Mission Olympics: India Army Marches On

Indian Armed Forces have been in the forefront of selecting and training sportsmen of international repute right from the time of independence in 1947. Dhyan Chand, the hockey wizard who helped India win three gold medal in Olympics, the Flying Sikh Milkha Singh, Rajyavardhan Rathore, the shooter who got the first individual Silver medal in Olympics and Neeraj Chopra, the golden boy of Tokyo Olympics, are all from the Indian Army.

The boxers, shooters, wrestlers and rowers from the Army continue to give a good account of themselves and were quite close to getting medals for the country. At least three to four players from the Army including Balbir Singh (Junior) were always part of the Indian hockey team.

The Army gives tremendous opportunities to the budding sportsmen to rise, shine and zoom. The sports culture, sports infrastructure and facilities, strict regimen and discipline gives these aspiring sportsmen a head start over other competing athletes from the civil street. Having sports competitions from grass root levels of inter-company, squadron or battery.

It was Gen S Padmanabhan, the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS ) in 2001 who revived the old tradition of having boys companies for sports in various disciplines. He also started Mission Olympics to prepare sportsmen for representing the country in Olympics. As on today, the Army has 26 boys sports companies in 21 disciplines. These sports companies are affiliated to regimental centres whose troops excel in these disciplines. For example, the Rajputana Regimental (RAJRIF) Centre in Delhi had boys companies in Athletics, Basketball and Volleyball. During the rationalisation, the Athletics Boys company has gone to another regiment whose training centre is located at Faizabad.

Olympic semi-finalist wrestler Subedar Deepak Punia (middle) felicitated by Lt Gen KJS Dhillon (2nd from right) of Rajputana Rifles

Incidentally, Neeraj Chopra is from 4 RAJRIF, a Battalion with a great fighting legacy; it was awarded two Victoria Crosses (equivalent to Param Vir Chakra) and 167 other decorations during World War II. Based on its performance over the years, the unit went on a United Nations Peacekeeping Mission to Congo from 1960 to 1962. Today there are three serving and three recently retired generals from the battalion; a rare honour for any unit of the Indian Army.

The boys companies pick up promising young boys of 08 to to 14 years of age, who have attained certain levels of expertise in a particular sport for having played at district or state level. These boys are given education in a good day scholar school located close to their military hostel. The Army gives the boys free boarding and lodging as also train them to join the regular army after attaining the age of 18. The boys who show adequate talent to go higher are then sent to Army Sports Institute (ASI) Pune, where scientific coaching and diets are given to these boys and they are prepared for taking part in the Nationals and Olympics.

The ASI was also raised in 2001 and till date has produced 52 olympians. The outstanding sportsmen who qualify for nationals are then picked up by Sports Authority of India (SAI) who prepares these sportsmen for international events like Commonwealth and Asian Games and World U20 Athletics.

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Gen JJ Singh, the then COAS in 2006 introduced additional disciplines like Shooting and Golf wherein promising sports persons including the wards of servicemen were picked up at an early age and trained for Olympics in a systematic manner. Mission Olympics Wing (MOW) in the Directorate General of Military Training (DGMT) was given the overall responsibility to oversee the training of the Olympics probables. The boys companies and the ASI operate under the close scrutiny of the DGMT who also works closely with SAI and Khelo India organisation. To make it more lucrative for the promising sports persons, the Army gives the direct rank of Naib Subedar, a Junior Commissioned Officer on their joining the Army. These selected sportsmen are then prepared for Olympics by giving them training abroad under foreign coaches with the help of SAI.

The selection system of the Indian Army in various sports disciplines is very transparent and fair. Once the sportsman is selected, concerted efforts are put in to ensure that he gets international exposure and coaching in the correct environs. The levels of motivation, dedication and killer instinct inculcated in the sportsmen in the Army stands them in good stead when they compete with the best in the world. In times to come, the Army will surely raise Girls Companies in the major sports as our women athletes have shown more resolve and resilience in Tokyo Olympics and the Army is also getting girls into Sainik Schools, National Defence Academy and other institutions and the intake of officers and ranks is going to enhance for women in the Army. The ethos and elan of the Army instills in every soldier to give their last ounce of blood and sweat for the country and sportsmen are no exception!

