It’s been 10 days since the heroes of the Tokyo Olympics returned home. Cash awards were promised and distributed, roadways paved, photographs taken, and 7 August was declared the National Javelin Day. The Indian medalists have been swept in a whirl of felicitations and celebrations. Neeraj Chopra, who struck gold on his Olympics debut, has been the smiling face of India’s successful campaign at Tokyo 2020.
India raked in a national record haul of seven medals at the Tokyo Games. But the story of Olympics is not written by medalists alone. There was drama along the way, and disappointments and heartbreak. There were opportunities lost and new ground gained. Sure-shot medal contenders fell by the wayside; we had heroes rise from unexpected quarters, and while their struggles went unrewarded by medals, it was still progress.
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Luck, pressure, expectations, how you feel on a given day, how your opponents feel on a given day. A lot of these intangibles have to align to win an Olympic medal. Sometimes, for some people, they didn’t.
Going into the Tokyo Games, Deepika Kumari was ranked No 1 in the world. She had World Cup golds to show. But at the Olympics she fell in the quarterfinals of the women’s singles and well as the mixed team event. "Woh paanch ring ka pressure, haavi ho jaraha hai (the pressure of the five Olympic rings is becoming a bit too much)," Deepika, who was competing in her third Olympics, said in an interview. "We've to see all games equally, be it World Cup, World Championships or the Olympics. But there we think too much about a medal. We have to take it easy and enjoy the moment. In the World Cup or World Championships too, the medal is the ultimate goal but we never keep thinking about it. But once we reach the Olympics, we are not able to get over the thoughts of winning a medal. We need to work on it," she said.
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An Olympic medal is viewed as the ultimate prize in sport. But there’s such a thing as wanting it too much. Manu Bhaker admitted as much after she and Saurabh Chaudhary failed to qualify for the 10m pistol mixed team event. “I think I tried way too hard,” said Bhaker, who had shot through a gun malfunction to come within fighting distance of qualifying for the final during her individual 10m air pistol event.
India had pegged hopes on its young shooting squad, built up Bhaker and Chaudhary, who are both only 19, as medal contenders. But when the dream came crashing down, it didn’t make for pretty viewing. The blame games started well before the Olympic Games were over.
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Things got similarly ugly for Vinesh Phogat, who, like Kumari, was ranked No 1 in the world ahead of the Olympics. Tokyo was supposed to be Phogat’s crowning glory. It was supposed to exorcise the demons of Rio 2016, when a horrific knee injury had sealed her fate. But Phogat fell in the quarterfinal. She has said that as her physio was not allowed to travel with her, her body was not ready for the challenge and she vomited on the way to her bout. But rather than giving her support, the Wrestling Federation of India pulled her up for disciplinary issues.
"Right now, I really want to focus on my family. But everyone outside is treating me like I am a dead thing,” Phogat wrote in a powerful column for the Indian Express last week. “I don’t know when I will return (to the mat). Maybe I won’t. I feel I was better off with that broken leg. I had something to correct. Now my body is not broken, but I’m truly broken.”
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From the men’s football team at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, to Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna in the mixed doubles event at 2016 Rio, India has had a long tryst with the fourth-place finishes. Nine medals have been missed in all—the most famous being the near-misses by Milkha Singh (men’s 400m at Rome 1960) and PT Usha (women’s 400m hurdles at Los Angeles 1984).
Two more fourth-placed finishes came at the Games in Tokyo.
23-year-old golfer Aditi Ashok was ranked 200 in the world in a field that had the top 5 ranked women’s players competing. For three days in the four-day event, she was trailing just the World No 1 Nelly Korda. On the last day though, a series of unfortunate circumstances culminated in a heart-breaking missed putt that took her from second to fourth.
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Ashok revealed later that since she was staying at the Games Village—75 km from the golf range—she needed to wake up early to get to the venue on time for her pre-tee-off preparation. On the final day of play, organisers brought forward the starting time as unfavourable weather conditions had been forecast for the day. And so Ashok, with her mother as caddie for support, had to forgo sleep and wake up at 2:30 am, local time, and compete with the world’s best.
But compete she did. Sticking to her guns and forcing scribes and Olympic fans alike in India to wake up early to catch the televised action in a sport very few (if any) imagined India had a chance to win a medal in. Eventually she’d fall just short and her Olympic story became another 4th placed near-miss. “You don’t want to join that club, but I’ve joined it,” she’d later say.
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It was the run to the semi-final by the women’s hockey team that proved to be the most stirring tale of India’s Tokyo Olympics. Sixteen girls, led by the unflappable Rani Rampal, outran not just their past of strife and struggle, but decades of apathy towards the women’s game. They broke barriers, challenged expectations, rose to the occasion.
“In my career, I’ve never seen anyone getting up at 7 in the morning to watch a women’s hockey match,” Rampal after arriving in India. “That’s a big change. People have started watching. The love, respect, and honour we’ve gotten upon returning feels like we’ve won a medal.”
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The team took on defending champions Great Britain for the bronze medal playoff and narrowly lost 3-4. A medal would have been perfect, but even that wouldn’t have been enough to describe the monumental role of the women’s team in bringing hockey to the front pages of newspapers and at the forefront of conversations.
It's a start. It will now be up to the established systems in the country to make sure that breakthroughs big and small made during the Olympics don't go untended. Only then will Indian sports progress.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.