This title is enigmatic. It should either be “Settled For”, “Set Forth” or “Settled for Fourth”. It is actually an amalgam of all three. “Settle for” usually means accepting something that is below par. “Settled for fourth” obviously means that the proponent/ exponent has settled for fourth place. To “set forth” is just the opposite, to make a new beginning.
These thoughts came to me after observing some of India’s efforts at the recently concluded Tokyo Olympics 2020. For over 60 years we had settled for fourth place finishes, and actually considered them a great achievement; as that of Milkha Singh in Rome (1960) and P.T. Usha at Los Angeles (1984).
Despite our gloating over the medal winners my heart went out to two fourth placed finishers – the women’s hockey team and Aditi Ashok in golf. I say this because they were not counted among the probables. I watched that bronze medal women’s hockey match. Like many others, I believe that though Great Britain won, India did not lose. They went down fighting. Our girls were puny compared to the British. Many of them were from impoverished backgrounds. Some caste chauvinists in Meerut U.P., had the audacity to say that we lost because Vandana Katharia (who actually scored several goals, including a hattrick) was a Dalit. Shame on them.
Aditi also faced insurmountable odds. She had to play 4 rounds (72 holes) and at the end of the third round (54 holes), she was placed second. In the fourth round, she lost by just one stroke. But listen to her story. She is diminutive, lacking the physical strength for long drives from the tee off. This was compounded by her recovering from corona that further debilitated her. Added to that, in Japan she had to commute for 1½ hours every day from her accommodation to the venue, necessitating rising at 3.00 a.m. and not getting full sleep. Her mother was her caddie (who lugs her golf bag around the course). This is probably because she could not afford her own support staff. It speaks very poorly of our organizers. I, therefore, consider Aditi too as a winner.
What really amused me was the way our netas went to town seemingly taking credit for the medal winners; starting with our very photo conscious Prime Minister being seen time and again talking to the athletes over the phone. The biggest faux pas was by Manohar Lal Khattar, the Chief Minister of Haryana. He boasted on TV that gold medallist Neeraj Chopra had been training at Panchkuia and he would now offer him a job in the State Government as a Class I officer. Did Khattar not know that Neeraj was a Subedar in the Indian Army? He belongs to the 19th Rajasthan Rifles that has its regimental centre in Delhi. Besides, Neeraj had been training in South Africa, Turkey and Sweden under the watchful gaze of Klaus Bartonietz, a German expert in biomechanics. Wonder if Khattar even knows what that means?
Not to be outdone, Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of U.P., published full-page ads of himself and Neeraj. But I wonder if his Govt took any action against those who passed casteist slurs against Vandana? Small wonder then that veteran journalist Rajdeep Sardesai was prompted to say that netas don’t win medals. Columnist Sagarika Ghose went a step further with her satirical piece in the Times of India “Olympics for Netas”. She bestowed the medal for synchronised swimming on the Gandhi siblings Rahul and Priyanka. No prizes for guessing why. The new Minister of Sports, Anurag Thakur, got the medal for shooting – yes, for shooting his mouth off with vitriolic communal hate speech. Amit Shah deservedly got the medal for wrestling his opponents and pinning them to the ground. Is arm twisting a part of wrestling? Veteran Sharad Pawar deservedly got the medal for gymnastics. He is a past master at parallel bars, floor exercises, roman reigns and the pommel (not Trojan) horse!
Had our netas been so concerned about sports the Prime Minister would not have removed the Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju just a month before the Olympics. Post facto it is easy to bask in the glory of other people’s achievements.
Former long jumper Annu Bobby George reportedly said that the present government has done more for sports than previous ones (read Congress). Is Annu preparing for a long jump into the Rajya Sabha? If my memory serves me right, the Sports Authority of India was started by Indira Gandhi as a prelude to the New Delhi Asian Games in 1982. Margaret Alva was the Sports Minister. They had identified various ethnic groups that were genetically oriented to a particular sport. The tribals of Chhotanagpur were encouraged to take up archery and hockey, while the Siddhis (a tribe of African origin on our west coast) were picked up for long-distance running.
Let me rack my memory further. Earlier it was the Indian Army that produced the best athletes. Neeraj is the latest entry from those august portals. The Indian Railways come next. Many of our best hockey players were employed in either Air India or Indian Airlines. Several of them were Goans or Anglo-Indians. The first crop of male athletes like Milkha Singh and Ajit Pal Singh were from Punjab. Female athletes like Annu and Usha were from Kerala.
