• Countdown to Rio: Challenges for Indian Athletes-Turned-Role Models

    The final part of our interview series with CNN-News18 Sports Editor Digvijay Singh Deo, co-author of My Olympic Journey, with Amit Bose. He talks to us about the challenges Indian athletes in particular face, the hurdles women are surmounting by the day, turning into impressive role models for all… and what really is so special about the Olympics after all? Not to mention the incredible level of pressure on our top athletes.

    You can read more from our series here


    Q.  You were the only journalist Olympic torch-bearer before the Beijing Olympics — drawing on that experience and also from when you talk to these athletes… there’s something different about the Olympics. Take us through what that feeling is. 

    Sania (Mirza) said that as tennis players, we’re used to the fame and adulation. Our biggest tournaments of the year are four majors, and even if we don’t win an Olympic gold and win WImbeldon, it sort of compensates for us. But she says the difference with a continental games like an Olympics, you’re always on the look-out, did India win anything today? Did we win today? How did this one do, how did that one do?
    She says automatically that team spirit comes in even though we’re all individual athletes. Apart from hockey, everyone’s an individual athlete, even in shooting where it’s a shooting team, it’s 12 individual athletes going for 12 individual events.

    What the Olympics is, it’s got that aura around it? It’s that aura, which pulls people down; someone who goes in without the pressure, actually does well.

    You look at last time — nobody expected Vijay (Kumar, shooter) to win. He writes I thought I will go and replicate my practice form, this is my first Olympics, if I come in the top 10, job done. But he says, my practice turned out so well, that I finished with a medal.

    Nobody gave a chance in hell to Joydeep Karmakar. But he came 4th, because there was no pressure on him.

    At times the big guns put pressure, Abhinav writes about how when he went to Beijing, he had to win the medal. Gagan writes that he considered himself a very good shooter, but he said what do I have to show for it? Am I good enough? I missed out in Athens, I missed out in Beijing, so the athletes put a lot of pressure on themselves as well.

    Manav talks about it, how he’s been to 3 Olympics, two as a contender, and each time he’s returned in disappointment.

    Even Heena Sidhu spoke about, after her event got over — she had a chance to get the medal, she was number 4 — after the event got over, she went with me (Digvijay) to see the finals of the women’s air pistol. She says I don’t remember much of what happened — I was in a daze, that what happened?

    Heena Sidhu

    Battling the Olympic pressure: Heena Sidhu, ace Indian shooter ( Picture Credit: Sportskeeda)

    Abhinav writes that every day of my life, I get dressed, hoping that one day I will win an Olympic medal. The day I won my Olympic gold, I didn’t know what to do. Same thing with Heena, she said for my entire six months, everything was prepared for that day — how do I perform on that day? But when that day was over and I didn’t do well, I didn’t know what to do — I was in a daze, ki main kya karoon?

    …Preparing for an Olympics takes a lot out of the athlete. 

    A lot of our sportspersons leave their kids. Mary (Kom) talks about how the kids were in Manipur with Onler, and how she was in Pune…Everyone has to go through that kind of sacrifice. Some have kids, some don’t. There are sacrifices. Vijender says he didn’t go home for 5 months before he won the medal.

    These are stories that don’t get told; that was the idea behind writing the book. Ultimately what gets reported? When an athlete comes off his/ her event, mostly they haven’t won. What do you expect from them? Some banal answers? I shot well, I didn’t do this etc… They’re all in a daze. What gets reported and becomes recorded fact is a few banal answers immediately after the event. Remember, at that point of time they’re all shattered — they’ve spent four years of their life for that one hour, two hours, three hours, two days of competition in case of trap. So I wanted to keep the record straight. This is not how it is. The Olympics is not that someone went and finished fourth or eighth or twelfth or last. To even qualify for the Olympics, you need to win a tournament — in most events, like shooting, you have to win a certain quota. You have to excel in a competition, which is prescribed in one year, there are four competitions, in that competition only you can win the quota.

    What gets reported and becomes recorded fact is a few banal answers immediately after the event. Remember, at that point of time they’re all shattered — they’ve spent four years of their life for that one hour, two hours, three hours, two days of competition in case of trap. So I wanted to keep the record straight.

    In certain sports, it’s world ranking, but tell that to Saina – world ranking means she has to consistently maintain her ranking as well. 

    Look at elite sportspersons, look at Leander, he almost struggled to get into the Olympics this time. 

    That just shows how difficult it is.

    Getting to the Olympics itself is a huge ask — do we in India have a system to constantly produce champions? No we don’t. It’s largely self-driven. The athlete is self-driven. Of late you’ve got things like OGQ and Mittal Champions Trust and all.

    The system is not ready to accept that we need to fund our athletes. People think, oh you’re going abroad? Masti karke aayenge,

    Krishna Poonia talks about it — she says, how can it be masti, when I’m leaving my son behind and going abroad for two years to train? She says, give me the facilities to train.  

