Eighty-one proud Indian athletes will limber up for London 2012’s opening ceremony this Friday, the country’s biggest ever contingent. Each will have their eyes on individual successes. But some may have a larger prize in mind: losing, finally, their country’s place atop the podium of global sporting underachievement.

India’s is a uniquely inept record. It boasts only 20 medals from more than a century of participation, more than half in field hockey. In only two other disciplines – athletics and wrestling – has an Indian graced the winner’s rostrum more than once. Athens 2004 produced just a single silver, in double trap shooting. Yet this was a considerable improvement over the previous three contests, which yielded none at all.

The question of why this nascent superpower, with its fast-growing economy and billion-plus population, is quite so athletically incapable remains unsurprisingly controversial here. Some feel their country is unfairly victimised, noting that neither Bangladesh nor Pakistan fare much better. Others veer uncomfortably towards physiology or social status: it is not uncommon to hear body size, or upper-caste views on physical exertion, as excuses.

Attitudes towards sport are more persuasive. There is a Hindi phrase – “Kheloge kudo ge banoge kharab, padho ge likho ge banoge nawab” – which translates roughly as “fool around and you’ll be a flop but study hard to come out on top”. On this account, parents are to blame.

Then there is always cricket and the pull it exerts on the nation’s sporting psyche. Indians often lament the lack of white outfits and red balls in the Olympics, as if the whole thing was designed to exclude events at which their country excels – a list to which one might add yoga, chess or algebra.

Yet in truth this most inglorious record probably flows from the same mix of grinding poverty and administrative bungling that dulls India’s promise more generally. An academic paper a few years back made this point, noting that few here can “effectively participate” in sport, held back by everything from hunger and disease to dismal facilities.

The latter point rings especially true in Mumbai, a city of more than 15m with only a handful of municipal swimming pools. Things are said to be little better for the Olympians themselves, with plenty of stories about pistol shooters lacking practice bullets, or cyclists forced to pedal on streets outside crumbling velodromes.

Yet despite the frequently corrupt and feudal manner in which Indian sport is run, there are signs of hope. Four years ago in China the country won its first individual gold, in pistol shooting. This time, some whisper that India’s largest contingent may turn out to be its best, with a female archer tipped for gold and a handful of marksman, pugilists and wrestlers competitive elsewhere.

“I think we might improve substantially,” says Ayaz Menon, a sports writer based in Mumbai who is flying to London this week. “In Beijing we won three. So even if we win six it will be a big boost.” The country’s best hope of an athletics medal comes, appropriately enough, in the 20km walk. As India tries to move beyond sporting ignominy, it knows better than most that not every race is a sprint.

The flying Sikh

India’s faint athletic hopes carry special poignancy for one man: 82-year-old Milkha Singh, known as the “flying Sikh”. Born in Pakistan, Mr Singh lost his parents during partition in 1947 and fled to India as a refugee and orphan. There he set out, so the legend goes, on a mostly self-taught path to become one of the world’s best 400m runners. His efforts culminated in heartbreak at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he came fourth after a photo finish.

Even in failure, however, he won the love of his countrymen, part of the reason his life story is now being made into a Bollywood movie. He recently said his “last desire” was to see an Indian come home from London with an athletics gold. And while the omens here are not all that promising, this is India – land of epic myths and improbable filmic endings, where there is always hope.

Shooting for his biopic was recently postponed for the summer, allowing actors to escape the midyear heat. But perhaps it was also the director hoping against hope that India’s athletes could pull off a truly unlikely feat, sufficient to give this octogenarian hero his final wish. Bollywood movies always have a happy ending, after all.


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