If Sports Authority of India (SAI) director general Jiji Thomson confidently says India will win 70-75 medals at the Incheon Asian Games, one has to take the figure seriously. Normally, it is the national sports federations that make tall claims about their chances, not the sports ministry or any of its agencies.
The SAI director general is a very calculative person and he is not given to flippant assessment. He is one of those bureaucrats who came out of the 2010 Commonwealth Games without getting bruised, though a sticky oil scandal back home in Kerala haunted him for over 20 years before he was exonerated by the courts.
There is little doubt that Thomson is a proactive official – he is not one to shy away from speaking his mind or backing athletes who he thinks deserve to be rewarded. He has unfairly been accused of favouring sportspersons from Kerala at the Arjuna Awards committee meetings. He has also refused to take action against the Incheon-bound gymnastics coach for alleged sexual harassment at the national camp on the basis of media reports.
Yet, SAI and the sports ministry did a great disservice to Indian sport by keeping the athletes in suspense till the eleventh hour, not being able to stick to their stand of not clearing certain disciplines which have no earthly chance of winning a medal. Eventually, the file had to go to the Prime Minister’s Office for clearance. The policy decision should have been whether the best Indian sportspersons should go to the regional championships irrespective of their medal chances or should the government strictly go by the assessment of its own agency which monitors their performance.
The pressures are such to clear disciplines like football, table tennis, volleyball and basketball. If a moratorium has to be imposed on participation it has to be uniformly adhered to like the Chinese did by keeping away from the Asian Games for over two decades. China won 105 medals to finish third in the medals tally in their first participation in the Asian Games at Tehran in 1974. They then moved to second position at the next edition in Bangkok hosted after Singapore cried off for want of finances.
China started dominating the Games at New Delhi in 1982 when they topped the charts with 153 medals, two more than what they won in Bangkok and 10 more gold than the 51 they won previously. After that the fight has only been for the second position. Four years ago in their backyard at Guangzhou, they won a whopping 416 medals from 476 events in 42 disciplines, hundred more than their tally in Doha in 2006 — and 199 of these gold. India, founders and hosts of the inaugural Games at the National Stadium in New Delhi in 1951 kept participating irrespective of their medal hopes whereas China took a stand that unless their athletes reached international standards they would not venture out.
Would you believe, India finished second behind Japan at the 1951 Games with 51 medals and strangely with 33 medals, including 10 gold, they were placed third at Jakarta in 1962. Otherwise India struggled to finish fifth five times and topped the 50-medal mark only thrice, recording their best tally of 65 four years ago, a month after their unbelievably excellent showing to touch the three-figure medal mark to finish second behind Australia in the New Delhi Commonwealth Games.
Statistics, of course, do not reveal everything but they certainly provide a broad indication. So, SAI’s figure of 70-75 looks ambitious yet attainable. Obviously, they took the Guangzhou tally as base figure. Four years ago India won gold medals in seven disciplines. Expecting their usual quota from athletics, they expect much more from boxing and shooting which fetched two and one gold, respectively. What is inspiring is that India won medals in as many as 18 disciplines.
The last time, Somdev Devvarman won two gold medals, both in singles and doubles, and he has decided not to participate to defend his medals this time. Ashwini Akkunji, who won both the 400 metres hurdles and the relay gold, will be there after serving a year’s ban for testing positive for drugs. Sania Mirza should hope to get a couple of tennis medals and so should the men’s doubles team while Saina Nehwal and Pusarla Venkata Sindhu should be looking for medals despite the stiff Chinese competition.
In the early years of the Games, Indian athletes were the leading lights, starting with sprinter Levy Pinto to discus thrower Praveen Kumar, triple jumper Mohinder Gill, shot-putters Parduman Singh, Joginder Singh and Bahadur Singh, 800m runner Sriram Singh, Hari Chand, T.C. Yohannan and not to mention “Flying Sikh” Milkha Singh. But the star of Indian athletics is P.T. Usha whose record is of winning four gold medals and a silver at the Seoul Games in 1986. Before that the only women to have won golds and a silver were Kamaljit Sandhu (1970) and M.D. Valsamma (1982).
Elsewhere, shooters and wrestlers are expected to swell the medals tally and the hockey team thinks the new format of four quarters of 15 minutes each instead of 35 minutes in two sessions should help them go for gold. The archers must re-establish their status as among the best in the continent to pick up a medal or two. There could be a clutch of silver and bronze medals and if that could take the overall tally to anywhere near 70 it should be considered a decent showing.