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Great expectations

Winning a medal in the Olympics is not just about physical prowess, but as much a matter of mental conditioning. Aabhas Sharma outline the off-field preparations of the Indian medal-hopefuls

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So far, 71 Indian athletes have made it to the London Olympics. More could follow. This will be the country’s largest-ever contingent — never before have so many Indians taken part in the Olympics. Experts are hopeful that there will be medals in sports like boxing, wrestling, shooting, badminton, hockey (with some luck) and, maybe, even athletics. Expectations are huge and this could weigh on the minds of some star athletes. In the past, Indians have often failed to deliver at the highest level because of multiple pressures. The environment, for one, is alien and the crowds indifferent. The food is foreign and unappetising. The country’s sporting history was never anything to be proud of.

This time, with a rich haul of medals expected, the organisers and athletes are leaving nothing to chance. Apart from training hard, considerable effort is going into the softer aspects of the preparation: motivation and mental strength.

“We want to give our athletes the best possible platform to perform at the Olympics,” says the Indian Olympic Association’s working president Vijay Kumar Malhotra. “If it means getting a nutritionist on board for a boxer, then he or she will be there. We want the focus only on the athletes as we realise that this could be a landmark Olympics for the country.” Thus, the association will send only two delegates to London — a far cry from the past when it was accused of sending outsized delegations and too few athletes. Malhotra says there will be a large support staff on board this time. A nutritionist or a psychologist as part of the contingent is also under consideration.

Of course, Indians are no longer unknown faces in the international circuit; some like boxers and Vijender Singh, and wrestler are world champions — it helps boost their confidence.

Shooter Shagun Chowdhary has been working with her Italian coach, Marcello Dradi. Wrestler Narsingh Yadav, who has qualified for the freestyle event, has started eating non-vegetarian food for a more balanced diet on the advice of his nutritionist. Athlete Vikas Gowda has been training in the US for the past three months. “Self-belief is pretty high in all athletes these days,” says Olympic Gold Quest COO Viren Rasquinha. Much of the credit for this must go to the likes of Vijender and Sushil Kumar. Since most athletes come from similar small-town backgrounds, they feel that if these two could do it, then so can they. “Athletes are smart and confident these days and confidence comes from winning,” says Vijender.

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India’s shining star and perhaps the biggest medal hope is Saina Nehwal. Rasquinha says Nehwal is one of the most dedicated athletes he has come across. “Her life is training and sleeping,” he says. A video analyst used to travel with her earlier but Rasquinha says it was proving to be a bit expensive and not worth the output. “Now we do video recordings ourselves and she sits with the coach to analyse her performance as well as her potential opponents,” he adds.

An athlete’s personal coach does travel along and the Indian Olypic Association bears the expense. In most cases, the high-profile coaches become the “team coach” as well — Nehwal’s coach will be working with Jwala Gutta and P Diju as well.

Olympic Gold Quest has made available two “peak performance trainers” to Indian athletes. They, says Rasquinha, aren’t called psychologists because it has “negative connotations in our society”. A coach focuses on on-field training and can sometimes be harsh. These specialists are trained to work on the psyche, often fragile, of sportsmen. Rasquinha talks about how they had to work with Mary Kom. Her usual weight category was 45-48 kg but at London that category won’t be a part of the games. So they had to work on increasing her weight till 51 kg. Kom got a British coach, Charles Atkinson, to work with her on training and diet to make sure that she reached the ideal category.

At Mittal’s Champions Trust, funded by steel baron Laxmi Niwas Mittal, Manisha Malhotra, administrator, recalls how wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt was distraught at missing the Beijing Olympics because of an injury. “He suffered a lot and needed both physical and mental conditioning to come back after the injury,” she says. MCT provided him both and he won the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi two years later and has qualified for the as well.

But it’s a tough job. Malhotra feels that athletes don’t trust anyone easily. “They are skeptical but once they start trusting you, they will be willing to go that extra mile,” she adds. Some athletes need that extra motivation when coming back from injuries. The doubts creep in whether they will be able to retain peak condition again, and this is where mental conditioning comes in handy.

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At their level, athletes do their bit too. In his book, A Shot at History, shooter writes how he started having Yak milk, especially brought from China, to improve his concentration before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Though Bindra says that it didn’t help, the incident shows that athletes will do everything in their capacity to make sure they are at their peak at the Olympics. Bindra also mentions that he added special rubber from Ferrari tyres to his shoes for a better and firm grip while he trained. He put himself through commando training in Germany to steady his nerves. Bindra is working on hypnosis this time around to improve his concentration.

It’s all about taking care of the small things, says boxer Vijender. For instance, he says, it’s just not about eating the right things but also eating them at the right time. Never eat after 8.30 in the evening, he says. Vijender says that he isn’t religious but he finds solace sitting in a Gurdwara when the going gets tough. “It helps me to calm myself.”

Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs Ajay Maken had said in March that about Rs 124 crore had been spent on athletes for the London Olympics, out of a budget of Rs 258 crore allocated for Olympics preparations. It is perhaps for the first time that an administrator wouldn’t be going as chef de mission — former hockey player has been assigned that duty. Singh says that it’s the right move as the chef de mission has to take care of every little need of the athletes. “Hopefully I will be able to guide them better as I have the experience of being a part of the Olympics,” he says.

The weight of expectations will be immense this time as there’s a buzz around the Olympics like never before. The message the athletes are sending out is: we are prepared and are not just going to London to make up the numbers.

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