TOKYO — On Wednesday, at a sumo wrestling hall where women are usually not allowed to enter the ring, Lovlina Borgohain punched for all the girls there. He praised his far-flung home state of Assam, known for its fine tea, but also for an armed rebellion.
But above all, she fought in the Olympic women’s welterweight boxing semi-finals for India, the world’s second most populous nation, which even by the most charitable of calculations is seeking an Olympics. Apart from the men’s hockey victory generations ago, India has won only one more gold in shooting in its Olympic history in 2008.
“I was 100 percent sure I would come home with gold,” said Borgohain, who spent eight years away from home training his father was once picking up tea to make.
Her rival in Tokyo, Busenaz Suramenelli of Turkey, may have a small head, but her footwork was light and her hits were powerful. Borgohain was overwhelmed, her slender frame striking one after another, her hopes of serving as a gold medal role model for millions of Indian girls dashed.
“What message can I give them?” he said. “I just lost my match.”
After silver in women’s weightlifting and bronze in women’s badminton, Borgohain is still assured India’s third medal in these games, a bronze.
But every four years – in this case five – the same questions arise in India. Why is the country so bad at the Olympics? And does it matter?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, keen to raise India’s global stature, has decided that he does. After India’s shoddy performance at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro – one silver and one bronze – the government began funding a sports bureaucracy that had been underfunded and tainted with corruption for decades. Private ventures stepped in, training elite athletes whose upward trajectory they might be able to harness. And the state money has started coming in grassroot level sports also.
Weightlifting coach Vijay Sharma, who worked with Tokyo silver medalist Mirabai Chanu for seven years, said: “Now the government is trying its best to change the sporting system.” “But they have a lot to do. It’s a long journey they have to walk.”
Abhinav Bindra, India’s lone Olympic gold medalist in the individual event, said today’s sporting environment is different from when he won the 10m air rifle event in Beijing. He said that when he participated in national shooting as a youth, there were 200 participants. These days, the contest attracts 20,000, and 20,000 who didn’t make the cut. He said the eight members of the Indian shooting team in Tokyo have been world number one or number two in their respective categories.
“This could be the beginning of a new era in Indian sport,” Bindra said.
However, so far Tokyo has been an area of despair for India. Ravi Dahiya, who competes in men’s freestyle wrestling, is guaranteed at least a silver after winning a semifinal bout on Wednesday, and a men’s javelin thrower is still in contention. The women’s hockey team entered the semi-finals for the first time, but after a loss on Wednesday, they will now have to fight for the bronze like their male counterparts. The archers left their mark. A discus thrower came in sixth place. And the much-awaited shooter failed to follow in Bindra’s footsteps. No one came close to the medal.
Not everyone in India agrees that the country needs to measure its national self-respect in Olympic medals. India, they say, is already a sporting superpower, and not just the sports that are in the Olympics.
Cricket, by far the most popular pastime in India, boasts a lucrative domestic league, and the country climbs to the top international level of the sport. Sports promoters have also unveiled a professional league for kabaddi, an ancient South Asian form of group tag in which players must sometimes chant the word “Kabaddi” repeatedly. (The purpose of vocalization is to ensure that players are exhaling when aggressive.)
The fact that Indian sports viewership is concentrated elsewhere for all but a few weeks every four years hasn’t lessened Tokyo’s dismay. The funding rush ahead of the Games raised hopes for gold. Indian sports officials showed the 127-member Olympic delegation, the country’s largest, youngest and most decorated ever.
For Indian Olympians, however, the weight of a nation’s hopes is crushing, especially after months of competition halted due to the coronavirus pandemic. A 19-year-old Indian shooter, who was pegged for a potential medal in the air pistol, admitted that the burden of winning distracted him in a sport where concentration is paramount.
in archery, Atanu Daso He had the word “quiet” written on his hand while competing in the 1/8 elimination round over the weekend. He has lost. A day earlier, his wife and fellow archer Deepika Kumari could not make it to the quarterfinals despite being ranked world number one.
“Maybe we have taken this Olympics very seriously, Indian contingent,” Das said. “We forgot to enjoy our shooting or our skills.”
Indian archers used to train in obscurity. The new Olympic push brought him sudden fame, along with months of free training at an Army sports camp. The focus was overwhelming, the athletes said.
“Nobody knows when we win the World Cup. No one knows when we win the world championships. When we get World No 1, nobody knows,” Das said. “But the Indians are in the Olympics, so everybody knows everything.”
“It’s pressure inside your head all the time,” he said.
Beijing 2008 gold medalist Bindra said his success did not lie in the support of the state but in the family wealth. His father built a world-class shooting range in his home in the northern city of Chandigarh. He then topped it off with a swimming pool and a gym so his son could build his muscles. At that time, the only comparable shooting range was in New Delhi.
Former Indian hockey team captain Viren Rasquinha is now the chief executive officer of Olympic Gold Quest, a non-profit group founded by former top-flight athletes to foster the next generation of talent.
While Rasquinha said the National Sports Authority has given up some of its wooden, corruption-ridden reputation, building an ecosystem of coaches, training facilities, infrastructure and equipment takes time.
In recent years, the country’s most powerful crop of Olympians has come from a narrow neck of land in northeastern India, where ethnic minorities live in the shadow of the Himalayas. These states, Manipur and Assam, are home to insurgent movements fighting for autonomy from the Indian state. Due to their ethnicity, the people there often face discrimination.
“There is enthusiasm and fire in the stomach of rural youth, which is missing among students in cities,” Rasquinha said.
Mary Kom, a light-flyweight boxer from Manipur who won bronze at the 2012 Games in London, said she has long faced prejudice from Hindu nationalists who say that as a Christian, she somehow Not really Indian. There are racist whispers too, some not so cool that the people of the Himalayan foothills are more martial than others in India and hence they make good boxers.
Kom has six world championships to his name. She was the first Indian woman to earn an Olympic medal in boxing. After London, she gave birth to another child. She and her husband now have four children, of whom she said, “always wanted to separate from what I cook for them.” So she cooks. He also won a seat in Parliament. a biopic starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas was done about him.
“People of Manipur, we have a fighting spirit, especially women,” said Kom, who grew up eating rations to save money for a pair of sneakers.
Kom inspired a generation of Manipuri athletes, including weightlifter Chanu, who won a silver medal in the 49kg category in Tokyo.
Chanu said, ‘From now on India will do well in the Olympics. “Young people will look at me, and they will be inspired, just like I was with Mary Kom.”
Last week in Tokyo, Kom, who had qualified for Tokyo at age 38 after not making it to Rio, was eliminated in a split-decision battle. Despite a first-round loss and an official age limit for Olympic boxers, she said she was aiming for the Paris Games in 2024.
“Manipuri women have extra energy,” she said. “Don’t say we’re finished yet.”