No Medal

India’s Olympic Mess: Why You Won’t See the Nation’s Flag in Sochi

There will be no India in Sochi. A luger, cross country skier, and alpine skier will compete under a stock Olympic flag after the nation was suspended from the Sochi games.

Cameron Spencer/Getty

The traffic. It’s hard to miss and, as a visitor to India, not let it skew your perception of the place, where—cliché or not—it seems both pervasive and symbolic of the society as a whole, including at the Olympics.

In New Delhi, the capital city of the second-most populated nation in the world (behind only China), motorists appear to ignore all directive in an attempt to reach their own destinations. Regularly drivers straddle white stripes that distinguish the road’s lanes, or ride the shoulder, where many pedestrians walk. It’s not uncommon to see a moped cruise the pavement, and at roundabouts vehicles of all sizes and shapes, from the ubiquitous three-wheeled motorized rickshaws to bikes, buses, motorcycles and Mercedes, cumbersomely converge upon these commuter loops. The horns beep, howl, and bray from every direction not as a sound of caution, but as a method for announcing an individual’s arrival, each forcing themselves toward separate agendas. As the noticeable haze of pollution settles in over the city each night, most simply go about their daily business.

No question, this system—a chaotic mess—works. There is certainly no lack of people getting from one point to another, but with each person figuratively going every which way. And it begins at the top with those who run the country. Despite also being the world’s second-fastest growing economy (again, behind only China), many domestic critics point out that the country can never seem to get out of its own way, routinely referring to India as “the flailing state.” Some of the government’s own estimates have indicated approximately 450 million people—approaching a third of its entire population, larger than the whole of the United States—live on less than $1.25 a day. Between 50 and 100 million have risen above this widely accepted poverty line in the last 20 years, but India’s economic and social problems remain vast due at least in part to the government’s ineffectiveness.

Photos: Opening Ceremonies at Sochi

Taking that as its lead, the country’s results on most playing surfaces are typically one in the same, only magnified at the international level.

“There are more politics in sports than in politics,” Indian sports historian K. Arumugam, told me when I visited the country in March 2012. “Politicians here have even said that. [The government] has a long way to go, but they’re going in the right direction. But the federations, they don’t have any motives to go in the right direction because they are not run by competent people. They certainly don’t change their mindset.”

India’s history at the Olympic Games tells a similar story. Even with the country’s colossal population, increasing economic position in the world, and lengthy tradition on the preeminent international sporting stage, it has secured just 26 medals all time. On a positive note, that does include records set in London in 2012 for the number of athletes sent and medals won, six across four sports. That included a silver and bronze in men’s shooting, a silver and bronze in men’s wrestling, and then two bronze medals for the ladies, in boxing and badminton.

Meanwhile, field hockey, which has always been the team for which India hangs it hat as the country’s official national sport for all the popularity of cricket (a non-Olympic sport), had accounted for more than half (11 of 20) of the nation’s medals before the 2012 Games. In London, however, the men’s team underperformed and finished last among the 12 counties.

Compare that to, say, Brazil, though, a country that has been attending the Olympics for nearly the exact same period of time as India, and is generally paired with India in many other instances because of similar economic development in recent years. The numbers just don’t add up. Brazil also collected its greatest number of medals in London, but with 17, almost three times as many as India. Brazil’s grand total through the years of 108 also far surpasses India.

The Winter Olympics have been no different for India. In eight previous attempts with at least one athlete participating dating back to 1964, the country has never once podiumed. Interestingly, in six prior appearances, Brazil has also never medaled at the cold weather Games. But 50 years after India’s first appearance at the Winter Olympics, endless complications, accentuated by the most political of conflicts, have overtaken even the chance of the nation’s hopefuls from attaining higher aspirations. It’s an alphabet of discord.

In December 2012, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended the Indian Olympic Association’s (IOA) membership after the IOA elected an official who was named in millions of dollars of corruption with criminal charges still pending. To regain acceptable status, the IOC required the IOA redraft its constitution and hold new elections before the start of next Games, in this case the Sochi Opening Ceremonies on Feb. 7. So, of course, ever-disobedient, the IOA opted to hold the elections two days after on Feb. 9.

In turn, India’s three representatives in Sochi, luger Shiva Keshavan, who makes his fifth Olympic appearance, cross country skier Nadeem Iqbal and alpine skier Himanshu Thakur, are still allowed to attend, but only under a stock flag with the Olympic rings. And though unlikely, if one of the three were to become the first-ever Indian to medal at the Winter Games, they would also not be privy to the national anthem. Officially speaking, they are not competing as India.

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“It is such a loss,” Keshavan’s wife, Namita Agarwal, told The Daily Beast by email after the couple arrived in Russia. “His suit will not have anything ‘India’ written on it, as it did the previous four Olympic Games, nor is he allowed to have anything symbolic, including the Tiranga,” meaning India’s tricolored, orange, white and green flag.

“India is our home, the flag means everything,” Iqbal, who is also a member of the Indian army, added to The Guardian.

Instead, Keshavan, who debuted at the Olympics in 1998 in Nagano at just 16 years old, will wear a suit that includes the names of several thousand fans and supporters who took part in a corporate partner’s online video campaign, none of it specifically donation or sponsor-based.

With the IOA’s hands currently tied, India’s sports ministry, the athletics arm of the government, has stepped up with roughly $7,000 to help each of the athletes offset the cost of travel, equipment and uniforms. More funding will be necessary for the athletes just to break even, but at least it initially helped get the trio to the Games.

“It’s quite sad,” Keshavan told The Washington Post. “Rather than showcasing our country, it will be a shameful moment in the history of our country’s sport. There’s nothing more we can do right now, it seems. You can only do your best. At the end of the day, all you can say is, I put down my run, and I’ve been training for years for this moment.”

The road to the Olympics is already long and arduous enough. For most athletes across the globe, just qualifying is quite a feat, a dream realized. But in India, with its persistent legislative posturing, insufficient funding and internal strife, the difficulty is only compounded. As the substantial collection of nations are announced and paraded in during the Opening Ceremonies in Sochi one by one, the end result for a country so ripe with potential will be an unmarked space, its athletes unable to even be properly recognized.