Medals apart, one of the more stirring Indian moments of this Olympics came on Friday evening when Amit Kumar, still 18, who stumbled into wrestling because his father delivered milk to Guru Satpal’s akhara, was beating World Championship bronze medallist Hassan Sabzali Rahimi of Iran in his pre-quarter final bout in the 55-kg category. Just a little later, the quarter final was cruelly stolen from him for a Georgian MBA student by some of the most horrific refereeing you have seen. Most of us missed both of these — a wrestling bout at this level just lasts four-six minutes. Amit, it seems, carried a twin curse: of awful refereeing and poor timing. I surfed all the news channels while his bouts were on, and all of them had, live, what looked like the greatest piece of breaking news. No, it wasn’t one more silly turn in the Baba Ramdev Comedy Show, but the fact that Yuvraj Singh had been selected for the Indian T20 cricket team.

Now, what is the point, you might ask? How does some poor teenaged milkman compare with the reigning prince of Indian limited overs cricket, the one sport in which we are world-beaters? A little footnote may be in order here, for whatever it is worth: in the very wonky T20 “world” rankings, India figured at No. 8, behind even Bangladesh until last week. And, by the way, the BCCI so loves the Tricolour, it did not even bother to field a team at the Guangzhou Asiad (2010) where cricket featured for the first time. Will you ever see Brazil or Spain showing similar contempt for Olympic football?

The short point here is the different standards we apply to Indians who play different sports. A cricket star remains a star, whatever your team’s ranking. As long as you somehow remain in the top-half of a league that consists of, at a stretch, eight nations, we honour our cricketers as national heroes. But when it comes to Olympic sports, anything less than a medal is a waste of time, if not a national shame. This is irrespective of the fact that each individual — like Sonepat teenager Amit, for example — has to compete in a field of several even at home to qualify for the Olympics, and has to grapple with many others similarly picked by various countries out of a field of hundreds, if not thousands of the world’s best.

AN Olympic medal, and nothing less, is too big an ask, given our sporting tradition and history. Barring one wrestling bronze in Helsinki 1952, our only Olympic medals for nearly five decades were in hockey. That too had ended after 1968 (Mexico, bronze) as the rest of the world discovered that wonderful game. We haven’t won a real Olympic medal in hockey since then, barring in Moscow (1980), the game all the hockey big guns had boycotted because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That we have won something in each of the last three Olympics is a good beginning. Is it good enough for a nation our size and our love of sport? The answer is, of course, no. But we are also so hard to please. We fail to acknowledge that an Olympic medal is absolutely the last step, the pinnacle of glory for any sportsman. There are many thresholds to reach before that. You cannot train for a couple of years and suddenly win at a stage like the Olympics.

It is a dangerous thing to say in this sorry week, but I had dared to say so also in the wake of Beijing 2008 (‘One gold, two bronze and quite a few reasons to stop whining’, IE, August 24, 2008, and survived, so why not now. Expectations were hyped this time, and surely a seven-member, mostly world-ranking boxing team returning medal-less is a letdown. But look calmly at some figures behind the dismal medal tallies, and the news is not so bad. It is, indeed, a story of all-round improvement and progress in some key sports and areas. Key, because athletics and contact sports (boxing, wrestling) are really the most important, real global sports. Shooting and archery too, to a lesser extent, as skill sports in which a lot of countries participate. In each of these, India has now risen — for the first time — to be the second most significant Asian power.

Athletics (track and field) is the mother of all sport. Twelve athletics medals, including five golds at Guangzhou, placed India second, only behind China (and ahead of Korea and Japan), and marked not only its return to track and field after a hiatus but also a significant rise. This, when you might want to remember the fact that it is in spite of the fact that Indian athletics has generally been controlled by Suresh Kalmadi, directly or through proxies. We have made serious improvements in our timings and distances. Some of us had been ruing through years of stagnation in Indian athletics that our national records were among the most durable. That has changed lately, and happily so, as the graphic accompanying this article shows.

Similarly, across the disciplines of archery, shooting, wrestling and boxing, we have at least 20 Indians who can count themselves in the world top 10. This is progress, and we should be acknowledging this rather than cursing all our sportsmen for failing to bring us the only prize we really cherish, an Olympic medal. The fact is, in all these real sports we have risen as an Asian power and narrowed the gap with the rest of the world. Of course, it is still a large gap, but you do not suddenly go from zero to hero in genuinely, globally competitive sports.

MEDALS are wonderful. But there is also a need to moderate our national sense of humiliation and shame to see medal powers like China do so much better. Olympic medals are not necessarily an index of national success or strength. The Olympic system is filled with medals in games that most human beings do not play — or watch — in real lives, but which you have to train from childhood to win. This is where regimented societies have always had an advantage. During the Cold War, we were amazed by the rise of East Germany, which at Moscow 1980 touched an all-time high of 126 medals. Today, two decades after the reunification, Germany is likely to finish with one-third of that record tally. Does it mean that united Germany today is a lesser power than GDR of the past? Or, the near halving of the traditional net medals tally of the states that constituted the former Soviet Union. It doesn’t mean they have declined as nations or economies. It only means they are now democratic societies, and do not have the means that the regimented ones have. Remember the Chinese talent scouts picked up their new swimming sensation Ye Shiwen when she was just six, and pretty much kept her in “sporting” custody to be trained and brought up as a champion.

You try snatching away people’s babies in India and it will produce nothing less than national outrage, many editions of We the People, a few PILs and, of course, a quick judicial end. Authoritarian rulers need to feed their people a dose of exaggerated pride, and pouring money and resources into “medal sports” is one way of doing it. Professor Minxin Pei, a brilliant, internationally respected scholar of Chinese origin, and an Indian Express columnist, explained this on the Op-ed page with remarkable clarity earlier this week (‘Where winning is everything’, IE, August 9). He estimated that the Chinese spent $3 billion preparing their athletes for Athens and, even then, eight years back, you could say that each medal cost the Chinese taxpayer $50 million.

Surely, we had expected better from our London squad. We had counted on a few more medals from our boxers, wrestlers and shooters. Maybe even a gold or two. To that extent, we should be disappointed. But, beyond the medals tally, there is something to build on. Indian sport has to set realistic targets: No. 4 in Asia overall, ahead of Kazakhstan, 25 medals including 10 golds in track and field at the next Asiad, and 50 world top 10 wrestlers, boxers, shooters and archers. It’s only then that we should even dream, or expect to be even among the top 25 in the Olympics tally.