NEW DELHI – With 1.2 billion people and a rapidly growing economy, India should be an emerging Olympic powerhouse — yet it was delighted with a meagre haul of just one gold and two bronzes at Beijing 2008.
The gold medal, won by Abhinav Bindra in the men’s 10-metre air rifle, was the country’s first-ever individual success, and it triggered nationwide celebrations.
Now India’s coaches are hoping for further signs of progress at the London Games after a concerted campaign to identify and foster young medal prospects.
“Sport was not, and could not have been, a priority in a developing country like ours,” Indian former field hockey captain Viren Rasquinha told AFP. “Forget medals, taking part in the Olympics was itself a big deal.”
“But not any more. Increased government and private funding has ensured our sportspersons get the best.”
Rasquinha, who competed in the Athens 2004 Olympics but did not win a medal, is chief executive officer of the privately-funded Olympic Gold Quest, set up in 2001 to improve India’s dire Olympic record.
“I believe the medals we won in Beijing were a major catalyst for change,” he said. “Now others are thinking that if they could do it, so can we. This sense of self-belief has made me confident that the future is bright.”
India’s performed well in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, finishing an impressive second in medals table below Australia and above England.
But the country faces a long uphill battle to make any mark on the Olympic table, with almost all its sporting enthusiasm still channelled towards the national obsession of cricket.
Hockey, India’s one historically strong Olympic event, has declined drastically in recent years and the national team did not even qualify for Beijing 2008.
The team has made it through to London, but they are seen as unlikely to follow in the footsteps of their celebrated predecessors, who won eight team golds, one silver and two bronzes between 1928 and 1980.
Indian stars that the Olympic Gold Quest back include shooter Gagan Narang, five-time women’s world boxing champion Mary Kom and badminton player Saina Nehwal — all of whom are seen as serious gold medal contenders.
The initiative was co-founded by India’s six-time world billiards champion Geet Sethi, who believes the country is coming to understand that its growing international prominence should be reflected on the sporting stage.
“I have found that emotional and patriotic sentiments are high in India when it comes to raising funds for an Olympic medal,” Sethi told AFP.
“After all, the sporting culture of any nation is not defined by the mass hysteria generated by a single team event such as football or cricket or baseball, but by the country’s performance in Olympic sport.”
Bindra, who is set for his fourth Olympic appearance at the age of only 29, will carry the weight of national expectation on his shoulders but India’s only individual gold medallist is famous for his calm temperament.
He says he has struggled against Indian administrators who have a poor attitude to competing in elite international sport, often taking a pessimistic or parochial approach.
In his recently-released autobiography, Bindra recounts how in 1996, when he was just 13, officials refused to accept his perfect score of 400 at a local tournament because it had never been achieved before in India.
“Their mind,” wrote Bindra, “could not comprehend what the eyes had seen.” The officials refused to ratify the result and awarded the first prize to the second-placed shooter.
And he said that when he was being kitted ahead of the Beijing Olympics, he was given a size-11 left shoe and a size-8 right shoe. “It’s not fine,” he said, “just hilarious.”
Bindra is supported by the Mittal Champions Trust, another non-profit organisation devoted to producing world champions like the Olympic Gold Quest.
Lakshmi Mittal, one of the richest men in the world, put aside an initial purse of $10 million to promote sporting excellence in India after watching the country fare badly at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
He saw the investment come good in Bindra and now has high hopes for fellow shooter Ronjan Sodhi, a world record holder and 2010 Asian Games gold medallist in the Double Trap event.
But the Trust’s administrator, Manisha Malhotra, said it would take many years to turn the tide.
“That will happen when we go to an Olympics expecting at least 40 medals,” Malhotra, a former national-level women’s tennis player, told AFP.
“Earlier our sportspersons were over-awed by the world-class athletes they came across at an Olympics. But now our kids have started travelling abroad for coaching and playing in big tournaments.
“They realised they were not far off from the best and this gave them the self-belief that they can also win.”