Called the greatest show on earth, the Olympic Games are celebration of human excellence, behaviour and endeavour. It is dream of every athlete on the planet to take part in these games and bring laurels to his or her country.
This quadrangular sporting extravaganza unites the world at least for a fortnight where only best is celebrated and the losers are applauded for their efforts. It is a freewheeling cocktail of sports where religion, colour language and other barriers get demolished albeit temporarily.
I have the privilege of covering eight successive Olympic Games (1988 to 2016) From Seoul to Rio I have been witness to the best, the good and not the ugly, but all in unrestricted and free flowing manner. That is what makes me skeptical about Tokyo Olympics.
For me and most of the Indian journalists 1988 and ’92 games were primarily to cover hockey, it was 1996 onwards that India started winning medals and Individual sportspersons started getting attention.
We have to thank Peas (1996) who set the ball rolling and after that it has been Individual performers who have been doing India proud in subsequent Games.
Seoul perhaps was the most extravagant Olympics, Barcelona’s Olympic ceremony was most opulent, Atlanta was strictly commercial, Sydney was efficiently conducted with the support of young but highly disciplined volunteers, Athens was a warning signal for incoming economic disaster for the Games, Beijing was expensive, London was matter of fact, no frills and Rio struggled and managed to complete the games amid economic gloom.
For me Seoul Olympic, was a different World altogether. People were very proud that their country was hosting the Games. The awesome opening ceremony was a capsule of their glorious history and culture and the Game anthem “Hand in Hand Together we stand” was epic in every sense.
As it looked that these Games may earn the tag of the best of the Olympics till then, it was hit by what came to be known as “The Dirtiest Race in History” On September 24.
One Race Which Brought a Pall of Gloom
Ben Johnson did to the Games what South Korea’s bitter rival North Korea could not do. Ben pierced into the heart of the Games as after winning the 100m race which on that day was called the greatest footrace in the history and 24 hours later when he tested positive, suddenly a pall of gloom seemed to have descended to the Games. For me it was a stunning experience as I had never expected such a depressing reaction. One athlete’s dark deed could impact the Games so much was a revelation.
Indian interests revolved around hockey but Tennis, Athletics and Commonwealth Games attracted our attentions also for different reasons.
In hockey India opened disastrously losing to the then Soviet Union 1-0, then drew with West Germany lost next three matches in a row and in play off lost to Pakistan 1-2 to finish sixth.
Hockey usually kept Indian journalist busy, as one wrote a match report one day and the preview next day and that took care of 12 days and justified our presence.
Tennis star Vijay Amritraj’s participation provided journalist more work I interviewed Vijay Amritraj soon after one of his practice sessions and his opening lines were” Playing in Olympics is just like making a debut at Wimbledon” He lost to Henri Leconte (France) in gruelling five sets. Other Indian Zeeshan Ali lost in second round. Vijay and Anand also figured in doubles.
India made a bid to host 1992 Commonwealth Games but at the meeting held before the opening of the Games, Canada won the bid and Indian officials complained that they have been let down by some countries who had early promised their support.
However most distasteful episode for the Indian contingent was the tantrums thrown by women athletes. P.T. Usha finished last in her 400 MH heat but her coach O.M. Nambiar insisted that Usha, should be in the 4 x 400 meters relay in place of Vandana Rao.
Vandana protested and then a ridicules solution was worked out– to hold a trial run with Usha. She refused to do and finally Usha was not included in the relay team.
!992 Barcelona Olympic was yet another new experience for me as for the first time two main news agencies of the country UNI and Press Trust of India (PTI) decided to enter into collaboration for covering these Games. So PTI sports editor Late Jagannath Rao and me jointly covered the Games for the agencies.
As I have earlier mentioned the opening ceremony of these games was out of this world. The lighting of the Games flame by an archer with an arrow has become part of the Olympic folklore.
India started on ominous note when hockey defender Jagdev Singh suffered a injury during a practice match against Spain and later just managed to play for 40 minutes against Germany and after that could not play in the tournament. India finished 7th in hockey.
Here I want to narrate an interesting incident which happened in the Judo Hall. I along with Prabhjot Singh (The Tribune) went to cover the 95 kg bout in which Indian Judoka was taking. However even before I could note down the name Cowas Billimoria, bout was over. It hardly lasted 14 secs perhaps the shortest judo bout of that Olympics.
When Khalistanis Shadow Lengthened on Gill
1996 Atlanta opening ceremony was all high tech and modern musical razzle -dazzle sans any cultural performance. The only thing which excited the crowd was when Mohammad Ali appeared on stage to light the Game flame.
Before the opening of the Games, I met senior IOC official Ashwani Kumar at a practice ground and we got talking and suddenly he told me that Indian Hockey Federation Chief KPS Gill has not be able to get a flight from New York to Atlanta and he has come in a train in which he was the sole passenger and he was de-boarded midway and brought in a car here.
