Rio Olympics: Why India was not a rank disaster

This piece originally appeared on Livemint.com

 

India’s largest-ever squad to an Olympics, of 117, returned with two medals in Rio 2016, against six in London 2012. At the pinnacle of world sports, medals are one barometer of sporting performance. Another is standings: where a sportsperson finished vis-à-vis the competition. This is especially relevant for a fledgling sporting nation like India.

The data interactive below maps standings of Indian sportspersons in Rio 2016, and compares it to the previous five Olympics, dating back to the 1996 Atlanta Games, when India sent a 49-member squad and Leander Paes in tennis was the sole medal winner.

Beyond the medals, 2016 is not the unqualified catastrophe it is made out to be. At an overall level, the number of top 10 finishes fell from 28 in 2012 to 21 in 2016. But this was largely on account of just two sports: boxing and tennis. Similarly, between ranks 11 and 20, the count fell from 28 to 24, but the losses are scattered across sports (archery and rowing) and sprinkled with the occasional gain (wrestling and tennis).

Prominent sports in which Indians competed can be placed in three buckets.

Clear advances

There was badminton, which delivered a medal and demonstrated depth. There was Dipa Karmakar: the first Indian gymnast at the Olympics since 1964, the first Indian women ever and who missed a medal by not much.

Clear retreats

The biggest losses were registered in boxing: the number of top 10 finishes dropped from six in 2012 to two. There was table tennis, where all four Indians lost in the first round. There was weightlifting, where India is down from a medal and two more top 20 finishes in 2000 to just one top 20 finish in 2016.

Close to call

Most sports were close to call, which runs contrary to the narrative of Rio being a disaster for India. Among the large-squad sports, shooting returned two fewer medals than 2012, but had more performances in the top 10 (4 versus 3) and the same number of performance in the top 20 (11).

In athletics, the number of top-20 performances fell from six in 2012 to four in 2016, but there was a cluster of nine athletes who finished between 20 and 35 (against five in 2012). In tennis, India’s mixed doubles team came closer to a medal than in the previous two Olympics, but the rest of the squad made earlier exits. In archery, fewer Indian competed, but posted better overall results.

Use the interactive below to see how India has fared in 13 sports in the last six Olympics.

 

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