Euphoria after an Olympic medal: Can it get overwhelming for athletes?

Former Olympic winners on whether incessant number of felicitation functions are distractions, the challenges of getting back on track once the attention fades away, and what India needs to do to ensure more podium finishes at the Games

Kunal Purandare
Published: Sep 1, 2021 01:33:33 PM IST
Updated: Sep 1, 2021 02:35:44 PM IST

“I was invited for felicitations at a few events, but it was not so loud or glaring as it is now. There was not too much of cash or prize money. We did not even get advertisements… there were no agencies handling our work and no brands chasing us either,” says weightlifter Karnam Malleswari, the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, at the 2000 Games in Sydney; Image: KK / PB/ Reuters

As she stood on the podium after becoming the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, Karnam Malleswari carried with her a tinge of disappointment. The weightlifter aspired for gold, but had to settle for bronze in the 69 kg category “because of a miscalculation by the coaches” at the 2000 Games in Sydney. She realised she had scripted history only later.

At her event, she recalls, the media was conspicuous by its absence. They came only after her medal was confirmed. “They were at the hockey match that day… it is still an entertaining sport (compared to weightlifting). Back then, people were not even aware that weightlifting was an Olympic sport. It was cricket culture that was prevalent then… everyone knew cricketers,” says Malleswari, 46, the sole medal winner for India at the 2000 Olympics.

The mindset in those days, she adds, was such that participating in the Olympics was in itself a big achievement. “One didn’t even think of winning a medal. Nobody had even imagined that I would win one.” 

However, after former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called Malleswari “Bharat ki beti (daughter of India)”, and news of her victory brought with it a flurry of congratulatory messages, she realised the enormity of her achievement. The slight dejection slowly made way for happiness. Though she got a warm welcome on her return from Sydney, it was not close to the fanfare that we see today.

“I was invited for felicitations at a few events, but it was not so loud or glaring as it is now. There was not too much of cash or prize money. We did not even get advertisements… there were no agencies handling our work and no brands chasing us either,” recalls Malleswari. “The central government gave me Rs 6 lakh and a few States honoured me. Apart from that, neither did anyone call me, nor did I go to meet anyone. Today’s athletes meet film stars and all politicians want to be seen with them. I did not even have a manager… if someone called, I went.”

A lot has changed in the two decades since then. As India recorded its highest ever medal tally with seven podium finishes at the 2020-21 Olympics held in Tokyo, Japan, its medal winners have been attending one function after another upon their return. From shuttler PV Sindhu, a two-time Olympic medallist, enjoying a scoop of ice cream with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to radio jockeys swooning over gold medallist javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra with song and dance, social media has been inundated with photos and videos of these athletes at numerous events.

Vasudevan Baskaran, who led India to a gold medal win in hockey at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, believes that India getting the highest number of medals this year has resulted in these events grabbing more eyeballs. Also, the fact that Prime Minister Modi spoke with the athletes before they left for Tokyo in a pandemic year ensured greater visibility. “We had also got a call from the prime minister and president when we won. It was the same. But only Doordarshan covered our win; today there are multiple smaller channels and hence the reach is wider,” he says.

Celebration or Distraction?

Former Olympic medal winners are of the opinion that such events celebrate a unique milestone that can be achieved only once in four years. Vijay Kumar Sharma, who won a silver in the 25 metre rapid fire pistol event at the 2012 London Olympics, says every athlete dreams of winning a medal.

“There is immense pressure in your mind and you prepare for that moment. I was glad that my hard work of several years bore fruit and got translated into a medal. And it brought laurels to my country. Nothing can be more satisfying than that for a sportsperson,” he says. “When we return, we realise people want to know more about you and youngsters want to follow you. There are congratulatory messages pouring in. Everyone praises you and there are functions everywhere. It’s a happy occasion.” 

Gagan Narang agrees. “Right from participating at the Olympics to winning and coming back, it is an overwhelming phase. Once the medal is won, it is a different chaos in the mind. You take time for the feeling to sink in. There are celebrations around you and you are sort of moving with the flow. The felicitations are a part of it,” says Narang, 38, who won a bronze in the 10 metre air rifle event at the 2012 London Olympics.

But how much of it is too much? Where should one draw the line? In an interview with The Times of India on August 25, Chopra speaks about the toll these events have taken on him. “The attention is indeed important, but there is a Diamond League at the end of the month. I had planned to participate in it, but my training completely stopped once I returned from the Olympic Games because of the incessant number of functions. I also fell sick,” he has been quoted as saying.  

The post-medal euphoria can last for about a month or two, and can end up being a double-edged sword if the athlete is not mentally strong to deal with it. “You like the celebrations, but you sort of get overwhelmed with all of them (after a point),” admits Narang, who was conferred the Padma Shri in 2011.

“Once the celebrations die down, it is back to being an athlete. You start training for international competitions. But it depends on person to person how they deal with the attention. While some can handle it well and put that phase behind them, others cannot,” explains Sharma, 36, who was serving in the Army in the 16 Dogra Regiment before he retired as Captain in February 2017. He is now a DSP with the Himachal Pradesh state police. 

