One evening at the Athens Olympics, I was firmly put in my place by Suma Shirur, rifle shooter. Under a balmy summer night sky, Shirur could be found at the hockey competition, on a stand situated behind one of the goal-mouths. I went over to introduce myself and ask if I could talk to her about breathing the rarefied air of an Olympic final.
For about 15 seconds, Shirur heard out the introduction and request. Then, her normally soft voice went sharp and she replied that she didn’t want to have anything do with the media. She wasn’t going to be wasting her time talking to them i.e. me. In any case why did we want to? In any case, she said, the headlines being flashed back home had declared she had “finished last.”
It was how one of the Indian wire services had dished out the news of her result. “Suma finishes last” soon went into multi-media loop: popping up first on the internet and a few seconds after that on the television news tickers. “Finishes last/ finished last.” Last. Wooden spoon. You loser, you. Last.
Shirur was only the second Indian into an Olympic shooting final after Anjali Bhagwat in Sydney 2000. She was one of the eight women out of a total of the world’s 44 best 10m air rifle shooters. Her life’s work and achievement though had been summarized as “finished last.”
No amount of normal journalistic wheedling--that is shocking, we would never do that, you must understand that we don’t work like this etc., etc.,--would convince her that the “media” were worth any time. After mumbling a generic apology, I retreated. Today, Shirur giggles about that first meeting, but on that night, her outrage came from how inaccurately her performance had been judged and unfairly that judgment was being circulated.
While working for India Today, I reported on two Olympic Games, in Athens and Beijing. Apart from realising that the Olympics were the most physically demanding assignment for any sports journalist, the Games became an exhibition of a tribal media mindset that India’s athletes continue to endure.
The mindset here is not restricted to individuals as to an idea that is bought into and very often hawked out. It is the general notion that at the Olympic level, the Indian athlete is largely way below-par, third-grade, and worthy of nothing but sweeping journalistic contempt. Yes, India’s performances in the Olympics are far from glorious, the country went from 1952 to 1996 without any individual medal. But when it comes to marking out the nuance between glorious and “finished last,” it is swept aside particularly in sports where the athlete is neither celebrated nor well known.
In an otherwise gloomy novel, “The Sportswriter”, Richard Ford described my profession as one that, “recognises courage and improvement” and takes the “battle with cynicism head-on and wins.” And not like a particular segment of media coverage of the London Olympics, for sure. Without a medal, an athlete’s performance can easily be treated as meaningless. On television, for example, an Indian hockey player in London found himself being called a “joker.” It is a response expected from the spectator on a sofa, but not a journalist expected to have balance and insight. Would Sachin Tendulkar or Leander Paes be referred to as “jokers”? How about Yuki Bhambri or Umesh Yadav? No matter how bad a day they may have had?
At the Olympics though, the bigger the platform that enhances this mind set--like the wire services, frontline newspapers, or television news desks--the more poisonous its impact. The athletes, such as Shirur, find themselves mocked, their performance trivialized.
While there are many reporters in print and TV who do exceptional reporting with fairness, perspective, and accuracy, the louder and more general tone of Indian Olympic coverage in the media has, across decades, embraced derision.
It is what keeps a peculiar Indian Olympic syndrome--which I call Quadrennial Middle Class Mortificiation (QMCM)--stoked. Every day that goes without a medal being racked up--and those are many--keeps the mindset alive and fresh.
In London once again, Indians were told through uniformly monotonic wire services news flashes and TV tickers that their athletes had gone “crashing out” or had “crashed out.” As if the Thesaurus lacks any alternative words for defeat. In Beijing ’08, as a matter of fact, when Susheel Kumar lost in the first round of the 66kg freestyle wrestling, the wire services duly declared that he had, “crashed out.”
Only a few hours later, it was understood that the repechage had been introduced in the competition and Susheel was still in the bronze medal contention. Having been beaten by one of the finalists, Susheel had to win three bouts in 45 minutes, which he did and won the bronze. He was far from crashed out. A journalist’s basic homework certainly had.
Outside of the three medalists, the London Olympics would have shaken the 11-member shooting contingent and the seven male boxers. Yet if there ever was a rotten tomato award to be given for the “finishes last” brand of Olympic journalism offered from London, it would belong to a Times of India’s headline on August 9, 2012.
Across all e-editions it read: “Gowda ends lowly eighth.” It was talking about Vikas Gowda’s 8th place finish in the discus event. To be fair, like in case of Shirur, it had also been formally announced on the wires that Gowda had “finished last” in his final.
Gowda finished eighth out of 12 finalists in a field of 41 competitors. He would be the first to say he didn’t have a great final, but he most certainly didn’t finish last and that too “lowly.” He was the first Indian man since Sriram Singh in 1976 to enter an athletics final in the Olympics. The last time an Indian man had entered an Olympics field event (which refers to throws and jumps, not the track) final was in 1948, when Henry Rebello was one of the 12 finalists in London.
If the wire services headline was factually incorrect, the Times of India headline did record the 8th for accuracy but chose “lowly” to pass scathing subjective nationwide judgment. That was deliberately mischievous and palpably disrespectful. A reasoned analysis from the ToI’s man in London on Gowda’s performance was so badly edited that it didn’t make most pages.
Perhaps this mindset of dismissive scorn for Olympic athletes passes through wire services and the news desks across newspapers and television like a self-sustaining virus which infects a few in every new generation coming through and rising to positions of authority.
The general approach of urban, English-speaking PLU India --- those most strongly afflicted by QMCM--- towards Olympic sport can be dismissive or supercilious and the media mindset has not attempted to battle it.
More than a decade ago, a photograph of Dhanraj Pillai in a resplendent saffron turban was once rejected for a magazine cover because he looked, well, “gawaar” (a yokel). A polished politician watching the flood of early medals for the Indians at the 2010 Commonwealth Games is reported to have said: “I’m getting fed up of these weightlifters and wrestlers.”
After London, Olympic Gold Quest, a private fund-raising venture for elite athletes, will remarket their Power Your Champions campaign which aims to get a million urban, corporate, computer-linked Indians to donate Rs. 100 a month through ECS banking. Convincing a million can help fund the training of 2000 athletes. So far they have collected Rs.15 lakh.
Now that is really lowly.
(The writer has been a sports journalist for over two decades and now senior editor with ESPNcricinfo.com)