Olympians overcame poverty, prejudice, discrimination, sexism and indifference
Even as the Government and the Prime Minister seek to squeeze the last ounce of publicity from India's medal winners in Tokyo, the fact is that they won by virtue of their individual grit
A podium finish for most Indian sportspersons at the Olympics is not just the usual assertion of sporting supremacy. It is a statement of having risen above deprivation, discrimination, government disregard, sexism, societal prejudices and an abject sports infrastructure.
The 228-strong Indian contingent, which included 56 women and who participated in 18 sporting events at the just concluded Tokyo Olympics 2020, bagged the country’s highest ever Olympics haul of seven medals - one gold, two silver and four bronze - placing India 48th of the 205 countries that participated. The tally is one more than what India had secured in 2012.
The Indian public back home was elated, fully aware that these achievements were attained in the face of daunting odds where the athletes could depend on little beyond their own grit, hard work and measly resources.
Just as the Indian women’s hockey team lost to Argentina, and thereby their chance of a medal, two “upper-caste” men went to the north Indian home of one of the team players, Vandana Katariya, assailed her family with casteist invective, and warned her parents against letting their “low-caste” daughter play again for the country. It was lost to them that the 29-year-old hockey veteran became India’s first woman hockey player to score an Olympic hat-trick as India beat South Africa 4-3 earlier on to keep her team in the fray. The Katariya family has sought police protection as they have received threats to their lives from other upper-caste locals for complaining against the prowlers.
Katariya had been initially dissuaded by her father from pursuing her dream as, with his meagre salary as a technician in a government firm, he lacked the means to pay for her training.
Mirabai Chanu, who got India a silver on the very first day of the Olympics in women’s 49 kg weightlifting, is the youngest of six siblings born to a poor couple in north-east India, her father having been a manual construction worker, while her mother ran a small tea-stall in their mountain village. She took quite naturally to her sport, having accompanied her brothers since childhood to a nearby jungle to gather firewood.
On one such trip, Chanu, who was only 12 then, saw her elder brother struggling with a load of logs. Laden with her own stack, she took her brother’s pile as well and walked the 2 km back home. Even as a five-year-old, she had balanced on her head buckets full of water from the village well, negotiating the steep inclines on her way back home.
When 26-year-old Chanu finally took up training – with money her mother got by pawning her jewellery - she needed to commute 40 km daily over hilly terrain. At times, she would hitch a ride on a truck or share an autorickshaw, usually walking part of the way. Upon her return home from Tokyo, she gave a celebratory reception to the truck-drivers who had helped her.
Even Neeraj Chopra, the 23-year-old mid-level junior commissioned officer in the Indian Army, who got India her first ever track and field gold medal with his winning javelin throw of 87.58 metres, has a modest background, as the son of a north Indian farmer.
The Narendra Modi government has reviled the farmer community as “terrorists”, “ruffians” and “anti-nationals” for their street protests since last November against three legislations that the farmers believe will yield traditional farming to industrial agriculture to benefit the corporate sector. Over 400 mainly elderly farmers have died in the protests, succumbing to the winter cold and the gruelling roadside conditions.
The Indian social media are consequently awash with resentment against the government in general and Prime Minister Modi in particular for undeservedly seeking credit for India’s triumphs at the Tokyo Summer Games. In what was widely derided as the continuation of a cultist build-up of the Prime Minister, full page advertisements and public banners were hosted by the government bearing words of praise for Modi for India’s performance, together with outsized photographs of his.
Modi’s photos now adorn vaccination certificates, disaster relief items, food packets for the poor, roadside hoardings and all announcements of government schemes, even though his government caused carnage and a medical calamity through disastrous mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and lavishing funding for vanity projects at the cost of more pressing social causes.
Modi also became India’s first serving Prime Minister to have a national facility named after him, when the world’s largest cricket stadium in his home-state of Gujarat was renamed after him last February. The relatively new Rs800 crore (about $110 million) 132,000-seat stadium had initially been named after India’s first Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who Modi’s ruling BJP itself lionises as a national icon.
The Prime Minister was also lampooned for exalting the women athletes as the “daughters of our nation” at a time women and even minor girls have never felt more unsafe. Amid outrage over the death of a nine-year-old girl, of the ‘low dalit caste’, who was allegedly raped by a crematorium priest in Delhi on 1 August and her body hastily cremated in front of her horrified mother, people recalled the National Crime Records Bureau’s ‘Crime in India 2019’ report - the latest official data available - that recorded a woman being raped somewhere in India every 16 minutes. In a sign of increasing atrocities against minorities in the present times, 11 per cent of the 32,033 reported rape cases in the year were from the dalit community. There may be innumerable more cases that remain unreported.
The scant priority accorded to sports was also underscored by the government slashing the Sports budget in the Olympic year by over eight per cent, from Rs2,862.92 crore to Rs2,596.14 crore. Additionally, most of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funding towards sports was diverted to PM Cares, the Prime Minister’s undisclosed fund for fighting COVID-19.
Moreover, BJP MP Anurag Thakur, who was in July appointed Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports, had been taken to the court earlier for a hate speech he had made in January 2020 against those protesting against the communally-discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Many Indians have been offended by his assuming the significant Sports portfolio when he was in 2020 shown on camera encouraging slogans of “gun down the traitors” against the anti-CAA protestors.
Though the court subsequently exonerated Thakur, he has three other cases registered against him, including that of land grab, fraud and damage to government property.
Under the circumstances, India’s sportspersons have little to look forward to in their preparations for the Paris Olympics in 2024.