     

    Saina Mirza, tennis player( Picture Credit: indiatoday.in)

    The role model: Saina Mirza ( Picture Credit: indiatoday.in)


    Sania says it — everyone keeps talking, where is the next Sania? The next Leander? Mahesh? Where are your world-beaters? (To be fair, Rohan (Bopanna) hasn’t won anything yet.) The Indian sports cycle doesn’t produce champions — when they come out, you keep them wrapped in cotton wool because sadly there’s nobody one else.

    That’s why the book, I wanted to give the athletes’ perspective on what it actually means to get here.

    And a lot of them have spoken about that moment: Devendroh, Shiva Thapa, young kids, overawed by Michael Phelps, Srijesh and all running up to meet Djokovic, Ashwini Ponappa bumping into Djokovoic, and him telling her Khush Raho when she said thank you. 

    The athlete is a fan.

    There is a photo of Abhinav Bindra and Anjali Bhagwat with Monica Seles. There is a lovely story on that … Our athletes  are also fans.

    As a sportsperson, everyone’s an equal there. You may be Usain Bolt, at the Olympic village, you’re one among many. 

    The Olympics has that aura — you look around left, there’s Nadal, saamne Phelps, Bolt in front — it can get unnerving, we don’t train our athletes to think like that, the mental side of it.

    Or that they can get there.

    That’s why Abhinav’s medal was so important, it shattered that perception and gave us that belief that we can get a gold.

     

    Q: It’s bad enough for men, but for women, especially there are more hurdles? 

    There are some lovely stories. There’s a girl called Savita Poonia – goal keeper of the women’s team, from Haryana. She told me, contrary to perception, some families back you. My grandfather didn’t want me to wash utensils in the house; he told my father, send her out to study. And I went out and picked up a hockey stick and wanted to play hockey.

    So yes, there are barriers, but a lot of barriers are breaking.

    So yes, there are barriers, but a lot of barriers are breaking.
    When I started covering sports, we used to laugh at badminton. Kya sport hai, koi nahin khelta. But today, thanks to Saina Nehwal, that’s the fastest sport in the country — every dad and mum wants that girl to play badminton. If Saina can win…

    And unlike Abhinav Bindra, who came from a privileged background, Saina’s parents are humble lower middle class — Dr Harvir (Singh Nehwal) was an agricultural scientist, he used to take her on the scooter. People are seeing that if you have talent, you can grow.

    Look at Sania Mirza — Yes, Imran (her father) was well-educated and all, but they didn’t have the money, which, say, Abhinav Bindra had, some of these shooters have. 

    Some of them don’t have the money.  Ayonika Paul who is going to the Olympics in Air Rifle (along with Apurvi Chandela) — her father is a rail employee. They stay in a one room flat in Chembur, which I think they bought after Ayonika won the silver at the Commonwealth Games.

    Ayonika Paul Gears Up For Rio

    Gearing up for Rio: Ayonika Paul (Pic Credits:
    indiatoday.intoday.in)

    Now the belief is there —slowly it’s happening. Look at the Phogats. They have single-handedly changed the perception that girls cant win.

    What’s happening is that when you win these medals, and then states like Haryana are backing you with money — you win a medal at the Asian Games, Rs 1 crore each is done. Look at all the shooters who have qualified — Everyone has got a minimum 1 crore funding from the governemnt. Some federations actually back their athletes.

    Look at Sania — she maybe single-handedly saved Indian tennis, look at the number of girls coming in.

    Mary Kom may not have qualified this time, but she’s a role model.

    The more icons you get, the more people have that belief. What helped with Saina Nehwal was that humble background, because then you aspire. Mary Kom, Karnam Malleswari: they come from humble backgrounds. These are the role models.

    These are female equivalents of what they call “sons of the soil”.

    You and I have had much more privileged upbringing and education than them. When you see these people with lots of money and endorsements, that’s built aspiration.
    Indian sport is also changing… Look at the hockey league — earlier, the hockey players were very happy if they had a car. Most of them used to have bikes, now they have Fortuners! The Wrestling league is getting money into wrestling now. Vijender says, when I went to sports, I wanted to get into Olympics to get a government job. If you win an Olympic medal today, it’s like a minimum of Rs 6-7 crores in your bank account, then you get endorsements.  Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom are the most marketable athletes in the country — massive endorsements they do. Per event they charge 10 lakhs for appearance.

    If you win an Olympic medal today, it’s like a minimum of Rs 6-7 crores in your bank account, then you get endorsements.  Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom are the most marketable athletes in the country — massive endorsements they do. Per event they charge 10 lakhs for appearance.


    My Olympic Journey by Digvijay Singh Deo and Amit Bose, is published by Penguin Random House India in July, 2016.