In the history of modern Japan, the Olympics have been a defining moment. In 1964, Tokyo became the first Asian host. In the two decades after World War II, the Japanese moved heaven and earth to reconstruct their lives. R Sriman reported for TOI then, “The arrangements were perfect and every Japanese seemed to have a personal stake in the success of the Games.”
On the field, too, the hosts were superlative, finishing overall third in the medal tally, their best performance till then. Japan became a synonym for excellence, an object of envy and a permanent totem for what hard work and sheer willpower could achieve.
A different Japan’s hosting the 2020 Olympics. Unlike 1964, the public is not in the mood for love. Weekly cases are currently at about 21,000, way down from the January peak of 45,000 but rising now. The virus has claimed over 15,000 lives. Covid cases have already come to light in the Games village.
Sadly, there will be no spectators in Tokyo; a first in the Olympics. But in these extraordinary times, the conducting of the Games is in itself a triumph of positivity over pessimism.
Hockey lovers of Nehruvian vintage would have fond memories of Tokyo. For decades, hockey sustained our national interest in the Olympics. In the 1980s and earlier, medal-winning stories in individual events were so rare that even near-misses were rightly celebrated as heroic.
In hockey, India’s uninterrupted golden run from Amsterdam (1928) onwards was arrested by Pakistan in Rome (1960). Another loss in the Jakarta Asian Games (1962) further dented their self-confidence. In 1964, India reclaimed its lost crown. “We have done it! We are the champions again,” TOI exulted in the opening lines of its match report. Barring the boycott-racked 1980 Moscow Games, India never won the hockey gold again.
India’s fall from being a hockey superpower had consequences. On four occasions – 1976, 1984, 1988 and 1992 – the contingent returned medal-less, spawning anguished editorials and Parliament questions, but little else. When tennis star Leander Paes won a bronze in Atlanta (1996), followed by weightlifter Karnam Malleswari in Sydney (2000), India was both relieved and grateful to find its name again in the overall medal tally.
There has been a marked upgrade in recent years, especially in certain sports. Shooter Rajyavardhan Rathore’s silver strike in Athens (2004) and Abhinav Bindra’s golden gun in Beijing (2008) set the ball rolling. Now with improved infrastructure, quality coaches, better facilities and a surfeit of talent, India is a powerhouse in shooting.
Time magazine recently named teenage top gun Saurabh Chaudhary as one of 48 elite sportspersons to watch out for. Chaudhary, whose monk-like calm comes from learning his craft in an overheated tin shed in west Uttar Pradesh, has got the mettle and the minerals. But unlike the distant past, Indian shooters now hunt in packs. Abhishek Verma, Aishwarya Pratap Singh, Divyansh Singh Panwar, Manu Bhaker, Rahi Sarnobat, Yashaswini Singh Deswal, Elavenil Valarivan, Anjum Moudgil – each is capable of a top three finish.
Hardy boys and girls from small towns and the hinterland have always been central to India’s sporting ambitions. Jharkhand’s Deepika Kumari, who once aimed at mangoes in an orchard near their home using a makeshift bow and arrow and whose father once drove an autorickshaw, typifies this tenet. Ranked No 1, the triple gold medal winner recently at the World Archery Cup final in Paris carries the crushing burden of a billion hopes in archery.
Benchmarks are higher now. Rio 2016 silver winner shuttler PV Sindhu could well improve on the colour of her medal. Wrestler Bajrang Punia is currently world No 2 in the 65-kg freestyle category. Red hot pugilist Amit Panghal, evergreen boxer Mary Kom, weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, and Neeraj Chopra, the handsome javelin thrower from Panipat, could combine to make this India’s strongest finish ever.
Only one nagging, emotional question remains: Can the men’s hockey team find itself on the podium and bring back the acche din? In these Covid-ravaged times, that would make another unforgettable Tokyo story.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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