A new book by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta is as much the celebration of India’s tryst with Olympics as it is a sobering reminder of where we have gone wrong, writes Utpal Kumar.
Even before one starts reading Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta’s new book, Dream of a Billion: India and the Olympic Games, one is tempted to believe it wouldn’t have been as arduous a task as that of chronicling the Olympic feat of even a moderately successful sporting nation. For, well over half a century India’s Olympic history was confined to its hockey exploits. Of the 18 medals the nation won at the Games between 1920 and 2008, almost two-thirds of them—11 to be precise—came from hockey alone! In fact, till the mid-1990s when tennis star Leader Paes won a bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games, all but one Olympic medal had a hockey connection.
This, however, doesn’t take away anything from the authors who have made the book an immensely readable affair. What goes in the book’s favour is not just its almost immaculate research and engaging style of writing, but also the access the authors, especially Boria, enjoy with most of the players of the current generation. Access, in fact, holds the key to the book’s success. Thus, we are not just told about India’s tryst with Olympics, but also given an exclusive preview of the lives of some of these superstars and what often go inside their minds.
So, we know what all it took P.V. Sindhu to achieve the 2016 Olympic feat. The story, in fact, began with her coach, Pullela Gopichand, turning dictatorial and overbearing: He took away Sindhu’s mobile phone and also made her learn to scream! After a hard-fought defeat in the first round of the 2015 Australian Open, Gopi sir, as Sindhu would call him, told her to surrender her phone. This was followed by what seemed a bizarre demand: He asked her to scream hard. Sindhu recalls, “He was angry and wanted me to be aggressive. I hated it. Hated him for what I was being told to do. And I started crying but wasn’t able to shout.” She eventually learnt to scream. This new-found aggression helped redefine Sindhu as a player.
The book also tells how in 2010, when Sindhu was just 15, Gopichand told a magazine that she was one to watch. “A lithe and lanky person,” he had observed then, “is sure to go places in badminton.” But then Sindhu had her issues. The authors inform how she had the tendency, as sports psychologist Vaibhav Agashe said, “to get negative, to overthink things”. “She would become cautious when the heat was on and matches got close and would end up handing the initiative to her opponent, losing matches after being in the winning position.” It is in this backdrop that one
truly appreciates Sindhu’s success and Gopichand’s coaching skills.
The reader is also given a rare access to Dipa Karmakar’s mind during the audacious leap that brought her within a whisker of a medal. Her fourth-place finish in the final with a score of 15.066 placed her name among legends. Still, Karmakar wasn’t happy. “Medal, medal hota hai,” she said on the evening of her fourth-place finish at the Olympic Village, “aur fourth, fourth. Hum jab room waapas gaye aur dekha ki 0.15 ka farak hai, sir aur main khoob roye. Medal ke bahut paas thi main.” (A medal is a medal, and fourth place is fourth place. When we returned to our rooms and saw that there was only a 0.15-point difference between third and fourth place, both my coach and I cried a lot. I was very close to winning a medal.)
Karmakar would then promise herself to win a medal at the 2020 Olympics. Unfortunately, her Tokyo dreams have since been hampered with an injury. But then that’s India’s story at the Olympics. It’s more the case of heartbreaks and missed opportunities: “If only P.T. Usha had lunged her chest forward in 1984; if only Milka Singh was faster by a hundredth of a second in 1960.” If only Vinesh Phogat had not got injured in 2016. But for every Vinesh, there is a Sakshi Malik, whose medal at Rio was as incredulous as Vinesh missing one.
Here the authors tell a cautionary tale. “For us, however, Vinesh and Sakshi were both of equal importance. They represented the two sides of India’s Olympic story. While it was important to celebrate a champion, it was equally necessary to stand by the talented but injured Vinesh Phogat. She reminded us of Henry Rebello in 1948. Fancied to win a medal in the triple jump event, he had to pull out due to a torn hamstring. He passed away in 2013, never having competed again.”
The book also does well in exploring India’s overall Olympic saga. One of the most fascinating stories is the audacious defiance shown by Indian hockey players, led by the charismatic Dhyan Chand, to Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Munich Olympics. The Indian contingent, which appeared more like members of a marriage procession, thanks to their golden “kullahs” and light blue turbans, rather than competitors in the Olympic Games, made a huge political statement by becoming one of the only two teams that refused to salute Führer.
The authors remind us that the Indian decision not to salute Hitler was “a grand gesture of defiance, in sync with the tenets of the dominant stream of Indian nationalism and the Congress party”. They write, “It is important to note that G.D. Sondhi, one of the officials accompanying the Indian contingent, was deeply influenced by Nehruvian ideas. In the late 1940s, inspired by Nehru’s internationalist ideals and the dream of pan-Asian unity, he single-handedly evolved and created the framework of the Asian Games. At a time when Britain was courting Hitler with its policy of appeasement — just two years after which the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, was to triumphantly declare ‘peace for our times’ after the Munich conference — the Indian decision not to salute the Führer, it seems, stemmed ideologically from the anti-Nazi position taken by the Congress under Gandhi and Nehru.”
The book blends a fine balance into Olympics’ past as well as present. It is as much history as it is a journalist’s diary. What further adds to the allure is its timing: In the lead up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Dream of a Billion is a timely book shedding light on several untold aspects of the Games, especially in the Indian context. It is as much the celebration of India’s Olympic saga as it is a sobering reminder of where we have gone wrong. It’s a book that should be read not just by sports lovers but all those who ask why India, a nation of a billion, often ends up being on the losing side.