Subedar Neeraj Chopra with fellow Armymen of Rajputana Rifles

In Tokyo Olympics, the Army sent 16 probable from various disciplines. Neeraj Chopra got the gold medal, Deepak Punia in wrestling and Satish in boxing narrowly missed medals. The men’s 4x400m relay race team gave an excellent account of themselves by setting a new Asian record; with athletes from the Indian Army. The two rowers Arjun Lal and Arvind Singh got 11th position in the double skull event, the best that any Indians had done so far.

Most of these participants are in their early 20s and with their experience in Tokyo Olympics; they are likely to get greater number of medals for the country at Paris in 2024. We have only three years to prepare and ensure that these promising athletes peak at the time of Olympics just like Neeraj Chopra who was head and shoulders ahead of all other contestants in javelin throw. The country should also follow the model of the Armed Forces to ensure that the very best are sent to the Olympics and they do their nation proud by earning medals somewhat commensurate to our population.

Going Gaga Over Sole Gold

I wanted an escape from my life; from the electricity shortages, to the mosquitoes buzzing in our ear when we slept, from barely having two square meals, to seeing our home getting flooded when it rained… My parents tried their best, but there was only so much they could do — Papa was a cart-puller and Ma worked as a maid
Rani Rampal, Captain, Indian Women’s Hockey Team

Let us not even look at the medal tally of the other countries, including the stupendous achievements of our ‘oriental neighbour’, China, now flexing its muscles so brazenly for a long time in Ladakh. For just about the time needed for ‘instant gratification’ amidst the isolating phobia of a deathly pandemic, with thousands of people still mourning the loss of their loved ones, India exploded at the gold medal won by Neeraj Chopra, the son of a farmer in Haryana and a ‘Subedar’ in the Indian army. The media went gaga. It was once again like that old Rafi song: ‘Japan, Love in Tokyo’!

Achche din’ were finally here. The ‘javelin gold’ seemed sweeter. It was cool, and cacophonic, this collective catharsis! After all, it was the first athletics gold ‘the Vishwaguru’ has won in the entire history of Olympics!

Indeed, it was an ecstatic moment for an eternally ‘frustrated nation’ starved of great ecstasies, great victories, great success and great landmarks at the international level, while stuck with the pathetic long-playing record of the fake glory of a mythical past, and the equally fake illusion that ‘India is a super power’. It’s a rat-trap, this patriotic chest-thumping, with no solid substance or evidence to show. And it arrives with a sorry taste in the mouth, this anti-catharsis of an unrequited dream sequence of a nation-state in bad faith.  

When Abhinav Bindra got the gold in shooting, perhaps completely driven by his own drive and dedication, and with basically little or no backing from the Indian government or sports establishment, it was almost an action-replay of the same scenario. An entire nation rejoiced; it was back to lala… land.

And that is how this fantasy unfolds like a once-upon-a-time fairy tale with that once-in-a-blue-moon happy ending. While it’s the same old sad story yet again, repeated a million times, across the tough and tragic terrain of invisible India, where thousands of talented, dedicated, idealistic and brilliant young girls and boys, are decisively left to their fate.

This is part of a predictable pattern. This rags-to-riches story, with a rare finale! Compulsively looking for a happy ending, it seems India has become a sucker for this fantasy, as and when it arrives. We shall wait for a shining star to emerge from the dingy margins — who will suddenly turn India luminescent. Then we shall burst many more patriotic crackers! After that it be will be back to square one.

