HIWANI, India – Ranbeer Singh breaks into a proud smile the moment an image of India’s Olympic boxing medal hopeful Vijender Singh pops up on the computer screen before him.
“Vijender is the son of our soil, we’re all with him,” the former army man says about the Asian Games gold medallist whose progress in the London Olympics is being passionately followed in his hometown Bhiwani.
Vijender is one of eight Indian boxers participating in the Games, and with five of them hailing from villages in and around Bhiwani, a small, nondescript town in the northern state of Haryana, local interest is running high.
To help villagers follow their heroes and overcome a lack of online access, a specially re-fitted “Internet Bus” is roaming remote areas of northern India during the London Games, offering computers, live streaming and archived event feeds.
“Our boxers have struggled so much to make it so far. The least we can do is show our love and support for them,” the 43-year-old Singh told AFP.
Singh, new to computers, is helped by a team of volunteers who teach him how to navigate the Olympic website, listen to interviews with his favourite sportspersons or check out the highlights from the previous day.
“Our boxers have made the entire nation proud. We are going to cheer for them in every bout,” said Ankit Kumar, a 21-year-old architecture student as he waited to board the bus.
Kumar was also keenly following sports like badminton and wrestling where he thinks India has a chance of making a mark.
Nine-year-old Chandan Yadav, dressed in his white and sky-blue school uniform, joined in the conversation as he took his place in the queue.
“I want to be on TV and become famous,” he said proudly. “I want to become a big and powerful boxer who can beat anyone at the Olympics.”
India, where cricket reigns supreme on the sporting stage, remains an Olympic minnow despite its vast 1.2 billion population.
So habituated had the country become to Olympic failure, that its meagre haul of one gold and two bronzes in Beijing in 2008 was hailed as a major breakthrough and triggered nationwide celebrations.
Two years later, India performed well in the Commonwealth Games hosted in New Delhi, finishing second in the medals table below Australia.
The improved performances by Indian athletes saw a number of private firms step in to fund some selected individuals’ training, and the government announced big incentives for winning medals at the top level.
“We felt it was time India cheered for their athletes,” said Nikhil Rungta, the country marketing head of Google India, which launched the “Internet Bus” tour to spread awareness about the Games to villages and towns.
“We wanted every Indian to know their Olympic athletes and celebrate these champions,” Rungta said.