The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games which were to have begun from 24th July 2020 have been postponed, depriving the world of the quadrennial sporting extravaganza for at least another year.
Indian fans and athletes have plenty of reason to mourn too. These Olympics could have been a watershed moment for Indian sports, given that there were realistic expectations from the country’s athletes to achieve a record medal tally. Due to the prevailing pandemic conditions however, that dream will have to wait.
Nevertheless, we take a look back at Indian Olympic performances of the last 2 decades noting the nation’s progress over the years, starting with Sydney 2000.
The Millennium Games
The first Olympics of the 21st century and the new millennium, these Games were expected to not just boost Sydney’s profile but to showcase Australia’s indigenous culture to the world.
Cathy Freeman’s victory in the women’s 400m sprint probably became the most iconic moment of the Games. Other highlights include 17-year old Ian Thorpe winning 3 golds in the swimming pool and Cameroon beating Spain in the football finals.
Marion Jones was the initial star but her 5 medals were later revoked after a doping scandal. The Games also saw the rise of China as a sporting superpower.
A look at India
India went into the Olympic Games with a squad of 65 athletes competing in 8 sports. The biggest medal hopes were from the men’s hockey team, the famed tennis duo of Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi, weightlifter Karnam Malleswari and Asiad 1998 gold medallist boxer Dingko Singh.
Leander Paes, the only Indian medallist from the 1996 Olympics was expectedly chosen to lead the Indian team at the opening ceremony.
Sydney 2000 marked the Olympic debut of future gold medallist Abhinav Bindra.
The then 17-year old Bindra was the youngest shooter at the Games apart from being the youngest Indian competitor. He went to finish 11th with a score of 590 out of 600.
Badminton coaching genius Pullela Gopichand also made his first and only Olympics appearance as a player at Sydney 2000. He made it to the Round of 16 before losing to eventual silver medallist Hendrawan of Indonesia.
The bronze won by Karnam Malleswari in the Women’s 69kg weightlifting event ended up as India’s only medal at these Games.
She lifted 110kg in Snatch and 130kg in Clean and Jerk for an overall total of 240kg. Gold and silver were won by China (Lin Weining) and Hungary (Erzsébet Márkus), both lifting 242.5kg with the Chinese lifter placing higher due to lesser body weight.
The then 25-year old Malleswari thus became the first Indian woman in history and the first Indian weightlifter to win an Olympic medal.
Paes and Bhupathi crashing out in the second round of the Men’s Doubles tennis event was perhaps the single biggest disappointment for Indian fans.
The duo lost in the 2nd Round to home favourites Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge (‘The Woodies’). Injuries and a falling out before the Games were the factors later blamed for the result.
The men’s hockey team promised much but eventually finished a middling 7th. The team played well throughout the tournament. However a shock draw with unheralded Poland in their final group match, after conceding a last minute goal, meant that the coveted semi-final slot would be out of reach. One of the many cases of so-near-yet-so-far in Indian hockey.
Creditable performances by Indians:
Anjali Bhagwat (then Vedpathak) became the first Indian ever to reach the finals of an Olympic shooting event. Anjali, who made it to the Games thanks to a wildcard, qualified for the Women’s 10m Air Rifle finals after shooting 394. Her modest finals score of 99.1 meant that she would finish only 8th. Nevertheless, her performance paved the way for future Indian Olympic successes in shooting.
Boxer Gurcharan Singh missed out on a medal by the narrowest of margins. He finished equal on points with his Ukrainian opponent in their quarterfinal bout, only to lose after a jury countback. He would have been assured of at least a bronze had he made it to the semis (Dingko meanwhile lost in Round 1).
KM Beena Mol reached the semifinals of the Women’s 400m sprint event, making her the most successful Indian track-and-field athlete of these Games.
In a nutshell:
India’s performance at Sydney 2000 was lacklustre, notwithstanding Malleswari’s historic feat. Barring a few bright spots, Indian athletes in general flattered to deceive, leading to the inevitable comparison of the nation’s population with the Olympic medal count. Much of the blame has to go to the sports administrators of the time.
Nevertheless, the few bright spots did play a major role in India’s Olympic revival, as we will see in future articles of this series.