For one, let us talk of Vandana Katariya, the first Indian woman hockey player to score a hat trick in the Olympics. Her Dalit family faced a barrage of the choicest casteist abuses in her village Roshnabad in Haridwar by upper caste goons condemning her for India losing to Argentina in the semi finals in a hard-fought game. No Dalit should be allowed inside any sports team of India, they shouted, dancing and bursting crackers. By any social indication, undoubtedly, these two evil and vile men are not alone in holding such views.

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Let us also talk of Rani Rampal, the captain of the Indian women’s hockey team. Rani came from a terribly poor family. As a kid, she played with a broken hockey stick because she loved the game. The coaching academy in Shahabad, Haryana, had no space for her raw talent or her mad dreams.

Finally, when she was accepted due to her sheer tenacity and persistence, like the other children, she too was asked to fetch 500ml of milk every day. “My family could only afford milk worth 200 ml. Without telling anyone, I would mix the milk with water and drink it because I wanted to play,” she has said. She had no sports gear to show: shoes, dress, diet, hockey stick. Rani remembers her childhood with its meticulous details. Anyway, who can ever forget a childhood lived in such difficult conditions!

She joined the Indian team at the age of 14 in 2008, an extraordinary feat and culmination of sheer hard work, amazing motivation, and extraordinary talent. In 2017, Rani bought her family a ‘home’ – it was a promise she had kept. “I finally fulfilled the promise I made to my family and bought them a home. We cried together and held each other tightly,” she said.

Briefly, this brilliant hockey player has scored 117 goals for India, earned as many as 241 international caps, and was part of the team which went to Rio – the first time the Indian women’s hockey team qualified for the Olympics in 36 years. Indeed, the caption scored the goal that clinched India’s berth for the Olympics in Tokyo — in the final qualification match against the United States in Bhubaneswar.

This incredible story of success against all odds went viral as her team outclassed other teams in Tokyo; this will continue to float until the next rags-to-success fairy tale arrives from the remote, unknown interiors of Manipur, Assam, Jharkhand, Western UP or Haryana.

In the same vein, shall we also talk of Dutee Chand, Deepa Karmakar, Hima Das, among others, from across the most deprived, difficult and hard life stories ever lived in a starkly unequal India, where they chased their sporting dreams against all odds in the most primitive, impossible and pathetic conditions?

A country of winners is clear-headed. It chooses to nourish, sustain and celebrate talent across the social and economic spectrum since day one. This is a synthesis of skills and praxis at Ground Zero. The State and society becomes the mentor where talented children and teenagers are given the space to learn, grow and spread their wings. This is called a great sporting culture and this is not based on the theory of bursting crackers and dancing one day with laddoos, going gaga all over in a patriotic outburst, and then getting back to the usual rut, waiting for the next solo by another javelin gold medalist.

This is what China did much before it hosted the Olympics in 2008 – this reporter witnessed a great sports revolution emerging across its villages, schools and campuses, with every Chinese child wanting to become an Olympic gold medalist. That is how they beat the Americans in 2008 in terms of gold medals, and almost did that again in Tokyo.

This is the disciplined and dedicated sporting culture built by a world champion like Pullela Gopichand in India, along with his family, who would get up in the dark to coach raw and unknown youngsters. It is Gopichand’s Badminton Academy in Hyderabad which has trained Indian women players to achieve the impossible – break the stronghold of Chinese women badminton champions. Let us not forget that PV Sindhu, who won a bronze in Rio and Tokyo, was originally trained in his academy, among scores of great talent.

Indeed, for a nation which is solely obsessed with a cash-rich IPL and billionaire cricketers, and the clichéd catharsis of fours and sixes and ‘death-overs’, the great Olympics will always remain an unlearnt lesson. India must learn to respect even those who don’t have a medal to show – will they too be left to their unhappy destinies like scores of others? It’s time to realise that often the line between victory and defeat is extremely thin.

The fact is, as long as it does not cherish and nourish the likes of Rani Rampal, Deepa Karmakar, Dutee Chand, Vandana Katariya and Hima Das, among thousands of others at the margins chasing an impossible rainbow, this nation of six billion will continue to be ‘a nation of losers’ – going gaga over a lone gold.

