The silver lining

Print edition : September 07, 2012

Medal winners (from left) Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom, Gagan Narang, Vijay Kumar, Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt at a reception hosted by the Prime Minister in New Delhi.-V. SUDERSHAN Medal winners (from left) Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom, Gagan Narang, Vijay Kumar, Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt at a reception hosted by the Prime Minister in New Delhi.

Indian sport hit a new high with the London Olympics, though it slipped from the gold standard.

It was heartening that India could win six medals, but it was disappointing that none of its stars could emulate Abhinav Bindra, who won an Olympic gold in Beijing. Bindras gold in shooting remains the only individual gold for the country in more than 100 years of the Olympics. India had won eight gold medals in hockey, but this time the team finished last among 12 teams, without winning a single match.

Rapid fire pistol shooter Vijay Kumar and wrestler Sushil Kumar matched Rajyavardhan Singh Rathores silver medal in Athens in 2004. Both were capable of winning the gold and were pretty close to it. Even the four bronze medallists Gagan Narang (shooting), Saina Nehwal (badminton), Mary Kom (boxing) and Yogeshwar Dutt (wrestling) were all capable of going all the way and being the best in their event.

But as Bindra observed, there is an aura about the Olympics that brings the best sportspersons around the world together once in four years. You may have been on top of your sport for years, but the challenge is to do it when the whole world is watching. There is no better stage in the world than the Olympics.

Sushil Kumars fighting skills were phenomenal as he started his campaign by beating the defending champion and former World champion in the 66 kg freestyle wrestling, Ramazan Sahin of Turkey. The draw itself would have intimidated many, but the Najafgarh tiger took it as an opportunity to march ahead. When he made it to the final, Sushil looked the better wrestler as he matched wits with Japans Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu, reigning Asian Games champion and World Championship silver medallist.

While Yonemitsu was a bundle of energy, as he had been stretched to a third period in only one of his three earlier bouts, Sushil was below his best as he had been physically drained by a bout of dehydration. He had won all his bouts in the extended third period and was close to defeat in the semi-finals, and thus had expended a lot of energy in this very demanding sport.

Everyone thought that I would win the gold, but I am happy with the silver. It is because of the good wishes of the whole country, said Sushil. Indian wrestling has made progress, winning two medals this time. Yogeshwar Dutt, who had lost in the quarterfinals in Beijing and had to endure two surgeries of the knee and battle a back problem, fought strongly in the repechage to get the bronze medal. He had lost in the pre-quarter-finals to the four-time world champion Besik Kudukhov of Russia.

Silver medallist Sushil Kumar (in red) and Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu of Japan in the 66-kg freestyle wrestling final.-PAUL SANCYA/AP

I was very tired when I got to the bronze medal match. But one thing that kept driving me was the thought that I have to win the medal for the country, Dutt said after spinning the semi-finalist Ri Jong Miyong of DPR Korea like a top in the climax to win the bronze in style.

In wrestling, even if you lose in the first round, you still can win a medal, and even if you make it to the semi-finals you may not win a medal. While the finalists fight for gold, the wrestlers who have lost to them in the earlier rounds fight for bronze in two different groups. Amit Kumar and the lone woman wrestler, Geeta Phogat, also made the repechage but lacked the experience to capitalise on their second chance to win a medal.

Shooting was also, in some ways, a success story for India. Apart from Bindra, three others, Gagan Narang, Manavjit Singh Sandhu and Ronjan Sodhi, were capable of winning gold. Vijay Kumar, a subedar in the Army, was the dark horse. He beat the world record-holder Alexei Kilimov of Russia in the knock-out final. He had conceded a two-point lead to the eventual gold medallist Leuris Pupo of Cuba after the fourth series in the final, which denied him a chance for the gold. I had no pressure. We were mentally prepared well, said Vijay who had trained with Russian coach Pavel Smirnov.

In the air rifle event, Narang was 0.3 point away from the gold after the sixth shot in the final but eventually had to settle for bronze. Bindra had won the gold in Beijing in this event.

Asian Games gold medallist and two-time World Cup gold medallist Ronjan Sodhi was in command in double trap until he missed four birds in the last three stations. He missed the final by three points and finished 11th.

Former World champion and the reigning Asian champion Manavjit Singh Sandhus good work was undone by one bad round of 22 out of 25. He had shot 70 out of 75 on the first day, and a 49 out of 50 on the second. He missed the final by three points and was 14th overall. He had shot identical scores of 116 in Athens and Beijing. Joydeep Karmakar, a rank outsider, finished fourth in the mens rifle prone event. He had not won the Olympic quota but delivered a fabulous performance in a classy field, shooting 595 in qualification and 104.1 in the final.

Badminton ace Saina Nehwal had reached the quarter-finals of the Beijing Games as a precocious talent at 18. In London, she lost to the eventual silver medallist Wang Yihan in the semi-finals, without even a token fight. Another badminton star in the making, P. Kashyap, made the quarter-finals in the mens singles and lost to the top-seed, Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, the eventual silver medallist.

Five-time world champion Mary Kom joined Saina in winning a bronze, in womens boxing, which made its Olympic debut in London. In a field of 12 boxers, Mary won two bouts to ensure her medal; she lost the semi-finals to the eventual gold medallist, Nicola Adams of Britain. Not one of the Indian men, including Asian Games champions and world championship bronze medallists Vijender Singh and Vikas Krishan, won a medal.

In athletics, Krishna Poonia and Vikas Gowda took the seventh and eighth places in womens and mens discus throw, respectively. Walker K.T. Irfan was 10th, while Tintu Luka made the semi-finals of the womens 800 m. In tennis, Leander Paes and Sania Mirza lost in the quarter-finals to the eventual gold medallists Victoria Azarenka and Max Mirnyi of Belarus. Paes, competing in his sixth Olympics, and Vishnu Vardhan lost in the mens doubles in the pre-quarter-finals to the eventual silver medallists, Michael Llodra and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga of France. The seventh-seeded Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna won a long match against Alexander Bury and Max Mirnyi in the first round but lost to the eventual bronze medallists, Richard Gasquet and Julien Benneteau of France.

Archery was a disappointment as World No.1 Deepika Kumari and the rest of the five members in the womens and mens sections failed in the individual and team competition. The archers need better guidance, and professional coaches to take care of them when it matters the most.

After having won only seven individual medals over the years, Indian sport did very well to capture six in one edition. If the momentum is sustained, there can be a couple of gold medals in Rio.

Kamesh Srinivasan

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