Malleswari does not want to equate winning a medal to being a burden because of what happens after that. “We work hard for a medal. You feel your hard work has been rewarded when you get the attention and love of people. They (athletes) are getting what they deserve. But more than that, their achievements will motivate other kids like them in their areas. They can aspire for something similar,” she says. 

Baskaran, 71, is impressed with 23-year-old Chopra for scoffing at talk about a biopic at this stage of his career although the veteran is certain that the athlete, whose 87.58 metre javelin throw won him a gold, will be a brand favourite. “He is keen to promote himself in a bigger way… his target is 90 metre. The gifts are a form of appreciation from the people. I do not think they are a distraction as long as you keep your head and train well. I personally believe having a car is not a social status. Having a good head is social status,” he says, adding that these winners are not from big cities to get distracted and that they also have good advisors. “There is a lot of money in sport now. When you win, there is more money, but when you lose, there are more brickbats as well.” 

The weight of expectations, however, can be daunting. And given the fact that the Olympics are held every four years, the likelihood of them being forgotten or ignored in favour of the flavours of the season cannot be ruled out.

Both Malleswari and Baskaran dismiss the possibility of athletes being pushed to anonymity, saying that people remember them even today, decades after the biggest highs of their careers. Narang concedes that every athlete is aware that the attention is part of the success. “It is bound to shift to others when your phase is over,” he says, adding that a medal win opens a whole new world and gives the athlete a window to explore new things. “If they cash in on it, they go farther,” says Narang, who set up the ‘Gun for Glory’ shooting academy before he participated and won the bronze at the 2012 Games. 

Sharma, too, did not want to live with the medal hangover. He was immediately back to training and focusing on future events. “I knew the ecstasy/attention was going to last for a year or so, and by the time the next Olympics take place, it is either you if you are performing, or the emerging talent. That is human nature,” he says.

Nurturing Talent

India’s impressive show in Tokyo makes it evident that sporting talent that can shine at the Olympics exists in multiple disciplines across the country. Chopra became the first Indian to win an individual gold in athletics (javelin throw) and only the second from the country—after shooter Abhinav Bindra who won in 2008—to bag a solo gold. Weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, who won a silver in the 49 kg category, hails from a small village Nongpok Kakching, which is located about 20-odd kilometres from Imphal, the capital of Manipur. She would carry firewood on her head and walk 2 kilometres every day so that her family could use it as fuel. Bronze medallist, boxer Lovlina Borgohain, hails from Golaghat district in Assam. Wrestler Bajrang Punia, who won a bronze, comes from Haryana, like Chopra.  

 

This suggests some of India’s medal hopefuls are hidden in remote areas, and Olympic winners feel there must be an ecosystem there that allows them to hone their skills. Malleswari says most Olympic medallists come from poor families and from small towns or rural backgrounds. While one of them succeeds and the government supports that individual, what about the hundreds of others who are equally good but neglected?

“We are not doing anything for them. We should have proper infrastructure and coaching in rural areas. Till we do that, we will have to struggle for medals. When we do that, India can be No 1 in the world. It can take on China and the US as well. We have that vast a talent pool,” says Malleswari, who runs the Karnam Malleswari Foundation to fulfil the requirements of budding and deserving talent. In June, the recipient of the Arjuna Award, Padma Shri and the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award (now renamed Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award) was appointed as the first vice chancellor of the Delhi Sports University.

Baskaran wants federations to become more professional and get a strong push for athletes from the media. “Prepare a team for 2028 by focusing on junior teams. Give 12-13-year-olds the infrastructure available to Olympians or the national teams,” he says. The Arjuna Awardee and former coach also wants news channels to invite medal-winning athletes on prime time to speak to Indian parents in their local language about encouraging children to take up sport. “Our country will also become healthy. Winning a medal is not only about being on the podium,” he says, adding that television channels should also show the best of sport for a few minutes every day, just as advertisements of edtech majors run every now and then. “If you cannot promote Olympians for five minutes a day, you are back to square one. You can have 10 Neeraj Chopras and nothing will happen,” he laments.  

Over the last two decades, athletes admit that things have improved in terms of coaching, medicines as well as facilities for sportspersons. “Even if an athlete wants to train abroad for six months, there is government support and funding. In our time, we would be there just the day before,” says Malleswari. The popularity and reach of social media has also helped put the spotlight on relatively unknown names from not-so-popular sports in the country. But a lot more needs to be done. It can get better with a continuous focus on promising athletes, even when they train or participate in local or national tournaments, and not just during global events like the Olympics.

“A major change is that youngsters are looking to build a career in sport and their parents are supporting them. There is also government backing with monetary incentives and jobs. They can secure their careers today. They are getting funding and the sports ministry is helping athletes at every step,” says Sharma, who is about to restart training with an eye on another medal at the 2024 Paris Olympics. “China and the US have decided their priorities. That is why they win so many medals. We need to change our mindset… only then can we win more medals.” ​

 

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