Indian Sports And Chinese Games

The Indian athletes at the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics will be seen wearing ‘unbranded’ sports apparel. No more Chinese designs, logos and sponsorship. With this symbolic, globally visible (since it will be visuals-only games) parting of ways with the hostile neighbour, India has also joined the global China-versus-the United States game, on the latter’s side.

The change has come after last year’s military skirmishes on the disputed border. The Indian Olympic Association has suspended its collaboration with Chinese giant Li Ning that kitted the Indian athletes and sponsored their travel. This was being done, the IOA said, to respect “sentiments of the people of the country.”

Prior to the border incidents, then sports minister Kiren Rijiju, incidentally a Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh that China claims as its territory, had said: “Li Ning designed the official sports kit inspired by India’s national colours and integrated unique graphics to emote the energy and pride of the Indian Olympic Team.”

The deal was reported to be worth INR 50 million. Li Ning was the Indian team’s apparel sponsor at the Rio Olympics five years ago and had also provided uniforms for the 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games.

Tokyo Games big medal hopeful, shuttler PV Sindhu, was also sponsored by Li Ning. All that is over, at least for now. Last year, till the border incidents, Vivo, the telecom giant had sponsored India Premier League, the multi-million cricketing tournament. It returned briefly this year, apparently due to some contract obligations.

India relies heavily on products and raw materials from China in nearly every sport. According to the Department of Commerce’s data for 2018-2019, over half of India’s sports equipment was imported from China. This includes ­footballs to table tennis balls and shuttlecocks, tennis and badminton racquets and their stringing machines, mountain climbing and adventure sports gear, gym apparatus and athletics gear including javelins and high jump bars.

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Forget the no-politics-in-sports idea. Popular sentiments over the ‘betrayal’ on the border should have triggered a “boycott Chinese goods” campaign. But Prime Minister Modi’s government, keen on taking political credit, does not wish to stir the economic and trade cauldron.

This is not child’s play. The global toy market is about $100 billion, but as Modi lamented at the recent “Toycathon”, urging Indian toymakers to be ‘atmanirbhar’ (self-reliant) in making toys for children, that India’s share is only around $1.5 billion. Worse, “we import about 80 percent of our toys,” and worse still (which he didn’t say), 70 percent of this 80 percent come from China.

India is ‘critically dependent’ on China in imports across 86 tariff lines, a Group of Ministers (GoM) reported last December. Line items include consumer electronics, computer hardware, telephone equipment, electronic items, and air conditioners and refrigerators. Also, China has the largest share in India’s imports — more than 18 per cent in April-September 2020. This share has risen since, despite the border incidents and despite the pandemic, as China, unlike India, has managed to curb the spread of Covid-19 and kept its factories running.

The Indian authorities have banned a hundred Chinese apps and more are in the pipeline.  Only, the Chinese presence in India’s market – name any product – remains heavy, a fact of everyday life. Two-way trade in 2020 reached $87.6 billion, down by 5.6 percent, the trade deficit declined to a five year-low of $45.8 billion. “The trade deficit is not in dollars, it is in overdependence,” Sanjay Chadha, Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry said in January.

Cell-phone has fully integrated into an Indian’s life. Visit any home or market place and see how Chinese brands dominate. They commanded 75 percent of India’s smartphone market in 2020, up from 71 percent in 2019. Given their spread, pushing Germans, French, South Koreans among others to the margins of a growing market, it is doubtful if India’s online education of millions of students, compelled by Covid-19, would have been possible.

Cell-phone is just one example. Computers and other communications gadgets and apps are hugely Chinese. Fear of a possible suspension of Chinese tech-support for their maintenance persists. Keen to avoid any such problem in future, this writer purchased a Taiwanese brand laptop last year, only to find that it was “Made in China” under Taiwanese licence.

