New Delhi: An Olympic campaign saved by the fortitude of three women, a cricket team that rediscovered itself under a bold and zealous Virat Kohli -- Indian sports in 2016 was a dramatic mix of highs and lows wherein athletes mostly raised the bar but administrators found new ways to embarrass the country.
As is the case once every four years, Olympic sports found themselves in the middle of inescapable spotlight when India’s largest ever contingent made its way to Rio de Janeiro for the 31st edition of the ‘greatest show on earth’.
A record number of 117 athletes 63 men and 54 women landed in the Brazilian carnival city with the rather unrealistic expectations of going better on the half a dozen medals secured in London, 2012.
The Sports Ministry and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) had contributed to the unreasonable hype with their outrageous predictions of at least 10-12 medals coming from Rio, a claim hardly questioned before the Games.
At the mega-event, the script went terribly awry and more than a week passed without India coming anywhere close to the podium barring a couple of near misses, most notable being shooting ace Abhinav Bindra and gritty gymnast Dipa Karmakar’s fourth-place finishes in their respective events.
But just as it seemed that Rio would end barren for India, Sakshi Malik and P V Sindhu saved the country the blushes. While Sindhu became the first shuttler and the first Indian woman athlete to notch up a silver medal, Sakshi became the first female grappler to win an Olympic medal with a bronze that hardly anyone had predicted.
These two medals and Karmakar’s fourth-place finish in a sport that is not even understood well in India, prevented a complete loss of face. Fittingly, the three were presented the country’s highest sporting honour Khel Ratna jointly.
But what their heroics could not cover up was the fact that in all these years, government, SAI and the Indian Olympic Association have only been able to make it easy for athletes to claim money once they have made a mark. So, the harsh reality of Indian sports remained the absence of any systematic support for athletes in their formative years which, as seen in Rio, cannot be compensated by doling out crores barely a year before the Olympics.