India's athletes redeem Commonwealth Games
A rousing performance in an international sporting event can lift the spirits of a nation, and many say the Delhi games have done precisely that to India. Most of us - this writer included - felt that that the games were doomed because of the familiar taint of corruption and gross bungling. When a pedestrian bridge leading to the main stadium collapsed barely days before the opening, India's reputation touched its nadir and we thought it was all over.
It wasn't. India's athletes picked up the gauntlet, and how. Discuss thrower Krishna Poonia became the first Indian woman to win athletics gold at a Commonwealth Games, and the second Indian to win a Games track and field title, after Milkha Singh in 1958. The 4X400m women's relay team, led by Mandeep Kaur, outsped others to pick up gold. India had won nine track and field medals at the games since 1958. At Delhi, it picked up a dozen medals alone, including two gold. "It's unbelievable," India's best-known woman athlete PT Usha told reporters. "I've never seen some of the girls run like before."
Incidentally, many of India's sterling performances came from women, including badminton star Saina Nehwal, who picked up the badminton singles gold. Many of India's medal-winning women athletes came from the northern state of Haryana, which has some of the worst rates of female foeticide in the country. These girls can drive change in this benighted region better than the politicians.
That was not all. The once glorious field hockey team - undefeated in the Olympic Games between 1928 and 1956, winning six gold medals in succession - which has been on a comeback of sorts made it to the finals before being thrashed by Australia. (The team had returned empty handed from the three Commonwealth Games ever since hockey was introduced in 1998)
One hopes that India's apathetic sports officials will build on the success of its athletes and begin treating them better with more incentives, increased funding and improved infrastructure. The legacy of the Delhi games will depend on this alone. The expensive stadia and other state-of-the-art infrastructure could easily turn out to be white elephants, decaying away in neglect, if they are not used to showcase and train athletes regularly. Half of India's one billion population is under the age of 25. Can there be any other country in the world with such untapped sporting potential?
It is tempting to suggest that India's success at the games have happened despite the system - even after the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi, sports has remained mired in politics, nepotism, provincialism and corruption. Governments don't appear to be interested in nurturing sports seriously by tapping talent at the grassroots and setting up academies. Will the Delhi games help in ushering in a new sports culture in India?
There's still a lot of catching up to do, as sports writer Suresh Menon points out. One sobering example: the 100m track record in India is 10.3 seconds, achieved in 2005. Canadian Percy Williams clocked that record in 1930. So India trails by 75 years in that event. Or take China. Since 1984, India has won three Olympic medals. China has won 420. India's athletes have shown a lot of promise at Delhi, but it's still a long way to the top. Will the authorities now wake up - and do their job?