TOKYO – On Wednesday, in a sumo hall where women are normally not allowed to enter the ring, Lovlina Borgohain punched all the girls. She spoke of her remote home state of Assam, known for its fine tea but also for an armed insurgency.
Most importantly, she fought in the Olympic welterweight boxing semifinals for India, the second most populous country in the world, which even by the most charitable count of calculations is missing from the Olympics. Aside from a winning streak in men’s hockey generations ago, India has won only one other gold in Olympic history, in shooting in 2008.
“I was 100% sure I would come home with the gold,” said Borgohain, who spent eight years away from home training, her father once plucking tea for a living.
Her opponent in Tokyo, Turkey’s Busenaz Surmeneli, may have had a shorter head, but her footwork was light and her punches powerful. Borgohain was overwhelmed, his lanky figure absorbing blow after blow, his hopes of serving as a gold medal for millions of Indian girls shattered.
“What message can I give them? ” she said. “I just lost my match.
Borgohain is still assured of a bronze medal, the third medal for India at these Games, after a silver in women’s weightlifting and a bronze in women’s badminton.
But every four years – in this case five years – the same questions arise in India. Why is the country so bad at the Olympics? And is it even important?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, anxious to raise India’s global profile, has decided it does. After India’s poor performance at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro – one silver and one bronze – the government began funneling money into a decades-long underfunded and corrupt sports bureaucracy. Private companies stepped in, training elite athletes whose upward trajectory they could perhaps exploit. And state money also began to flow into mass sports.
“Now the government is working to change the sports system,” said Vijay Sharma, a weightlifting trainer who worked with Tokyo silver medalist Mirabai Chanu for seven years. “But they have to do a lot. It is a long journey that they have to travel.
Abhinav Bindra, India’s only Olympic gold medalist in an individual competition, said the sporting environment today is different from where he won the 10-meter air rifle competition in Beijing. When he competed in the National Archery Championships as a youth, there were 200 participants, he said. These days, the competition attracts 20,000, plus another 20,000 who haven’t made the cut. Eight members of the Indian shooting team in Tokyo, he noted, were world number 1 or 2 in their categories.
“This could be the start of a new era in Indian sport,” Bindra said.
So far, however, Tokyo has been the same disappointment ground for India. Ravi Dahiya, who competes in men’s freestyle wrestling, is assured of at least silver after winning a semifinal fight on Wednesday, and a men’s javelin thrower is also still in contention. The women’s hockey team qualified for the semi-finals for the first time, but after losing on Wednesday, they now have to fight for bronze, just like their male counterparts. The archers missed their mark. A discus thrower came in sixth. And the much-vaunted shooters did not follow in Bindra’s footsteps. None came close to a medal.
Not everyone in India is convinced that the country should measure its national worth in Olympic medals. India, they say, is already a sports powerhouse, but not in the pursuits that are at the Olympics.
Cricket, by far the most popular pastime in India, has a lucrative national league, and the country is soaring to the highest international echelons of the sport. Sports promoters also unveiled a professional league for kabaddi, an ancient form of South Asian group etiquette in which players sometimes have to repeat the word “kabaddi” over and over again. (Vocalization is aimed at making sure players breathe out during the offense.)
The fact that the Indian sports audience concentrates elsewhere for a few weeks every four years has not lessened Tokyo’s frustrations. The rush for funding ahead of the Games has raised golden expectations. Indian sports officials introduced the 127-member Olympic delegation, which was the largest, youngest and most decorated in the country to date.
For Indian Olympians, however, the weight of a nation’s expectations has been overwhelming, especially after competition was halted for months due to the coronavirus pandemic. A 19-year-old Indian shooter, who was shortlisted for a possible air pistol medal, admitted the burden of winning distracted her in a sport where focus is everything.
In archery, Atanu Das wrote the word “calm” on his hand as he competed in the Round of 16 this weekend. He lost. The day before, his wife and colleague archer, Deepika Kumari, had not passed the quarter-finals, even though she was world No. 1.
“Maybe we took these Olympics too seriously, the Indian contingent,” Das said. “We forgot to take advantage of our shot or our skill.”
Indian archers trained in the dark. The new Olympic push brought them sudden fame, along with months of free training at an army sports camp. The attention was overwhelming, the athletes said.
“When you win the World Cup, nobody knows. When you win the world championship, nobody knows. When we get number 1 in the world, nobody knows, ”Das said. “But the Indians are at the Olympics, so everyone knows everything.”
“It’s the pressure, inside your head all the time,” he added.
Bindra, the 2008 Beijing gold medalist, said his success was rooted not in state support but in family wealth. His father built a world-class shooting range in their home in Chandigarh, in the north of the country. Then he supplemented it with a swimming pool and a gym so that his son could build up his muscles. At the time, the only comparable shooting range was in New Delhi.
Viren Rasquinha, former captain of the Indian hockey team, is now the managing director of Olympic Gold Quest, a non-profit group founded by former top athletes to promote the next generation of talent.
While Rasquinha said the national sports authority has lost some of its burdensome and grafted reputation, building an ecosystem of coaches, training facilities, infrastructure and equipment takes time.
In recent years, the country’s most powerful crop of Olympians has come from a narrow neck of land in northeast India, where ethnic minorities live in the shadow of the Himalayas. These states, Manipur and Assam, are home to insurgent movements fighting for the autonomy of the Indian state. Due to their ethnicity, people there often face discrimination.
“Rural youth have passion and fire in their stomachs, which is lacking among city students,” said Rasquinha, whose group funded some of these athletes.
Mary Kom, a flyweight boxer from Manipur who won bronze at the London 2012 Games, said she had long faced the prejudices of Hindu nationalists who claimed that as a Christian she was in no way not really Indian sort. There are also racist whispers, some not so quiet, that people in the Himalayan foothills are more martial than others in India and that is why they make good boxers.
Kom has six world championships to his name. She was the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal in boxing. After London, she gave birth to another baby. She and her husband now have four children, who she says “always want different dishes from me.” So she cooks. She also won a seat in Parliament. A biopic starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas has been made about her.
“People of Manipur, we have a fighting spirit, especially women,” said Kom, who grew up rationing meals to save money for a pair of sneakers.
Kom galvanized a generation of Manipur athletes, including Chanu, the weightlifter, who won silver in the 49 kilogram category in Tokyo.
“From now on, India will do well at the Olympics,” Chanu said. “Young people will see me, and they will be inspired, just as I was with Mary Kom.”
Last week in Tokyo, Kom, who at 38 qualified for Tokyo after not going to Rio, was knocked out in a split-decision fight. Despite her loss in the first round and the official age limits for Olympic boxers, she said she was aiming for the Paris Games in 2024.
“The women of Manipur have a surplus of energy,” she said. “Don’t say we’re done.