When the over 100-strong Indian contingent walks on to Maracana Stadium in exactly a week from now, as the Rio Olympics kicks off, several among them will be hoping to climb the elusive podium with a medal around their neck over the next 15 days. Quite a few of them, though, would be trudging along, hoping for the best, but all too aware of their limitations on the world stage.

It isn’t easy being an Olympian. Ask the Indian hockey team, once the rulers of the sport but who failed to qualify for the 2008 edition. For the longest time, India has struggled to put enough people out there at the quadrennial extravaganza, leave alone hope for a medal. Today — thanks to consistent support, well-administered federations and individual determination — there are optimistic whispers of winning a medal, even gold, in certain sports.

In others, it is still nothing more than token presence, thanks to the various quotas of the International Olympic Committee to ensure maximum participation from a maximum number of countries. This time around, swimmers Sajan Prakash and Shivani Kataria have received the universality invitations from the International Swimming Federation (FINA). Despite failing to qualify, judoka Avtar Singh bagged a Rio ticket through a continental quota, as he is the highest-ranked Indian. In weightlifting, one Indian athlete each is in the fray in the men and women categories, thanks to a seventh- and sixth-place finish, respectively, at the Asian Championships.

While the IOC’s desire to include more nations is welcome, Indian sports sadly fails to measure up. Four years ago, swimmer Gagan Ullalmath went to London on the universality quota and was knocked out in the heats, coming in last and nowhere near even his personal best. Four years before that, Nachhatar Singh Johal flailed similarly in sailing.

Deeply disappointing it may be for the nation, but far too many sportspeople see these competitions merely as a means to make the grade as an Olympian or Asian Games athlete, says Khazan Singh, the 1986 Asian Games silver medallist. The public, too, is not aware of the qualification process and considers anyone who goes to these events as ‘special’, adds Khazan, who was the country’s lone medallist in swimming since 1951 until Virdhawal Khade got a bronze in 2010.

But there is hope, yet. “For some athletes, it works as motivation to get better and qualify on merit the next time around, like it happened with me,” he says.

“When you qualify on merit, you walk with your head held high, you belong there.”

Learning from the best

Asked whether it is demoralising for an athlete to be brought in under a quota, merely to make up the numbers, Khazan asserts that the system has its merits. “When you get through on a quota, you can still walk around learning stuff. It’s when you neither learn nor hope that you fail,” he says.

Weightlifter Karnam Malleswari, the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, is pained at the decline in the sport but blames the system as much as the athletes. “Every player wants to go to the Olympics. They sweat 10-12 hours a day and wish to earn a spot. It is equally the system’s fault if it cannot prepare them to reach that level. Even bagging a quota spot is not easy,” she says.

It is also a question of how an athlete views the experience, she explains. “When I was active, I would go and watch the training of all the top lifters of the time. What a coach cannot make you understand in years, you sometimes pick up instantly when you see someone do it in practice. And Olympics is the biggest stage of them all.

An athlete, regardless of how he reached there, can either learn from watching world-class sportspersons, from his own field and outside, or simply use it as another fun trip,” she says, echoing Khazan.

Entries and quick exits

In 2012, when judoka Garima Chaudhary qualified for the Olympics, it was hailed as a spectacular new beginning. Things, however, remained static for two years until Navjot Chana won a medal at the Commonwealth Games to reignite hopes. Now Singh has done the same, after another two years. The previous trailblazers have disappeared. Swimmer Ullalmath, meanwhile, had claimed he was using the Olympics as a platform for the 2014 Asiad but failed to even qualify for the latter. It’s ironical that the two names that have been at the forefront of Indian swimming in recent years — Khade and Sandeep Sejwal — are both absent from the Olympic programme.

That it took a seventh-place finish, as a team, at an Asian meet for India to send a lifter speaks volumes about the fall from grace of the sport, which gave the country its first individual woman medallist in 2000. Similarly, Indians routinely fail to progress beyond the first round in sports like table tennis and rowing but still manage to send entries every four years.

There has been a surfeit of qualifications in track and field this time, with timings and distances well within medal-marks. Whether these were one-off occurrences or truly a race towards a new era remains to be seen.