With time, the demographics have changed. Most of our wrestlers and other sports persons are from Haryana. Our women boxers and weightlifters are from the North East. Badminton stars are from Hyderabad. Odisha is the new hub for hockey, thanks to the sponsorship by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, himself a former hockey goalkeeper. The house of Tatas was probably the first to seriously encourage sports.
Before the advent of sports quotas in government recruitment (Annu please note that it was not introduced by the BJP) several sportspersons had to depend on their own resources. Somebody like Maharaja Karni Singh of Bikaner could bear his own costs for trap shooting. Gold medallist Abhinav Bindra could afford his own shooting range, but most sportspersons are totally dependent on sponsors, be they government or private, not just for the training and travel, but even for specialized diet, equipment and support staff.
Returning to Tokyo, we are gloating over 7 medals; one gold, two silver and four bronze; just one more than the six we won at London 2012. In contrast, the USA won 39 gold from a haul of 113, closely followed by China with 38 from 88. So there is a long haul ahead of us for Paris 2024.
We could take a cue from veteran sports commentator Boria Mazumdar who was in Tokyo itself. He recommended that like Britain in 2012, we should shift focus from team sports like hockey to individual events like athletics. We could focus on our strengths in wrestling, boxing and shooting where there are many more medals for the taking. In contrast, in a team event like hockey, 16 players go through 8 matches to win just one medal. Food for thought.
I would also like to remind our newly minted Sports Minister that sports is a great leveller. World tennis champions Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka bit the dust, as did our brightest stars Marykom, Vinesh Phogat, Sania Mirza, Manika Batra and Deepika Kumari (incidentally all women). This despite Deepika being the reigning world champion in women’s individual recurve archery.
Sport is also a great unifier. Some of the best athletes from Europe are of African origin. Nobody asks an athlete if he or she is Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh. Performance is all that matters. Before concluding these reflections I am taking a leaf out of Yogendra Yadav’s book. He is a political animal. Yet he chose to write a piece in ‘The Print’ about his own childhood sporting experiences. Could I lag behind?
My father was the Captain of the Cawnpore Golf Club in 1957. When Gen Thimmaiah, then Chief of Army Staff visited, it was my father’s privilege to partner with him. In like manner, it fell to his younger brother to introduce the cricket test teams to the Governor of U.P. who would drive down from Lucknow for the match in Green Park stadium.
Sport was in our blood. The first sport that came my way when I was just 6 or 7 was golf. I was then packed off to boarding school in the hills, so that was the end of golf for several years. But boarding school was all about robust outdoor games. There were no lush green playing fields. We played on bajri (fine gravel) that guaranteed bruises and worn-out boots or keds. With gaping holes in the soles due to the constant abrasion with the bajri we padded them up with cardboard, all that we could afford!
My favourite game was hockey, where I always played left wing. Back then both hockey and football were played in a 5-3-2-1 formation, very different from the modern game. I represented the school in junior football and an exhibition boxing bout. But I was physically too weak and small for gymnastics. I was mortally scared of rope climbing.
When I turned 18 I became a member of the Golf Club in my own right but quit a year later when my father died. Later in life, I would organize hockey and football teams, indulge in some trap shooting and organize a badminton tourney. But the funniest moment was in cricket. In a match in the church, I clean bowled the parish priest. He deemed it an anti-clerical act! When I arranged a cricket team for my employees one of the players was a girl. The other team took her lightly not knowing that she was a leg spinner from the national team. That was Neetu David who is currently the chief selector of the Indian women’s cricket team. We won, but we later discovered that my wife who was the scorer had totalled the runs incorrectly. Tough luck for the losers though!
No matter how old or young we are there will always be opportunities to pick up a hockey stick, a golf club, boxing gloves or a badminton racquet. Today I would advocate volleyball as it is the least expensive, with limited space requirement and ensures robust physical activity. In passing, the most beautiful female athlete at Tokyo 2024 was a volleyball player from Turkey.
So let us pursue the Olympic goal of faster, stronger, higher, to which a fourth dimension has been added – together. Why settle for less, as we set forth for Paris 2024.