hunt 44 years later at Atlanta. His Bronze could so easily have turned into a more coveted colour, had he not become distracted by Agassi’s tactical gamesmanship during the semifinal. But more lamentable, surely, are the near misses of P.T. Usha in the newly included 400 hurdles at L.A. in 1984, and the heartbreaking fourth of Milkha Singh in the 400 at Rome in 1960. Rajyavardhan’s superb Silver at Athens in 2004 and, finally, Abhinav Bindra’s Gold at Beijing in 2008, ended India’s hunt for the elusive sporting Holy Grail thankfully ending India’s most popular sporting lament: “One billion people … and not even one individual Olympic Gold medal”.  

In the new millennium, India acknowledges that sports matter, paving the way for several conscious efforts to create a more conducive environment for the blossoming of sporting talent. But this awakening, and increased media attention, is a very dangerous double-edged sword. On one hand, it is now certainly very attractive to strive to be a sports star. The visibility, adulation, money, status has huge aspirational value. For everyone in a million, who succeeds in climbing to the top rung  Congratulations! Even with a short career at the top, the rewards well managed can pay bills for a very long time. It is the other hand that scared me. A very large number of youngsters are obviously not going to reach the creamy layer at the top. What becomes of them? There is bewilderment, confusion, anger, frustration, bitterness and depression. The fall from potential grace is quite terrifying in countries where there is no dignity of labour. For sportspersons who dream big but finish up as ‘also rans’, a blue-collar job or a small entrepreneurial venture becomes unacceptable. It is up to all of us to not make them feel like failures. And it is up to them to realise that, since there are no free lunches, they have to get up, dust off the disappointment, accept whatever is available, and get on with it. To those who have attempted to excel at sports, here is some free advice: you have developed the most important ingredient for succeeding in this lifetime ... the capacity to work hard. Understand that. Use that. March on.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Charu Sharma

The author is commentator and quiz master

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