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.
On the cricket field though 2016 well and truly belonged to India, more specifically to Kohli and his ‘weapon of choice’ Ravichandran Ashwin.
An 18-match unbeaten streak in Tests (starting from Sri Lanka 2015) – the best-ever by an Indian team – was a testimony to how well Kohli fitted into the leadership role in white flannels.
When he took over captaincy from the ‘cool as cucumber’ Mahendra Singh Dhoni in the Test format, there were apprehensions that the ever-emotional Kohli might even end up having a meltdown due to the twin pressure of leadership and being India’s top batsman.
So far, he has proved the naysayers wrong with the kind of elegance he generally reserves for his strokes.
Kohli has remained India’s best batsman and has proved to be a dynamic leader too, transforming a young team into confident world beaters at least on home turf.
In the limited-overs format, where Dhoni is still in charge, India won the Asia Cup T20 before finishing semifinalists in the World T20.
However, the administrative mess that is common to most Indian sports caught up in a big way with cricket as well. With the Supreme Court bent on imposing governance reforms in the BCCI through the Lodha Committee, the once all-powerful Board has been left scurrying for cover.
Severely crippled on the decision-making front, the BCCI is currently staring at a tense future and a January 3 ruling by the apex court is expected to put an end to its anxiety.
However, India held the high post internationally with Shashank Manohar taking over as ICC Chairman.
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While the BCCI fought an existential battle in the face of Supreme Court’s strict view on its governance structure, there seemed no checks and balances for officialdom running the country’s Olympic sports.
At the biggest stage of them all – the Olympics – no less than the Sports Minister, Vijay Goel, embarrassed the nation by defying protocol at venues, resulting in a warning from the Local Organising Committee which threatened to even cancel his accreditation.
Far from being perturbed by the very public snub, the minister blamed it on “misunderstanding”.
The IOA, meanwhile, spent little or perhaps no time in analysing the factors that led to the disappointing Rio campaign. But it managed to find the technical grounds on which scam-tainted former Presidents Suresh Kalmadi and Abhay Singh Chautala could be offered Life Presidentship. Kalmadi eventually backed out after massive outrage.
Speaking of individual sports, it was a brilliant year for Indian golf, which found its first female star in Aditi Ashok. The 18-year-old commanded attention with her Olympic performance, where she led the pack at one stage, and then went on to become the first Indian to clinch a title on the Ladies European Tour.
The LET responded by naming her the ‘Rookie of the Year’, a much-deserved honour for the exuberant youngster.
In fact, it was a year in which Indian sports discovered some new stars, and interestingly, they happened to be women. Sindhu, Sakshi, Aditi and Dipa became symbols of women’s empowerment with their achievements.
However, there were disappointments galore for some of their counterparts in other sports, a notable one being archer Deepika Kumari. The former world No 1 has at best been an unrealised potential as far as success in the Olympics is concerned.
Not just her, the archers in general proved to be a huge letdown in Rio, where they had been sent a month prior to the Olympics to acclimatise. Once again, the wind blew away their chances and they returned empty-handed despite massive pre-games hype.
No questions have been asked, neither have any answers come along on just why the archers have been underperforming at the Olympics.
The usually reliable shooters also disappointed the country with a thoroughly disastrous Olympic campaign even though they performed reasonably well leading up to the Games.
Bindra’s fourth-place finish in 10m air rifle was the best they could muster at the main event this time.
The letdowns included the in-form Jitu Rai (pistol) and previous Games bronze-medallist Gagan Narang (rifle).
The National Rifles Association of India (NRAI) was, however, proactive in not just acknowledging the flop-show but also setting up a Bindra-led committee to analyse the reasons for it.
The scathing report could well have held true, in parts, for other sports as well for it not just fixed accountability on the administrators but also questioned the shooters’ attitude towards preparing for the Games.
Attitude was also the key word when it came to Indian tennis, bruised mostly by the ego clashes of its star players.
They did well on the circuit individually but when it came to representing the country in Rio as a team, their all too familiar hostility for each other ruined the chances more than anything else.
Regularly sniping at each other on public platforms, the Indian tennis contingent of Leander Paes, Sania Mirza, Rohan Bopanna, Saketh Myneni and Prarthana Thombare were a house divided, with the exception of the latter two.
Expectedly, a medal failed to come along even though Sania and Bopanna did come close by making it to the bronze play-off.
It was, however, a good year for Sania, who finished world No.1 in doubles for the second successive season.
Elsewhere, it was glad tidings for Indian hockey with the men’s team qualifying for the Olympics knockout stage after 36 years before ending quarterfinalists. The women too qualified for the Games for the first time since 1980 but finished 12th.
Both the teams also came up with some good performances in other tournaments (women won the Asian Champions Trophy, while men picked up the Champions Trophy silver) to make it a memorable year for India hockey.
The icing on the cake was the Junior Hockey team winning the World Cup in Lucknow. Narinder Batra getting elected as the International Hockey Federation (FIH) President, making him the first Asian to hold the post, was also a high point for Indian hockey.
However, death of the legendary Mohammed Shahid, part of the 1980 Olympic gold medal winning team, came as a shock for hockey lovers in the country.