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23 August, 2016

South Asia’s Olympic blues

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As sportspersons from 206 countries put in their best and the medals table at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics started lengthening, three among the world’s most populous nations were experiencing a not-unusual drought.

By the eleventh day of the games, several hundred medals had been given away but India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which with populations currently estimated at 1,382 million, 193 million and 163 million rank second, sixth and eighth respectively in the global chart, did not figure in the medals table.

The closest they came to winning a medal was when Dipa Karmakar, the first Indian gymnast to enter the Olympics finals, finished fourth in the women’s vault event, missing the bronze by 0.15 points. It was the best Indian performance yet in gymnastics. Indians celebrated the event the way they had done when Milkha Singh missed the bronze narrowly in 400 metres at Rome in 1960 and PT Usha missed it even more narrowly in 400 metres hurdles at Los Angeles in 1984.

It was the time of the year when the Government of India announces awards for sports persons, and the awards committee recommended that Dipa be given the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the nation’s highest sporting honour.

On the 12th day, Sakshi Malik, another young woman, ended India’s medals drought by taking the bronze in the 58 kg category of women’s freestyle wrestling. It certainly was an occasion to celebrate as she is only the fourth Indian woman to climb the Olympics podium and the first to get a wrestling medal.

“Daughter of India made us proud,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted. Indians set the social networks ablaze. Haryana, Sakshi’s home state, offered her a job and a cash reward of Rs 25 million.

Mocking the celebration, Pakistani journalist Omar R Quraishi wrote: “Finally one of the 119 competitors that India sent to Rio has won a medal – a bronze – now see how they portray it as if they won 20 golds”.

As he wrote those lines, the seven Pakistani sportspersons in Rio were packing their bags to go home, having failed even to qualify to participate in the finals of their events. Pakistan’s best performance was by a woman shooter who finished 28th among 51 who participated in her event.

In its 69 years, Pakistan has won 10 medals – eight in field hockey and two in individual events. The last one was the hockey bronze of 1992.

Bangladesh, now in its 44th year, is the most populous country which has never won an Olympics medal.

British-ruled India, which included the present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, began its association with modern Olympics at the second games held at Paris in 1900. The lone participant from the country that year was Norman Pritchard, son of a British couple, who competed in four athletic events and won silver medals in two of them. He later became a Hollywood actor under the name Norman Gordon.

There was no Indian participation in the next four games. Small teams sent to the 1920 and 1924 games returned empty-handed. The 21-member contingent which went to Antwerp in 1928 included a 14-member hockey team. It snatched the gold from Britain. Thereafter the hockey gold remained an Indian preserve until 1964 except for one occasion when Pakistan took it.

On Friday, PV Sindhu earned a silver in badminton and became the first Indian woman to win an individual silver. More celebrations and rewards followed.

It was the gritty performance of two young women that saved India from the ignominy of a total washout. With their medals, India was at the 67th place when the games ended.

Why does South Asia, home to about 1.74 billion, fare so poorly when tiny Cuba, with fewer than 12 million people, bagged seven medals, including two gold and two silver? The answer is that this dismal situation is the result of social conservatism, economic constraints and political mismanagement.

Sakshi Malik and Dipa karmakar had received little support from the government and sports organisations as they battled social taboos and took to the supposedly unfeminine sports of wrestling and gymnastics. Sakshi’s first coach, Ishwar Dahiya, recalls that villagers staged protests when he started training her 12 years ago.

In evaluating Olympics performance the size of the population is not quite relevant as sportspersons come from only a small section of South Asian societies. Many disciplines require intense training for long periods, which few can afford. Most sports bodies are controlled by politicians who know little about sports. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 23, 2016.

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