Expatriate Indians seek gold standard

Abhinav Bindra's win in the 10m air rifle generates hopes for diversity of sports in a land where cricket dominates.
The gold medal won by Abhinav Bindra, left, comes at a critical time in Indian sport.
The gold medal won by Abhinav Bindra, left, comes at a critical time in Indian sport.

Amid the resounding cheers greeting India's first individual Olympic gold medal, expatriates are hoping the win will usher in a more diverse future for sports in a country where cricket tends to overshadow all else. Despite having a population of 1.1 billion people and competing in the Games since 1928, until Abhinav Bindra, 25, hit the target in the men's 10m air rifle Monday, India had yet to bag such a gold.

"There can't be better news for Indians," said Viren Varma, media manager of Golf in Dubai, promoter and organiser of events such as the Dubai Desert Classic and the Dubai Ladies Masters. "India always had the potential but never really made an impact at the Olympics. There was always talk about how a country with over a billion people could not get a single medal at the Olympics. Hopefully this year there would be no such discussions."

India's only other Olympic medals in men's individual sports were a bronze for freestyle wrestler Kha-Shaba Jadav in 1952 and a bronze for tennis player Leander Paes in 1996. Karnam Malleswari, a weightlifter, became India's first female Olympic medallist, with bronze in the 69kg category in 2000, and the shooter Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won silver in the double trap event four years ago in Athens.

India has won gold at the Olympics before, but only in group sports, such as field hockey. Bindra's victory was particularly significant following the failure of the Indian men's hockey team to qualify for the Games for the first time. They have won the Olympic hockey tournament eight times and taken three other medals in the sport, though none since 1980. Manohar Singh Gill, the Indian sports minister, said Bindra's performance would lift the success-starved country.

"This is going to give a huge incentive in going up further and becoming a dominant [sporting] power," he told Indian television. "We've won hockey golds in the past but the individual gold is going to give a huge fillip to all our sports. The boys and girls will run that much faster and jump that much longer." Others agree this is a critical time in defining India's relationship with sports. With a roaring economy and the privatisation of the Indian cricket team into the Indian Premier League - which recently completed its first season and proved highly profitable for the team's owners - there remains hope that the corporate sector will seek to invest and sponsor by diversifying into other sports sectors.

"This gold medal is long overdue and rightly deserved," said Ganesh Sundara Raju, an Indian national tennis player and a coach for young players in Dubai. "As a sports player myself, I know that infrastructure and good coaches have always been a problem for India. We have plenty of talent but it really needs to be nurtured. Sports marketing is long due in India and the success of the India Premier League cricket is a clear indicator."

Traditionally, Indians have been cautious when it comes to embracing "new" careers; whereas once it was considered prestigious to pursue careers only in professional fields such as medicine, engineering, and law, it is now not uncommon for the middle class to consider jobs in sectors such as information technology or entertainment. "In India the focus has never been on sports," said Bharat Chachara, manager of the India Club, Dubai. "The mindset has always been that one can't make a career out of sports unless playing cricket or hockey.

"However, with the booming economy and a lot of sponsorship coming in for sports, things are soon changing." Sports, especially some individual games such as tennis, have grown in credibility recently. For example, Sania Mirza, a young tennis professional, is considered a role model and, in turn, has earned lucrative endorsement deals. Now India's new golden Olympian, who hails from Chandigarh, is likely to follow in her footsteps.

@Email:pmenon@thenational.ae sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

Published: August 11, 2008 04:00 AM

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