It is no consolation that the US itself is having to urge its own basketball stars to shun Li Ning sports products because the Chinese giant is said to be using cotton sourced from its Xinjiang region where the authorities are accused of suppressing minority Muslims. Incidentally, in a tit-for-tat, Li Ning had itself suspended cooperation with the Americans earlier, “in national interests”, after American producers backed the anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong.

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The Indian story is similar to many countries. Only, not everyone has a disputed border with China. Neither is there nudging from a strategic partner like the United States to ‘balance’ the Asian scene. In a sense, India pays double price when it cannot deal with erstwhile ally Russia, Iran or anyone the US dislikes.

India’s case remains unique for several reasons. Besides a border that gets ‘live’ from time to time, and talks have made little headway in the last six decades, it has reasons to feel ‘surrounded.’ The Himalayan ranges became pregnable in the last century.  For long years, one debated on the “string of Pearls”, of China developing military bases on islands all around the Indian Ocean. The region was for long ‘Indian’ — its backyard, in broad maritime terms – no longer so.

This is old story. The Chinese deep pockets have won over just all of India’s neighbours after China formally launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). All South Asians have joined in, with varying outcome, but with bright hope of the Chinese money and technology being available — for a price. India is the sole ‘outsider’. Its pockets are not deep, nor has it established a good record of completing projects in its neighbourhood, yielding space to China.

For long years, there was a quiet pride that India and China managed well their economic and trade ties, despite an unsolved border dispute. It was called pragmatism and was contrasted with India-Pakistan, wherein the trade was restricted due to mistrust. India would show the Chinese example and accuse Pakistan of being cussed. While that remains, the China story has taken a beating. This is unlikely to normalise for long.  

The conflict-from-cradle rivalry with Pakistan has taken India miles ahead of the recalcitrant neighbour. But even that is now becoming thin. China has taken resolute striders in Pakistan in the shape of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), investing billions in building infrastructure that Pakistan could never dream of despite its decades of alliance with the West – the US in particular. Now, China, the “iron brother”, is helping out, in return for entry to the Indian Ocean. Now, the two are about to extend their collaboration, howsoever unequal and weighed in China’s favour, to a land-locked Afghanistan. Whether or not Pakistan gains “strategic depth” against India in future, a government in Kabul that may not be hospitable to India, with this extension of CPEC bears the potential of giving it “economic depth.”

Call it “Chinese East India Company”, or talk of the inevitable debt trap – who cares? In the next decade, China will have laid infrastructure that is as good, or even better than, India, across South Asia. And its CPEC will have created a significant class or rich politicians and civil and military officials in Pakistan who can, supported by military and economic heft from China, can afford to stare down at India.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Tokyo Is Ready, Indian Athletes Aren’t

In many ways, the countdown for the postponed Tokyo Olympics have begun. The Summer Games will be held from July 23, to August 8, 2021. With each passing day, there is more reassurance from the stakeholders the Games will be held.

Going by official statements emanating from the International Olympic Committee, headed by President Thomas Bach, and the local Tokyo Organising Committee, efforts to stage the Olympics in a new environment are being made in a huge way.

When the Olympics were first postponed in 2020 after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in summer, there was an overall sense of despondency. For the organisers, participating nations, competing athletes and everyone associated with the world’s biggest sporting spectacle, it was a sinking feeling. At that time, the pandemic had wrecked the confidence of all, especially the athletes who were hoping to peak in July 2020.

Today, the general feeling is if there is one country which can host the Olympics, it has to be Japan. Known as a country for its clockwork precision, discipline and being genteel, the host city is leaving no stone unturned to ensure the Olympics are staged in the best way.

From the spectators point of view as well, there is good news. The Games will happen, though the protocols will be very different and stringent. When over 30 per cent of the tickets for various events were returned, it offered another chance for the same tickets to be sold again.

