For India, the best Olympics news may be that they're almost over

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 8, 2012 

— It’s an unwritten rule of the Olympics that there’s no rooting from the press section, but in the closing minutes of a recent men’s field hockey match between India and Belgium, the Indian journalists could no longer hide their partisanship.

“Horrible,” muttered one reporter as an Indian player sent a pass sailing out of bounds, aimed at no one in particular. “Hopeless,” said another reporter, Parvinder Nath, as the clock ticked down on a 3-0 drubbing by Belgium.

The loss on Tuesday mercifully ended India’s Olympic hockey campaign, which produced an 0-5 record in group play. The head coach didn’t show for the postgame news conference, sending in his place an assistant, Mohammed Riaz Nabhi, who said, “We are continuously losing games, so the morale is totally down.”

It’s been another miserable Olympics for India, which by day’s end Wednesday had won just four medals, none of them gold. The emerging economic power is tied with Slovakia for 46th place in the medal standings, behind Azerbaijan and Grenada, and last among the rising BRICS nations with which it’s often compared – Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa.

India’s Olympic futility, in fact, is becoming the stuff of legend. In its entire history, the nation of 1.2 billion people has won 24 medals – just two more than Michael Phelps.

Among nations that have won medals at these games, India ranks a distant last in medals per capita; Australia, which is widely seen as having underachieved at these Olympics, has one-fiftieth of India’s population but six times as many medals.

Why does India perform so poorly? It’s not as if the country doesn’t care about sports. Cricket is a national obsession, and India is the sport’s reigning world champion. It used to be a powerhouse in men’s field hockey as well, winning eight gold medals from 1928 to 1980.

But while China has invested heavily – and controversially – in building a dominant Olympic team worthy of its economic might, India still lacks basic facilities and equipment. There’s plenty of raw talent, but few great coaches and trainers to develop world-class athletes.

And then there’s the problem of corruption. Athletes have long complained about officials fixing match results, bribing players and referees, and selecting national teams on the basis of politics and ethnicity.

When Delhi hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games – an Olympics-like event for former British colonies – what was supposed to be a coming-out party for a wannabe superpower turned into a shambles of construction delays, cost overruns and graft investigations.

“In India, the sports administrators are largely politicians. They don’t know how sport is run,” said Sukhwant Basra, national sports editor for the Hindustan Times newspaper.

Those who do win Olympic medals are revered as heroes and often rewarded with cushy government jobs, which sometimes serve as a disincentive to continue training. It was something of a pleasant surprise when Vijender Singh, a middleweight boxer who won bronze in 2008 and was given a job as a police inspector, returned to compete in London – although he lost his quarterfinal bout this week and finished out of the medals.

Beijing, where India won three medals, including a gold, was its best Olympic showing in decades. Many were eyeing an improvement in London in sports such as archery, shooting and boxing – particularly with the advent of multimillion-dollar trusts, including one funded by steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, aimed at supporting India’s athletes.

The trust helped furnish Abhinav Bindra – whose 2008 gold medal in the men’s 10-meter air rifle was India’s first gold in 28 years – with top-flight physical therapy. He failed to make it out of the qualifying round in London, although his compatriot won a bronze.

Hopes were also high for Mary Kom, a waif-like 29-year-old from impoverished Manipur state whose life story has already made her a national hero. But she lost in the flyweight boxing semifinal on Wednesday, earning a bronze.

“The Indian team is doing well, but we were competing against the result from Beijing,” Kom said after her bout. “We can’t get a gold.”

Harpal Singh Bedi, a spokesman for the Indian Olympic team, bristled at comparisons to China’s medal tally (76 so far, including 35 gold), saying that most Indians are too worried about daily survival to devote themselves to sports.

“India is a poor country. The lower middle class is battling for their livelihoods,” Bedi said. “We cannot compete with China. China is a socialist country. We cannot force people to do sports.”

Still, it was the men’s field hockey team’s performance that may have been the most disappointing. After dominating for decades, India has been a non-factor since the game switched from grass fields to Astroturf. An Australian coach was brought in last year to overhaul the team.

But India was the only one of 10 teams to lose every single match in London. After its fourth loss, a listless effort against South Korea, the coach, Australian Michael Nobbs, said the team had let India down.

“They were not expected to do well,” Bedi said. “But we never expected them to do so badly.”

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