The inability of Indian athletes to secure medals at the ongoing Rio Olympics had become a source of much derision among their supporters. Not anymore. And it’s the women, who are leading India’s Olympic charge. Freestyle wrestler Sakshi Malik won the bronze medal in the 58 kg category earlier this week, becoming the first Indian female wrestler to win a medal at the Olympics. But it is 21-year-old Indian shuttler Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, who has become the toast of the town. Sindhu did not win the gold, but she won many hearts. She went down to World No.1 Carolina Marin in three-sets. Irrespective of the outcome of the final, she has done the nation proud. This will be the first time an Indian shuttler has won a silver medal at the Olympics.
In the London Olympic four years back, Saina Nehwal had notched a bronze medal. Sindhu took Marin all the way to the very end. But there’s a reason why Marin is World No.1. One must also not forget the touching embrace between two great champions after the match. It was a show of real class from two great champions. The champion Indian shuttler can take heart from the fact that time is on her side, and she could have another crack at gold. Sindhu’s road to the final was marked by her stunning victory over World No.2 Wang Yihan of China in the quarterfinal after a closely-fought straight sets victory. It was a fine display of defensive nous and aggressive strokeplay, with her cross-court returns proving to be the highlight. In the semi-final versus World No. 6 Nozomi Okuhara from Japan, it was a rather straightforward affair. Coming into the match, the shuttler from Hyderabad enjoyed a distinct height advantage over her Japanese counterpart. Standing at 5’ 10 inches tall compared to Okuhara’s 5’ 1 inches, Sindhu’s wingspan allowed her a wider reach and all-around court coverage. Despite a moment of brief resistance in the first set, Sindhu never lost control of proceedings.
PV Sindhu’s rise to the top began at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Gachibowli, in Hyderabad’s IT corridor. Under the tutelage of Pullela Gopichand, the Hyderabadi shuttler has reached new heights. To the uninitiated, Gopichand is a legend of Indian badminton. In 2001, he won the prestigious All England Open Badminton Championships at Birmingham, becoming only the second Indian to achieve the feat after the illustrious Prakash Padukone. But Gopichand’s legacy will be written by the Indian racquet warriors his academy has nurtured through the years. Before the last Olympics, it was Saina Nehwal who shone brightest from Gopichand’s academy. Unfortunately, in 2014, Saina chose to leave Gopichand’s tutelage to train with Vimal Kumar in Bengaluru.
With over 150 players at the academy and his duties as India’s coach, Nehwal felt that Gopichand was unable to give her personal attention. However, Gopichand has moved on and nurtured two more gems of the Indian game—PV Sindhu and Men’s World No.11 Srikanth Kidambi. The former All England Open champion’s academy has become the centre of Indian badminton, attracting talent from all over the country. Passion and professionalism of the highest level are the hallmarks of this academy.
Gopichand’s personal dedication to the careers of both Kidambi and Sindhu has been reported with much vigour by the Indian media. The coach reportedly stayed off carbohydrates for the last three months to stay in peak physical condition and become an effective sparring partner to both Kidambi and Sindhu. The master began planning for the Rio Olympics a year in advance, bringing in a weight trainer and physical fitness expert to train Sindhu. The aim was to increase her strength and stamina so that she could last more than an hour on court and play long rallies to tire her opponents out. Her victories against the likes of Wang Yihan and Nozomi Okuhara are a testament to such meticulous training.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to extend this professionalism and dedication to authorities across Indian sporting bodies represented at the Olympics. Truth be told, Indian athletes deserve a medal just for putting up with their country’s dithering and incompetent officials. Some of these athletes, who have dedicated their lives to their chosen fields, have not received their due in terms of facilities, treatment, and respect. For example, Dipa Karmakar, whose stunning performance took her to the women’s vault finals, had to do without her physiotherapist until the final because the Sports Authority of India had deemed his travel to “wasteful”. Officials jumped into action only after she made it to the final.
The Indian contingent’s chief medical officer at the Rio games is not a trained sports medicine doctor, but a radiologist. His response to injuries sustained by athletes has been met with much suspicion. The behaviour of Indian officials and politicians, claiming to accompany or encourage these athletes, has brought much shame to the country. Sports Minister Vijay Goel has made some stunning gaffes on social media, mixing up the names of athletes and photos. Goel also came close to losing his Olympics accreditation after organizers complained about the “aggressive and rude” behavior of his entourage.