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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Clueless ministers as much a cause of India’s Olympics irrelevance as athlete struggles

Dileep Premachandran writes incompetence at the top of the Indian sporting change is as much at fault for a disappointing Olympics as any athlete failures.
Indian sports minister Vijay Goel. Sajjad Hussain / AFP
Indian sports minister Vijay Goel. Sajjad Hussain / AFP

A week into the Olympics, and countries such as Kosovo and Fiji, with the population of a Mumbai suburb, can boast of gold medals.

India have yet to pick up even a bronze.

Abhinav Bindra, who won gold in the 10-metre air rifle at Beijing in 2008, missed out on a medal by a whisker, and that was the fate of others in the shooting contingent as well.

The archers fared no better.

Much was expected from Deepika Kumari and Bombayla Devi Laishram, but both shot poorly to exit at the last-16 stage. Atanu Das averaged 28 (three arrows) over five rounds, which would have been enough to win several of the last-16 contests, but his South Korean opponent edged him by the slimmest of margins.

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Most of the angst, however, was reserved for the hockey team. Silver medallists at the recent Champions Trophy, India more than held their own against Germany, the reigning champions, and the Netherlands, perennial contenders. But lacking a cutting edge in front of goal, they lost both matches 2-1. Against Netherlands, they had five penalty corners in the dying seconds, but could not convert.

Third place in the group would still have been theirs had they beaten Canada, who had lost all four of their previous matches. But as has so often been the case in recent Olympics, India saved their worst for a game they were supposed to win at a canter. The 2-2 draw relegated India to fourth place, and a quarter-final against Belgium, who topped the other group.

As the days have ticked over with success conspicuously absent, the cynicism back home has boiled over.

Shobhaa De, a socialite who once edited a movie magazine, tweeted: “Goal of Team India at the Olympics: Rio jao [Go to Rio]. Selfies lo [Take selfies]. Khaali haat wapas aao [Return empty-handed]. What a waste of money and opportunity.”

Many reacted with anger to the tweet, but the most apt response came from Heena Sidhu, who had finished 14th in the women’s 10m air pistol.

Over a series of five tweets, she said: “And even if we lose, the whole nation of billion ppl need to introspect why. Maybe it wud be nice if you write abt Sports sometimes... just sometimes...So that it becomes a national movement. There is no reason a billion ppl cannot do well at the Olympics. No reason at all.”

Actually, there is a good reason.

Indian sport’s slide into irrelevance has gone hand in hand with the emergence of a breed of sports ministers and officials, each more inept and clueless than the other.

Vijay Goel, the current sports minister, has been in the news more than any of the athletes in Rio because of the appalling behaviour of his entourage.

“We have had multiple reports of your Minister for Sports trying to enter accredited areas at venues with unaccredited individuals,” said a letter from Sarah Peterson, continental manager for the organising committee, to Rakesh Gupta, India’s chef-de-mission.

“When the staff try to explain that this is not allowed, the people with the Minister become aggressive and rude and sometimes push past our staff.”

These bumpkins have also hindered the chances of some of India’s more promising athletes.

Dutee Chand finished seventh in her 100m first-round heat, with a time (11.69 seconds) that was nearly half a second behind the national record she set in July. “I was well prepared in Almaty when I clocked 11.24secs as I had reached there well in advance,” she said after the race.

“But here, I was tired after the long 36-hour flight in a crammed economy-class seat. I reached here on August 5 evening. I slept for two days, had severe back pain. I could not adjust well. My coach also reached late and I did not get any help here.”

Chand travelled 36 hours across three flights in economy class, while the officials who consistently embarrass India at global events flew business class.

And people still wonder why the medals are hard to come by.

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