India's Promised Olympic Turnaround Still A Dream

India's total Olympic medal count — 28 — puts it just behind Estonia, a nation with less than 1 percent of India's population

Months ahead of the Rio Games, Indian sports officials vowed that the massive nation would turn around its long history of dismal Olympic results and be proud of its athletes.

Steeplechase. Golf. Shooting. Badminton. Boxing. Tennis. Wrestling. Archery. Discus. India saw medal possibilities in all those disciplines, and the head of the government's sports authority, Injeti Srinivas, said he expected India to bring home anywhere from 10 to 14 medals.

"What happens on a particular day is something none of us can predict. But we should achieve this target," Srinivas said in March.

You don't hear such optimism these days. With the end of the games just a few days away, India has won one medal, a bronze in women's wrestling, and clinched a second. Sakshi Malik earned India's first medal at the Rio games and its first-ever in women's wrestling. In women's badmienton, Pusarla Sindhu reached the championship match, clinching a gold or silver medal.

But both its men's and women's field hockey teams were bounced, and other problems have surfaced beyond competition.

The Indian sports minister was chastised by Olympic officials for the "aggressive and rude" behavior of his entourage in Rio. The standout Indian athlete of the games, a gymnast known for performing one of the sport's most dangerous moves, confessed that she'd had to cobble together her own training equipment because gymnasts get so little support.

Abhinav Bindra, a rifle shooter who won India's first individual gold, at the Beijing Games in 2008, questioned on Twitter his country's commitment to winning.

"Each medal costs the UK 5.5 million pounds," said Bindra, who finished fourth in the men's 10-meter air rifle finals in Rio. "That's the sort of investment needed. Let's not expect much until we put systems in place at home."

The reaction at home has been harsh.

"It's a disaster," said Mihir Vasavda, a sportswriter for the Indian Express newspaper. 

In theory, India should be a serious Olympic contender with its 1.3 billion people and tens of millions of rabid sports fans. It has a growing economy and increasing wealth, a large bureaucracy that oversees sports and a deep sensitivity about its position in the world.

But none of that has helped. Instead, India's total Olympic medal count — 28, including the medal clinched by Sindhu — puts it slightly behind Estonia, a nation with less than 1 percent of India's population. India is tied with Michael Phelps, the American swimmer with 28 medals.

Nearly one-fourth of India's medals came in London in 2012, spiking interest and giving people hope for an Olympic turning point for the country.

But in a country with very little Olympic history, there is little to hold India's attention when its athletes are losing.

"People don't understand the rules, they don't know who the stars are, they just can't relate to most Olympic sports," Vasavda said.

They do relate to cricket — an obsession in India. The game is played across the country, from the Himalayas to the southern tip. It's played at India's most elite boarding schools, and on the streets of sprawling slums. Traffic in India's car-clogged cities decreases noticeably during major matches. The biggest stars are not admired — they are worshipped as something close to gods.

The fervent following pushes every other sport to the margins, leaving non-cricketers and their coaches to scrabble for funding, facilities and support.

For years, many top athletes came from the country's economic and aristocratic elite. When Bindra won his gold, few were surprised that he was the son of a wealthy Indian industrialist who could hire one of the world's top coaches.

The multitude of sports bureaucrats and federations are widely dismissed for putting their own interests ahead of the athletes, concerns Indian Sports Minister Vijay Goel appeared to embody when he was confronted by Rio organizers for repeatedly trying to push into restricted zones. Goel later dismissed the concerns as a "misunderstanding."

Few Indian athletes get the official help — coaches and trainers, housing, food, stipends, equipment — that are the norm in many other countries.

Take Dipa Karmakar, a 23-year-old gymnast from Tripura, a small northeastern state that, like gymnastics, is little more than a mystery to most Indians. After learning on equipment she made herself, this year she became the first Indian woman to qualify for Olympic gymnastics. Her success at vault is largely based on her use of the "Produnova," an aerial double somersault so dangerous most gymnasts never attempt it.

She says the move doesn't worry her: "One can get injured any time — anything can happen," she told the AP in an interview earlier this year.

Her coach, however, says that danger is part of an equation that also includes India's lackluster interest in Karmakar's sport.

"We have to take this risk because we are not a strong nation when it comes to gymnastics. Dipa attempts the Produnova because it can get her bigger points and a chance to enter the finals of a tournaments," he told the Hindustan Times.

She finished fourth in the vault final.

While India shared a collective groan when she missed the bronze by the slimmest of point margins, some see a frightening message in her use of the Produnova.

"Dipa Karmakar is a symbol of India's failure, hypocrisy and mediocrity," the popular news website Firstpost said in a headline earlier this week.

"If we were a nation that produced athletes with skills, Dipa would have never been forced to rely on her courage to get ahead," wrote Sandipan Sharma. But in India "the pursuit of Olympic glory is contingent on an individual's decision to transcend her love for life, put it below the pursuit of victory."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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