It was the double-barrelled shock India's sports supporters didn't want. Just when R.V.S. Rathore's silver in the double trap shooting event and Kunjarani Devi's brave performance in the women's 48 kg weight class had raised hopes, there was the news that Karnam Malleshwari failed to finish a single lift and Pratima Kumari didn't even show up for the women's 63-kg weightlifting event.
That was minor, though, compared to the news that Pratima Kumari had failed a dope test. Since the test had been conducted before the event, there was immediate speculation. Could the lifters have deliberately botched their lifts, citing back trouble? Plausible, either way, since weightlifters quite often suffer from back problems.
However, more shame was in store. On Thursday evening came the shocker that Sanamacha Chanu, the Indian lifter who had come in a creditable fourth in the 53 kg category, had tested positive for a banned diuretic. This time, the drug was discovered when Chanu failed a dope test after her performance.
As the sports bureaucracy retreated in confusion, the brilliance of Rajyavardhan Rathore saved not only a country of more than a billion people the blushes they are so used to from the sporting arena, but also the skin of many an Indian sports official, who can now live off Rathore's medal for the next four years.
Rathore is not exactly an overnight success story. A late entrant into shooting—as late as 1998—the army major took to the sport when he was posted to Mhow, in Madhya Pradesh. In fact in Mhow, his first love was golf, in which he learnt the rudiments from no less a man than Mukesh Kumar, India's top pro for four years in a row from 1999 to 2003. "I learnt a lot from Mukesh and wanted to continue golf. But in Mhow I was also an instructor and began shooting. I shot in a competition for the first time in pre-nationals, a tournament called the Mavlankar tournament. Then on, I was hooked," recalls Rathore.
What of the others?
The country's only other medal hope rests on the temperamental tennis team of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupati. Though they lost the opportunity to gun for gold, an Olympic bronze appears a distinct possibility for the pair.
Apart from this, all other news about Indians in Athens have had a gloomy ring. On the very first day of competition, there was a punch in plexus via as Anjali Vedpathak Bhagwat, who had been hyped so much in the run-up to the Games, almost as if a medal from her seemed only a formality. And even the normally cynical followers of sport had all but handed that piece of metal to the 34-year-old Mumbaikar. When she came out to shoot in that heavy attire, she looked armoured for the battlefield. And the Indian media, which had rarely spent so much time at a shooting range—which is usually situated in a faraway location in almost any host city—was in full attendance, the cameras and tape recorders set to roll.
But when Anjali came out of the shooting hall, where for the past hour or so, she had been trying to pepper the coloured target from a 10-metre distance, it was not a smiling but a crestfallen face that emerged. The 'medallist' had failed to make the last eight who qualify for the final set of 100. A severe blow for the Sydney finalist, who still has a chance to make amends when she goes out to shoot in the 50-m, 3-position event.
While Anjali failed, Suma Shirur, another low-profile and high performing shooter, had this year shot a perfect world record-equalling score of 400 out of 400 in Asians. In Athens she reached the final but ended eighth.
Abhinav Bindra, who has a private shooting range at his home in Chandigarh, too made the final, but after coming in third in qualification, he was seventh overall after the final.
The rower, K.P. Paulose, was out of his depth, the judo officials rejoiced in Akram Shah's ninth place and the shuttlers and table tennis stars made early exits. The archers flattered for a while before fading away. There is more to come in the second week, but shot putter Bahadur Singh started with a black mark, fouling all his three throws at the ancient site of Olympia, 200 km from Athens where the shot put event was held. It was ironical. Ancient site for Olympics, old story for India.
The euphoria over Rathore and the tennis performance may push the dark side of Indian sport into the background, but incidents like bringing two injured lifters to Athens need to be looked into.
Yes, there is more to come from athletes like Anju Bobby George and the hockey team which is midway through an increasingly tough campaign. Anju might look promising, but the first look at hockey does not evoke similar feeling.
From all appearances, the coming week will unfold that story, too.
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