INDIA returned with a silver and a bronze from the Olympic Games in Rio, both achieved with barely three days left for the competition to end. But not many recall that the contingent could have claimed a medal on just the second day of the competition.
In the 48kg women’s weightlifting category, Mirabai Chanu had stepped on to the dais with a total lift of 192 kg behind her, a national record achieved just a couple of months before at the selection trials in Patiala. But in Rio, Chanu managed just a single clean lift of 82kg in the snatch segment. The silver in Rio went to Indonesia’s Wahyuni Agustiani — she lifted 192 kg.
The result was symptomatic of India’s performance at the 2016 Olympic Games.
* Although it sent its largest contingent ever this time, around 84 per cent performed below their qualifying marks. Of the 85 individual participants — excluding the 32 in men and women’s hockey — just 13 matched their personal best, justified their world ranking or advanced past the opening round.
* Only four out of 34 track and field athletes reached the finals, or set national records or logged their season’s best performances.
The results compare poorly with those at the 2012 Olympics in London, where India claimed six medals from 65 individual competitors. Four years ago, a higher proportion of athletes improved on their season’s best, too. In the case of athletics, where results are quantifiable, five of 14 reached the finals, or set national records or logged their season’s best performances.
In May, a report prepared by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) estimated that India would win between 10-12 medals in Rio based in part on qualifying marks and current performances of those who had made the cut. But as results in Rio showed, this assessment was wildly off mark.
“It is disappointing because medal tally has not been there. We genuinely and honestly expected double digits, which was not unrealistic,” says Injetti Srinivas, director-general, SAI.
For every Dipa Karmakar, Sakshi Malik, Lalita Babar or P V Sindhu, there were multiple underperformers.
Seema Antil threw the discus 5m off her qualifying mark. Long jumper Ankit Sharma was half a metre short of the National record he had set only a month before. After his 17.30m triple jump of a month ago, Renjith Maheshwary recorded 16.13m in Rio. Jitu Rai, considered a strong shooting prospect, shot a score of 554 in qualifying and failed to make the final. He had shot 11 points more during the qualification round in India. The country’s highest-ranked table tennis player Soumyajit Ghosh lost to an opponent ranked 126 places below him. And India’s only judoka Avtar Singh, ranked 72, lost to an opponent representing the world’s refugees and ranked 91.
Coaches point to a number of reasons why Indian sportspersons turn in creditable performances in the run-up to the Games — even in continental multi-event tournaments like the Asian and Commonwealth Games — but fail to step up at the biggest stage. “Most athletes don’t expect to win at the Olympics. So they channel all their energies towards qualification. For them, qualification is the goal,” says Gurbachan Randhawa, chief selector of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) who finished fifth in the 110m hurdles at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
“Many athletes got through in the final month of the qualifying period. Every training programme consists of three phases — rest, training and competition. If you direct your peak toward qualification, you can’t be at your best during the Olympics,” he says.
Randhawa’s assessment seems most appropriate in the case of Maheshwary, who qualified at the hastily arranged Indian Grand Prix in Bengaluru on July 11, the last day of the qualification window. He set a national record to qualify for his third Olympics, bettering his own mark by 0.23m. In Rio, though, his best jump placed him at 30 out of 48. Seen alongside Maheshwary’s two previous Olympics performances, a pattern begins to emerge. In Beijing, he had a best jump of 15.77m while he couldn’t even register a legitimate jump in London.
Ten other athletes secured qualification at the Bengaluru GP. Jinson Johnson ran the second fastest 800m ever by an Indian, Dharambir Singh bettered his national mark in the 200m, the women’s 4x400m relay team logged its fourth fastest time ever while the men’s 4x400m squad clocked the second best time of the year. While Dharambir was later dropped for failing a doping test, the others did not even come close to matching those performances in Rio.
Even when athletes had time to prepare for the Games, their performances simply tailed away. According to SAI’s assessment, Vikas Gowda, who qualified for the discus throw with 65.14m last May, was expected to reach the final. But in Rio, he managed a best of 58.99m — nearly 7m off his qualifying mark — placing him at 28 out of 35 competitors. It later emerged that Gowda was carrying a knee injury.
Then again, a number of competitors were making their Olympics debut in Rio. “Competing at the Olympics is a far bigger challenge than at a World or Asian championships. A number of young athletes get overawed by the occasion. By the time they get their nerves under control, their event is over,” says N Ramesh, coach of Dutee Chand who exited in the first round of the women’s 100m.
Others were left ruing what could have been. “We were sure that we would get a medal in the women’s 48kg,” says Vijay Sharma, chief coach of the weightlifting team. “Everything that could have gone our way, did. We had lifted that weight a thousand times in practice. But when it came to the stage, we were not able to perform,” he says.