John Cheeran | Indian athletes should learn the alchemy of turning silver into gold

By conservative reckoning India has had its best-ever Asian Games in Jakarta with a haul of 69 medals, including 15 golds. Every athlete, and every sports enthusiast should feel proud that the Games witnessed some sterling, and, at times, inspiring displays by Indians.

But think again, couldn’t have we done better?

India finished eighth in the overall medal standings with gold count being the base for positions. Chinese Taipei with slightly bigger population (2.36 cr) than Delhi (1.9 crore) finished ahead of India with 17 golds. In Jakarta, there were many bright spots for India but we lost gold in men’s hockey and, astonishingly, lost both kabaddi gold medals to Iran in men and women categories.

The fact is that the Asian Games is the stomping ground of China, Japan and South Korea and after they gorge on the medals, little is left for nations such as India. We have to settle for the left-overs.

But even there, after the big three, three other B-league countries have pushed us behind—the hosts Indonesia, Uzbekistan and Iran. That should trouble our planners, coaches, athletes as well as fans.

One should not discount the fact that over the years, the quadrennial sporting shows have become bloated, including the Asian Games, with more events being added to the competition chart, and some of them do not attract intense competition but remain as fiefdoms of certain countries. We haven’t scooped up a medal from Asiad swimming pool, an event that is dominated by China and Japan, since Khazan Singh won a bronze way back in 1986.

How to bridge this gap? Forget about catching up with China and Japan, India should set its sights on breaking into the second tier in the continent. That would take a lot of effort but is quite possible. Any nation aspiring to improve its performance should identify its areas of strength and devote its resources towards it.

Events such as hockey and  kabaddi, our strongholds, do not offer more than two golds (in men and women categories together). But in swimming alone there are 41 golds to be won (only exceeded by track and field which has 48 golds), but practically India has no stake in the pool. Shooting has 20 golds, where India has pragmatic potential and won two in Jakarta.

To get an idea about how nations scoop up medals in the Asian Games and Olympics, take the weightlifting story in Jakarta. On offer were 15 golds, and North Korea bagged eight of them. India which had won an unprecedented nine medals, including five golds, at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, could not even get a bronze. There are events which are the preserve of a few countries and they put money and effort to preserve it.

Without having any medal boroughs, what India can do is make an effort to turn all their silverware into gold. India won 24 silver and 30 bronze medals and all effort an energy should go into turning them into gold. A key area should be athletics, the piece de resistance of the Games.

The redeeming feature of India’s show in Jakarta was its performance on track and field. In track and field, India won seven gold, 10 silver and two bronze medals, the country’s best performance since 1978.

Individual efforts, accompanied by planning and training paid off as Swapna Burman, Neeraj Chopra, Tajinderpal Singh Toor, Manjit Singh and Jinson Johnson clinched gold.

But attention and focus should be on those young athletes who have competitive fire within them and ended up winning silver and bronze medal such as Dutee Chand (100m silver, 200 m silver), Hima Das (400m silver)  Ayyasamy Dharun (400m hurdles silver), P U Chitra (bronze in 1500m) and others. Chand can become gold, if she gets enough support from Athletics Federation of India. So, too, are Hima and Dharun. They should be exposed to world-class training and psychological support so that they continue to have that winning bent of mind.

This is easier said than done. But hard work eventually pays off, accompanied by infrastructure and guidance. Unlike cricket and tennis celebrities, these champions have to be nurtured so that they do not go off track. In track and field, India won seven gold, 10 silver and two bronze medals, the country’s best performance since 1978.

India could also do well in events such as badminton, tennis, squash and, of course, wrestling, even though competition is intense.

The takeaway is this. Do not settle for silver. Go for gold. Build islands of excellence and make a splash.

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