India's latest engineering goal: create Olympians
Steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal is underwriting an ambitious push to put India on the map after decades of Olympic underachievement.
NEW DELHI and PATIALA, INDIA
All India hopes that Virdhawal Khade will not become a software engineer. On his broad swimmer's shoulders sit the country's desires to become something other than an Olympic also-ran.Skip to next paragraph
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Never has the nation of India won more than two medals in an Olympic Games – and it did that only once. In a country home to one-third of the world's poor, parents dream of children with steady jobs, not Olympic medals. But India is changing, and with the country's rising affluence, athletes such as Khade are finding that, for the first time, they have the support to chase their Olympic dreams.
"We have enormous potential, but we have not always tapped it properly," says Randhir Singh, secretary general of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). "Our emphasis has not been on sports; our emphasis has been on water and roads. But economically, India is doing a lot better, and we have the surplus money now."
With the help of Lakshmi Mittal, an Indian billionaire desperate for his homeland to make its mark at the medal table, Khade has been given everything he needs – from training in Australia to treatment in South Africa. Former Olympians here say this is unprecedented, and it has given them hope that, at last, this country of more than 1 billion people might soon reverse its history of Olympic underachievement.
There is much work to be done. Since independence in 1947, India has won 12 Olympic medals in 14 Summer Games – three fewer than Belarus won in 2004 alone.
Sports not seen as a viable career
The problem, say some observers, is culturally ingrained. With the possible exception of cricket, sports have always been dismissed – not seen as a viable career choice.
"Our problem is Indian society just isn't interested in sport," says Prem Sharma, a boxing coach. "Parents will tell their children to study and become engineers and doctors and not to waste their time on sport."
In turn, would-be Olympians have often felt abandoned and anonymous. "If you are a sportsman, you have to be a class above the rest," says a national team coach who asked that his name be withheld because he was not authorized to speak with the media. "In India, he has not even been an equal."
Funding was limited and training facilities were scattered across the country, with athletes trained more for national competitions between states than Olympic-caliber events.
The Athens Games four years ago were typical: a single silver in shotgun double-trap shooting. In fact, the silver represented the best medal haul for India since the Moscow Games of 1980, when the field hockey team won gold.
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India's top contenders for medals in Beijing
Archery: Mangal Singh Champia, a member of India's three-member team that won gold at the World Cup in Turkey this spring.
Boxing: Vijender Singh, who beat the 2004 Olympic champion in May, and Akhil Kumar (see article).
Shooting: Ganga Narang and Abhinav Bindra, both ranked in the Top 10 in the world. Also, 2004 silver medalist Rajyavardhan Rathore and 2006 World Champion Manavjit Singh Sandhu.
Tennis: Reunited doubles partners Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes.
Compiled by Corinne Chronopoulos. Sources: News reports, Indian Olympic Association, iloveindia.com.