But first the disappointments. China cooked Indian hockey's goose with a surprise 3-2 win in the group league, forcing India to miss qualifying for the semi-finals for the first time since the sport was introduced in Asian Games in 1958. And all because of a coach who thought smart. China's Korean coach Kim Sangryul plotted India's downfall with some shrewd tactics. "The Indians are very skilful and speedy," he said. "So we asked ourselves, 'How can we catch up with them?', and we decided not to let them play their passing game but make them dribble." With India not allowed to play its natural game, the game slipped out of its hands all too ignominiously.
Of course, like any world-class coach would, Kim did not stop there, and went on to script Pakistan's defeat in the semi-final, earning praise all along, including some from Viren Rasquinha, who was controversially kept out of the Indian squad at the last moment (see
interview). "If you watched China's win against Pakistan," Rasquinha told Outlook, "you'd have realised how critical the coach's inputs are to the team. Pakistan earned as many as 10 penalty corners and was unable to score off any. But China had one in the final 20 seconds and came up with a variation to beat the Pakistan defence. It shows the coach had watched Pakistan defenders' rush from the goal-line." India was as bad, converting just one of the eight penalty corners it forced.
Forced is the manner in which Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were convinced to pair up and defend the doubles title they won at Busan, Korea, in 2002. For a whole week, Bhupathi held himself in check, focusing on delivering the best he could, but moments after winning another major event with Paes, he announced he'd had enough. "Our story has been the biggest tragedy of Indian sport, but I'm glad that despite everything, we finished by winning the gold," Bhupathi said, souring Paes' double gold medal winning effort, including a mixed doubles win with Sania Mirza.
But unlike Dingko Singh, who won a boxing gold in 1998 despite the Union ministry of sport's decision not to clear him for participation, no such surprises surfaced in Doha. The football team sank without a trace as did the nine-pin bowling squad. As Indian Olympic Association president Suresh Kalmadi would've said, the fencing, sepaktakraw and handball teams went to Doha to pick up 'valuable' experience.
For all that, one of the biggest reasons for India to be happy was the fact that none of its athletes tested positive for doping (till the time of writing). The scare had come early, when the Sports Authority of India on the eve of the Indian contingent's departure for Doha had declared discus thrower Seema Antil as testing positive for a banned steroid.
All in all, Doha proved a lucrative sojourn for the Indian squad. For one, it picked up more than 50 medals, only the second time in the 55-year history of the games. India won 57 medals in 1982—13 gold, 19 silver and 25 bronze—but you could call it a home advantage. India came back with 35 medals from Bangkok in 1998 and 36 from Busan in 2002.
The undisputed star of Doha '06 was marksman Jaspal Rana, who won three gold medals to be nominated as the Athlete of the Games (chosen from among 10,000 Asians). For someone who had self-admittedly trained for a mere 10 days before the games, his efforts in centrefire and standard pistol ensured that India got among the gold bracket at the shooting range. The trap and double trap shooters like world champion Manavjit Singh Sandhu and Olympic silver medallist Rajyavardhan Rathore braved tough weather conditions while Gagan Narang became India's first man to win an individual medal (bronze) in Asian Games rifle shooting.
The rowers landed three surprise medals, including two silver. M.B. Bimoljit Singh, a 23-year-old CRPF inspector from Manipur, did well to win two rounds before he lost in the semi-finals to pick up a bronze in martial art sport Wushu. The track and field stars did as well as expected, neither springing major surprises nor causing shocks. The 4 x 400 metres relay team, favourite for the gold, kept its tryst quite comfortably to ensure that India finished with 10 medals from athletics, the second best after 14 from shooting.
Could India have done better? In some events, yes. World champion Geet Sethi and Ashok Shandilya's loss in the billiards doubles semi-final was a bigger setback than world champion archer Jayanta Taulkar's defeat in the quarter-finals. But the darkest clouds, there were only two. Doha became another bitter memory for a sport where Indian dominance was once legendary. And Paes-Bhupathi gave us one lasting image to cherish. Before the smiles faded, and the bitterness spilled over.
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