Very little has changed over the decades when it comes to acceptance of non-cricket sports in India, which is largely superficial and victory hungry
After the 2000 Olympics, I had written a short piece which appeared as a middle in the Times of India on October 21, 2000. For reasons that I do not readily recollect, the piece was titled 'Beer Hug'. It was about Karnam Malleshwari, the weightlifter who had just won a historic Bronze. She was being, rightly so, applauded and showered with accolades and rewards from all sides.
Two decades and six Olympics later, something about the euphoria that has swept the nation after the Tokyo Games, where India won six medals, including a first-ever Gold in Track and Field, made me dig out the old parched and yellowed newspaper cutting of the 2000 article and read it again.
A few lines from the article brought a wry smile to my face.
"A tribute to Indian womanhood", said one worthy.
Another gushes, "We Indians can match the best in the world"
"Gold ka bees, silver ka pandrah aur bronze ka saat" a large-hearted Indian proclaims putting a price to such exploits.
Like Malleswari then, most of our athletes left for Tokyo unheralded and unnoticed by a nation that was more worried and concerned about where, how and when the IPL would be completed. Suddenly, as they started showing signs of being more than able to hold their own in the Olympic arena, a hitherto indifferent public and media began to notice them and as the crescendo of medal hopes rose, so did the noise in the Indian media and amongst those of us who suddenly became experts in golf and javelin throwing. By the time the Games concluded, we had new national icons with everyone clamouring to reach out and claim their share in somebody else's glory. Bollywood superstars and so-called celebrity news anchors jostled to interview and be photographed with them.
In 2000, the media and other leading lights of the nation were suddenly eager to embrace, adopt and claim Malleswari, a hitherto largely ignored daughter of a police constable, one of six siblings and incidentally a two-time world champion. But the medal she won had made her everybody's, and not just Haryana's, favourite bahu!
A feeling of déjà vu reaching Olympian proportions has engulfed me since the return of the athletes from Tokyo. For a fortnight, perhaps we forgot that the Indian cricket team was actually touring England. I fear that I will be accused of raining on our latest national parade as the nation celebrates our modest but historic haul of medals in Independence month. But this is neither my point now nor was that so in 2000.
Had we been truly a sport-loving and not just a cricket-loving nation, our media would have been writing about the Indian contingent much before they left for Tokyo. When Mirabai Chanu lifted herself to a Silver, many of us were left wondering who she was. Though she had, like Malleswari, represented India with much distinction even before Tokyo. Now suddenly, she was our very own Mirabai and not just another face from the Northeast who would probably have been accosted in the streets of Delhi with a leer and a jeer, instead of a cheer, just a month back for the simple offence of looking different.
The infamous fickleness of the Indian fan plunged new deplorable depths when a Hockey player, who had played her heart out in Tokyo, became the target of abuse after a loss. From a Desh Ki Beti, she was suddenly reduced to a mere figure cast(e) in the mold of a centuries-old wrong which modern India has still not been able to correct or amend, let alone apologize for. That this act was carried out brazenly and without fear and was buried and then forgotten somewhere behind the other more palatable headlines of the day speaks volumes of not only our sporting mindset but also of our media.
We are not, and will not become, a great sporting nation unless we learn to accept victory with humility and defeat with grace. As of now, we do neither. Besides, a country obsessed with only one sport to the total disadvantage of all others can hardly be expected to consistently triumph in the Olympic arena. Cricket is like a quaint pastime of a small private club with a handful of members. Within this small tight-knit circle, the Indians have raised their stakes to a level where the team needs uninterrupted oxygen of victory to keep the Indian fans in good humour. Of late, these victories also need to be celebrated with chest-thumping and aggressive antics resulting in disfigured facial expressions which would find pride of place in a Zombie movie. To be fair, defeat is also accompanied by a fair number of stones thrown at Indian players' houses and calls for heads to roll and careers to be prematurely ended in the aftermath. The Indian media oxygenates both fires with what it erroneously believes are 'expert comments' that swing like a pendulum between feet-kissing supplication and outright indignation calling for street-level justice. Of course, if individual records are attained, defeats are sometimes glossed over and the Indian fan is ready to forgive and move on. But all this matters only at the international level for fans and the media. Ask anyone to name the players in the Delhi Ranji team or when was the last time they bought a ticket for a real domestic match, not the IPL, and you will perhaps not be surprised by the answers. The fate of non-cricket sports in India has been like that of the Ranji Trophy — everyone knows it's there but nobody is interested in it.
Hopefully, the Tokyo Olympics has changed that. And that the gentle and calm fire of the Olympic Torch will also touch the Indian cricket team who should be told that winning is not enough to qualify as role models. Today the pathbreaking Indian women hockey team that returned without a medal from Tokyo is perhaps a better example to follow for our budding sports youngsters than the white flannelled warmongers.
Views expressed are personal