We Spoke To The Athletics Federation Of India To Learn Why Indians Fail To Win Olympic Medals
Eight years ago, when India came back home from the London Olympics 2012 after having one of their most successful runs at the quadrennial event (six medals) albeit without a gold, the then Sports Minister of India, Ajay Maken had said that the country will be capable enough to bring in 25 medals at the 2020 Games.
Now, with the Tokyo Olympics 2020 less than a year away, we had a chat with Divesh Bhal, an Athletics Federation of India official to know exactly what is the scenario of the Indian athletes, how capable are they of fulfilling Maken's promise to the nation and why have we not been able to do good at the Summer Games and so on and so forth.
Excerpts: Q. How well do you think the Indian athletes will do at the 2020 Olympics?
We have a few athletes who are capable of at least reaching the final and there is a chance of picking at least one or two medals if things go right. First one is Neeraj Chopra, who is currently in the process of a rehabilitation program after undergoing elbow surgery in his (javelin) throwing arm and the second is M Sreeshankar, who has been doing wonders in long jump.
So if we need medals in 2020 or 2024, then we have to leapfrog it. There is no time for slow-progresses. And now, athletes are adapting to it.
Q. What has AFI done to improve the quality of athletes since the Rio Olympics 2016?
In the last four to six years, we have identified athletic events where Indian athletes are progressingly well. We don't expect our marathon runners to win medals, we don't expect our runners to win medals in 10,000m or 5,000m races or discus throw or hammer throw.
Instead, we focus on those events in which we can at least reach the finals of the world championships and the Olympics because the first target is to make it to 'Top 8' and then think about winning medals.
In the last four years, we have focused on events like race-walking, javelin throw for men, long jump for men and women, shot put for men and 400m and 4x400m relay races and have brought so many medals at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, specially in these games.
In 2020, we should have at least one medal and in 2024, we will have at least 2 to 3 medals.
Q. What are the problems that AFI faces while preparing the athletes for global tournaments?
We are amongst the top three countries in athletics in Asia with Japan and China; and we have reached that level eight years ago. Now, the gap between Asia-level events and global-level is huge.
We believe that Indian athletes still do not have the confidence of winning an Olympic medal because it has been too long since we have won an Olympic medal (in athletics).
Athletes have this mental block that, “Qualify kar gae to theek hai, medal jeetna toh bohot badi baat hai".
That is the challenge AFI faces with their athletes. We need to instill this faith in them that they are Asian champions and are more than capable of competing at the global level.
I will not take names but if an Indian athlete, who comes from a very humble background, is given crores of rupees for winning one Asia-level medal, why would they want to put their body through the torture of daily practice for higher levels of competition?
Sometimes, they lose motivation (after winning an Asia-level medal) and it happens too much within Indian athletics.
Q. How has been the government's contribution towards improving the situation?
As of today, India has everything; the government is spending so much on training our athletes. We have given them the best of the best coaches. They just need to tell us where it is that they want to train. There is nothing that the government is not providing to improve the condition of these athletes.
Between April 2019 till Olympics 2020, the budget allocated to AFI is Rs 55 crore, that has been approved by the government. We have about 7 to 8 international coaches; and infrastructure wise also we have the greatest facilities.
India is not a poor country anymore. States like Kenya and Ethiopia don't have that much money but still they are winning medals. So I think we have lost the mental belief in ourselves and that needs to change.