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To expect full houses at blue-riband events like athletics, swimming and gymnastics may be tough but with the race for a Corona virus vaccine now at peak, it is assumed Japan will be fully ready.

From the IOC’s point of view, the Summer Games is top priority and the frontline workers who will be working with the event will be given the first vaccine. The best part is that the host city is leaving nothing to chance and athletes will obviously be accorded top priority vis a vis health measures. The same goes for support staff and thousands of frontline workers who will be associated with the Games.

As of today, the world is still battling the Corona virus and also trying to ensure sporting activity resumes slowly. Europe has seen the resumption of many sporting activities and so have other parts of the world. Leagues in football and other sport have come back to life, Formula One is back with a bang, what with Lewis Hamilton winning a record-equalling seventh world title. Pro golf action is also picking up.

Cricket first resumed with two bilateral series in England, followed  by the Indian Premier League in the United Arab Emirates. At present, there are another two bilateral cricket series on with T20 leagues in Sri Lanka and the women’s Big Bash also taking place Down Under.

The message is clear, sport will resume and the Olympics will be staged.

So, where does that leave countries which seek Olympic glory? Everyone knows, Wuhan, the city which is officially recognised as the first place in China where the first Covid-19 case broke out over a year is now normal. Flights are operational, tourists are visiting Wuhan and glad the bad memories are being erased.

Just as China has battled the Corona virus bravely, their athletes aspiring for Olympic glory are training full steam. Of course, it is too early to talk of who will win what in Tokyo and perhaps Olympic test events in 2021 and more qualifiers in the New Year will provide indicators.

The world has never known how Chinese athletes train and where. There is secrecy in it for sure and 100 per cent dedication. So, China, hosts Japan and the other powerhouses of sport like USA and Britain are  providing their athletes the facilities to train for Tokyo.

That brings us to India, a country which craves for Olympic medals and has never been able to win big. To be sure, the Covid-19 pandemic has wrecked India’s preparations. Lockdown did a lot of a damage though the elite athletes were lucky they got full support from the Indian government.

Camps in the Sports Authority of India campuses in Bengaluru, Patiala and a few cities in the North have resumed. But there is a big catch, while athletes are training and competing among themselves, one is not sure about their preparedness in the toughest sense.

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Going to the Olympics is not a party like before. In the old days, Indian athletes went to the Summer Games just to participate. The narrative has changed in the last 24 years since the time Leander Paes won a bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics. Of course, the peak was Abhinav Bindra winning gold in Beijing in 2008.

Indian athletes today have themselves been laid low by Covid-19. From hockey players to wrestlers like VInesh Phogat and Narsingh Yadav, many have tested positive for Corona virus. When the hockey camps resumed in the end of July, four players tested positive and had to be admitted to hospital. No research has been done as to what extent these athletes have dealt with post-Covid complications.

The badminton camp in Hyderabad is in shambles. PV Sindhu is now training in England and Saina Nehwal is over the hill. So, if you are talking of a medal again from badminton, Sindhu still offers hope, though the next crop of players are nowhere to be seen.

Preparing champions for the Olympics is serious business. The Indian government is spending big bucks on athletes and foreign coaches. However, the postponement of the Olympics does give an impression now the Indian athletes are so scared of Covid-19, his or her preparation for July 2021 may be inadequate.

Shooting is one sport where India have done well since 2004. However, zero medals from the 2016 Rio Olympics was a shocker. Maybe, had the Games been held in 2020, Indian shooters would have been sure medal prospects.

As of today, even the most ardent admirer and fan of Indian sport is sceptical about what will happen in 2021 in Tokyo. Covid-19 cannot be an excuse. Bio bubbles have been created for the Indian athletes as well in various cities.

The big step forward is to compete and win in 2021 before the Olympics, including the Olympic qualifiers, which will be the litmus test. Covid-19 fear has to be conquered what with the vaccine now a certainty in 2021. If the normal man has resumed life despite the pandemic, it is about time the Indian athletes also show the same purpose and poise.