We are eager to exhale after two years of being cooped up. More than us, the global sports fraternity is raring to go. For a fortnight from Friday, July 23, the headlines will be about the heights achieved by the human body and spirit, rather than the doom and gloom that we are being subjected to. Olympic eclipsing of the pandemic.
With 11,000 athletes from 206 countries competing in 33 sports at Tokyo, new records and new champs will emerge and rivalries born.
Twenty-seven world records were broken in the 2016 Rio Olympics and 32 in 2012, London. Tokyo, 2021, is anyone’s guess, with the athletes rusty and the stands empty.
New frontiers to breach
Records will be broken nonetheless. Take the 100-metres sprint for men. In the first Olympics at Athens in 1896; Frank Lane of the USA won the gold medal with a time of 12.2 seconds. The time was bettered again and again. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the great Jesse Owens clipped it to 10.3 seconds. Still, breaking the 10-second barrier was considered impossible until Jim Hines of the USA ran it in 9.9 seconds (manually timed) in 1968 at Mexico City; the electronic stop-watch recording it as 10.03 seconds. Carl Lewis, another great US sprinter, brought it down to 9.92 seconds in 1988, Seol. The present record of 9.63 seconds, set by Jamaica’s Usain Bolt in 2012, London, is now the new frontier.
Since 1896, the 100m record has been broken 13 times and shrunk by 2.5 seconds, which would amount to a gap of 25 metres in a hypothetical race between Bolt and Lane.
Compare Lane’s time of 12.2 seconds in 1896 with the qualification standard for the men’s 100m in Tokyo; 10.05 seconds. India’s national record stands at 10.21 seconds, set by Anil Kumar Prakash way back in 2000.
Likewise, the long-jump record has progressed from 6.35m to 8.95m and the high jump from 1.81m to 2.39m. Marathon time for men has gone down from 2:58:50 to 2:06:32. The current world record for men is 2:01:39, set in the Berlin Marathon by Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya in 2018. India’s best is two hours and 12 minutes, set by Shivnath Singh in 1978 at Jalandhar.
Athletes will keep breaking records because of better coaching, better medicines and better technology but the most important factor is the human mind. The will to break a barrier can release immense power in the body. As Usain Bolt, the best sprinter the world has seen, says: “Believe in your dreams and that anything is possible.”
Bolt, who finished with eight Olympic medals (including three consecutive 100 m golds), has picked Trayvon Bromell (personal best: 9.77 seconds) of the USA as the 100m favorite in Tokyo.
The only world-class sprinter India has ever produced was Milkha Singh. At the finals of the 400m at the 1960 Rome Olympics, he clocked 45.73 seconds, surpassing the Olympic record of 45.9 seconds, but still missed the bronze by 0.13 seconds.
The winner in that race, Otis Davis of the USA, breasted the tape at 45.07 seconds, setting a world record. The current world record is held by Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa (43.03 seconds). However, Milkha’s record stood in India for 38 years till Paramjit Singh broke it in 1998. The present holder is Muhammed Anas Yahiya of Kerala (45.21 seconds), who is representing India at Tokyo in the 4x400 m relay. The qualifying standard for men’s 400m at Tokyo was 44.90 seconds.
The bit about Milkha losing the race because he looked over his shoulder near the finish line is not borne out by the video of the race. This is what he himself said: "I was leading the race. I covered the first 200m in just 21 seconds. Even today, young athletes might not be able to cover 200m in 21 seconds. “I thought I might not be able to complete the race at the speed with which I was running, so I dropped my speed. Once you drop rhythm, it is very difficult to get it back. The same thing happened to me.”
The heartbreak happened again with P T Usha, who missed the 400m hurdles bronze by one-hundredths of a second at Los Angeles in 1984.
Promising sprinter Hima Das failed to qualify for Tokyo in the 200m, clocking 23.21 seconds whereas the qualification mark was 22.80 seconds. She holds the national record in 400m with a timing of 50.79 seconds that she clocked at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. However, she seems to have given up 400m, for which the Olympic record is 48.25 seconds.
This just goes to show how stiff the Olympic qualification standards are. Of the 43 track and field events, qualification for 33 required Indian athletes to set new national records.
Also absent from the Tokyo contingent because of poor form is Sakshi Malik, the first Indian female wrestler to clinch a medal at the Olympics when she bagged a bronze at Rio, and Dipa Karmakar, whose brave Produnova vault almost propelled her to the third spot in the women’s vault gymnastics at Rio.
However, Dutee Chand scraped through and will represent India in the women ’s 100m and 200m at Tokyo. Last month, she scripted a new national record in the women’s 100m with a time of 11.17 seconds. The Olympic record of 10.49 seconds was set by the phenomenal Florence Griffith-Joyner (Flo Jo) of the USA in 1988.
Our medal hopes though are from boxer Mary Kom, wrestler Vinesh Phogat, shuttler P V Sindhu, shooter Manu Bhaker, archer Deepika Kumari and lifter Mirabai Chanu. Incidentally, the first-ever Olympic medal won by an Indian woman was by Karnam Malleswari in the 69-kg weightlifting category at Sydney, 2000.
As for the men, our hopes rest on grappler Bajrang Punia, boxer Amit Panghal, javelin-thrower Neeraj Chopra and shooter Saurabh Chaudhary.
Gracenote, a firm specialising in entertainment metadata, predicts that India will win eight medals in shooting, four in boxing, three in wrestling and one each in archery and weight-lifting.
Coming to ‘amchi’ Mumbai, two members of the Olympic squad are from the city; Vishnu Saravanan (sailing) and Chirag Shetty (badminton). The others from Maharashtra are Rahi Sarnobat and Tejaswini Sawant, both shooters, archer Pravin Jadhav, Avinash Sable (steeplechase) and golfers Anirban Lahiri and Udayan Mane.
It must be mentioned here that India’s first medal in a sport other than hockey came in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics where Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav of Maharashtra won a bronze in the men’s freestyle bantamweight category. Sadly, he was even deprived of his pension and died in a road accident.
Producing top athletes is now an extremely systematic and scientific process. The world over, they are spotted in school and gradually groomed into medal winners. In India, athletes come up despite the system. Abhinav Bindra, the only Indian to have won an Olympic gold, had his own coach and his own firing range.
Our sports ministers
Our sports ministers face the same vagaries as our sportsmen. Kiren Rijiju, who had barely completed two years after having taken over from Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, was booted out on the eve of the Olympics. He was replaced by Anurag Thakur, who had made a mess of his term as president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Maybe he can inspire the shooting team with ‘Goli maro saalon ko’.
It’s a mystery why Rathore, who won the silver medal in the double trap shooting event at Athens, 2004, was shunted out in 2019 after two years as sports minister. What sports culture can we develop when we play musical chairs with our sports ministers?
For the moment though, let’s forget the games politicians play and sit back to enjoy the biggest sports show on earth. Let the games begin!
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. He welcomes feedback on email@example.com