In 1986, teenager Boris Becker stormed tennis, becoming an overnight global sensation after winning Wimbledon at the age of just 17.
Talent, outrageous talent, perhaps a prodigy, chimed experts. But, I remember, some pointed out it was almost impossible for an Indian teenager to lift Wimbledon at 17 (it appears difficult at any age for that matter!).
Indians don’t have the physical strength of Europeans and Americans, it was pointed out, to excel at tennis and in Olympic sports (tennis was not an Olympic sport at the time).
And, certainly, history seemed to bear out this gloomy prognosis. Our legendary athletes Milkha Singh and PT Usha had only finished fourth at track and field events in Olympics. And they were, by far, the best we had offered the world over the decades.
And now the renaissance. This narrative appears set to change now.
Yes, India Can
Enter Neeraj Chopra, Ravi Dahiya, Bajrang Punia, Manpreet Singh, Rani Rampal, et al. Our Olympic heroes who lit up Tokyo, fetching India a record-breaking seven medals. It sends out a clear message to the world: “YES, INDIA CAN”.
Given the right infrastructure and support system, Indians have what it takes to shine at international sporting events.
Always considered supremely talented, we have shown in this Olympics, we can match the world in physical strength and endurance also. This can be easily corroborated by casting a glance at the diverse mix of sports Indians picked up medals in.
Mirabhai Chanu in weightlifting, PV Sindhu in badminton, Lovlina Borgohain in boxing, Ravi Kumar Dahiya and Bajrang Punia in wrestling, men’s hockey, and Neeraj Chopra in javelin.
The modest tally of seven medals didn’t come from dominance in one or two sports. Rather, Indians excelled in a range of different disciplines with one crucial element in common: they require physical strength and endurance.
How did this remarkable turnaround – remarkable even though we finished 48th in the medals tally – happen?
Why Haryana, North-Eastern States Have an Edge
The journey perhaps began in the 2012 London Olympics. Some of it could be due to the change in approach, a gradual change in Indian mindset over the past couple of decades.
A greater reliance on foreign coaches and support staff undoubtedly helped the cause in honing the talent and physical conditioning of the Indian Olympic squad. Somewhat like how the Indian cricket team has become world beaters in fitness by training under foreign physios in the past.
In fact, all the seven medals came under the supervision of foreign coaches. Even Neeraj Chopra trained under a German javelin legend, Uwe Hohn.
Now, interestingly, also note how the medals list is dominated by athletes from Haryana and the North East. Dahiya, Puniya, Chopra are all from Haryana. The hockey team has a liberal sprinkling of players from Haryana as well.
Meanwhile, Chanu and Borgohain, the other two individual sports winners are from the North East (Manipur and Assam). Any special significance to this piece of statistics? Maybe, yes.
Some analysts do feel youngsters from Haryana-Punjab and North East have the physical build for sports, perhaps giving them an edge over athletes from other parts of the country.
The Lessons from Cricket
Now, let’s join the dots and see if there are any takeaways from our experience with cricket – the national obsession – that can possibly help us in unearthing talent for Olympic sports.
Cricket legend and incumbent Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan once remarked that India must look for fast bowlers in Punjab. This was, of course, before Indian discovered a battery of fast bowlers.
In Khan’s words, “Explore the Indian side of Punjab”. Pakistan, said Khan, seems to be getting most of its fast bowlers from its side of Punjab. Youngsters from Punjab have an athletic build, crucial for fast bowling, asserted Khan.
Is that why Haryana and the North East are producing Olympic champions? Perhaps they have the right DNA? Maybe. Genetic edge certainly may give youngsters from Haryana-Punjab an edge.
And that may also explain why rigorously physical sports like wrestling – even hockey to an extent – are quite popular in pockets of the state like Sonepat, Jhajjar and Panipat.
Remember, talent alone is not enough to produce champions. There needs to be a broader sporting culture, an ecosystem, that encourages talent to blossom. That would explain why Indian Punjab, and its offspring Haryana, may not have produced a battery of fast bowlers like in Pakistan.
Youngsters in India have traditionally focused on batting, Sachin Tendulkar has pointed out. And, in Pakistan, they take to bowling at the expense of other sports, an ecosystem spawned and nursed by Imran Khan himself over the years.
Entire India Can Produce Champions
Encouragingly, recent experience in India demonstrates that, with the right training and supporting infrastructure, fast bowlers can sprout across the country. Take a look at the background of India’s leading fast bowlers in recent years.
Mohammad Shami is from UP, Jasprit Bumrah from Gujarat, Ishant Sharma from Delhi, Javagal Srinath from Karnataka and Kapil Dev from Haryana itself. That’s pretty much from across India. Extend that logic to Olympic sports as well. Give youngsters the right training and exposure and they can rise to the occasion.
And, then, remember icons give birth to icons. The likes of Neeraj Chopra, Bajrang Punia, Ravi Dahiya, Mirabhai Chanu and PV Sindhu can seed a sporting culture in India, something we have lacked for decades.
They can inspire an entire generation to take to sports. At a slight different plane, consider the impact Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai had in India after sashaying their way to Ms Universe and Ms World titles.
Suddenly, a rash of winners of international beauty pageants emerged out of nowhere in India. Hopefully, our Olympic heroes can have the same impact on sports in India.
Sponsors Must Adopt Olympic Sports
Finally, the euphoria over Tokyo Olympics in India may encourage sponsors to pour money into sports in India (other than cricket). The Odisha government has sponsored the hockey team but Indian sport needs corporate sponsorships. The Ambanis own an IPL team.
Why can’t they adopt the Indian women’s hockey team for the next four years with an eye on the gold medal in the summer games in Paris? Think about it.
Tokyo 2021 can be the watershed moment for Indian sports. We must seize it.
(Rishi Joshi is Executive Editor with India Ahead News. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.)