It so happened that a South Korean plane had crashed after taking off from New York and sabotage was suspected, meanwhile news came that Khalistanis have threatened Gill so all the airlines decided against taking the Indian official on their flights to Atlanta hence FBI had to arrange the special train and later a fleet of cars to transport Gill to Atlanta.
It turned out to be most talked about exclusive story by me in India.
Another interesting happening at Atlanta was near full media gallery during India -Pakistan hockey. Most of the American and European journalists who had little or no interest infield hockey were there to report expected violence and fight between the teams and spectators.
But much to their dismay it was match played in a very sporting spirit and no violence or brawl took place on or off the field and after the half time most of the journalist had left.
Indian finished 7th in hockey however Leander Peas gave millions of people back home something to celebrate as he won India’s first individual Olympic medal in 44 years. He defeated Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni for the bronze.
2000 Sydney Games were very efficiently. For India it was the Games in which they should have won more than a one medal which was claimed by weightlifter K.Malleswari.
Hockey team was unlucky to have drawn their last league match to Poland conceding an equalizer in the dying moments that deprived them a place in semi -finals. India and South Korea tied at eight points each with same goal difference 9-7 at the second place. Korea got into the semis because they had beaten India in the league.
In boxing 81 kg quarter final, Gurbachan Singh fought a brave battle and from Indian point of view he should have been declared winner. He was tied 12-12 with Andrly Fedchuk of Ukraine but lost on some technical point.
The boxer cried loudly saying he was deprived of a win and was very bitter that Indian officials did not help him. He left as a bitter man.
Malleswari won the bronze in 69 kg but she also rued the fact that not many from Indian contingent were present when she won the medal.
Athens and the Swirling Economic Gloom
The 2004 Athens Games were held amid economic gloom. On the very second day of the Games the posters bantings and decorations started falling and there were no efforts to put them back to their place.
Hockey team performed poorly and there was tension in the team. Dhanraj Pillay cried foul after he was substitute early in the last league match. He said it was an insult “This was my fourth and last Olympics and deserved better”, In the playoff Pakistan rubbed more salt into India’s wound beating the arch rivals 3-0.
Weightlifters Pratima Kumari and Sanamacha Chanu were reportedly tested positive and Indian officials indulged in futile firefighting. if that was not enough Shot putter Bahadur Singh and discus thrower Anil Kumar produced a flop show failing to get one single legal throw.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won a silver in double trap and that brought some cheer in the Indian camp. Archer Satyadev Singh reached quarter finals while in tennis Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were just unlucky to lose a four-hour epic bronze medal match
2008 Beijing games were expensive affairs with Chinese authorities leaving no stone unturned in putting up an awesome show. Interestingly for the first time there was no Hockey team from India in the Olympics as the country had failed to qualify.
Here Abhinav Bindra became the first Indian to win an individual gold medal. Vijender Singh (boxing) and Sushil Kumar won a bronze each.
The 2012 London Olympics was business like. Indian contingent at the opening ceremony unwittingly got embroiled in controversy when it was found that a volunteer joined the march past and was behind the that flag bearer Sushil Kumar without being noticed. It was construed as big security breach. The matter was sorted out amicably after the volunteer apologized saying as she was not stopped by any security persons, she kept walking.
It was perhaps the best Games for the India till now as country won six (Two Silver-four Bronze) individual medals. Yet it was worst for hockey. Wrestler Sushil Kumar claimed Silver in 66 kg Freestyle to become the first and only Indian to have won two Individual Olympic medals.
Shooter Vijay Kumar bagged silver in 25 Rapid Fire Pistol, Gagan Narang Bronze in 10m Air Rifle. Badminton Saina Nehwal (Bronze), Boxing Mary Kom (Bronze), Wrestling Yoeshwar Dutt Bronze 60 kg Freestyle.
In Hockey India lost all their matches and finished last without a point. They failed to even achieve a draw.
2016 Rio games showed why it is becoming tough to host such event. Economic slump had hit Brazil hard and half completed roads and stadium were testimony to the economic crunch.
As with earlier Olympics, this time also controversy erupted before the contingent left for Rio. Wrestler Narsingh Yadav was tested positive and he alleged that there was conspiracy against him. The Wrestling federation of India (WFI) got lot of bad press and finally Yadav was selected but he was not allowed to fight at the Olympics by the world body.
Indian athletes put up below par performance. Women hockey team taking part in the Olympics after 36 years finished last. Men’s team ended eighth. It was only at the end of the Games that Indians managed to get two medal a bronze and a silver.
Wrestler Sakshi fought a great bout to snatch a bronze and then shuttler PV Sindhu capped Indian campaign with a silver.
Harpal Singh Bedi is a doyen among Indian sports writers, having covered eight Olympics. He was the sports editor of United News of India (UNI) for a long time.