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India’s Olympic Also-Rans

NEW DELHI – As the world awaits the Beijing Olympics, many wonder whether China’s grand coming-out party will also mark the occasion when it wrests dominance of the medal tally from the United States. China’s dedicated athletes are widely assumed to have dozens of gold and silver medals in their grasp. Whether or not they overtake the US, however, one thing is certain: China’s neighbor and regional geopolitical rival, India, will be lucky to win even a single medal.

International sport is, of course, an exercise in national chauvinism by other means. At some level, we all pretend to tune into the Olympics to admire human athleticism. But none of us can deny the attraction of the flags under which those athletes compete, the anthem that is played for the winners, and, ultimately, that impossible-to-ignore, regularly-updated medal tally, listing the gold, silver, and bronze medals awarded to each country, the Games’ real honor roll.

Every Indian who follows the Olympics has cringed scanning the daily list of medal winners, eyes traveling down past dozens of nations big and small before alighting on a solitary Indian bronze in tennis or wrestling. Worse yet, we have all known the shame of waiting day after day for India to appear on the list at all, as countries a hundredth our size record gold upon gold and Indian athletes are barely mentioned among the also-rans.

Indians like to think we can hold our own against the best in the world in any field: our Kalidasa can stand up to their Shakespeare, our Ramanujan to their Einstein, our Bollywood to their Hollywood and, these days, our Infosys to their Microsoft. In sport, however, it is a different story.