LONDON ~ London survived the many question marks before the Games started—the possibility of a transport meltdown, rain havoc, security fears, immigration nightmares at Heathrow—but now that the Games have concluded successfully, attention has turned back to master of ceremonies Lord Sebastian Coe, who as Games Chairman was stewarding affairs. Early hiccups notwithstanding, the seven long years of preparation were clearly worth it, and credit is owed Coe and team. For India, London may not have been the watershed all Indians had hoped for—and some optimistically expected it to be—but there were some near misses and first-evers, success stories of the kind that cannot be measured in medals. Geeta Phogat’s is one such. The first Indian female wrestler to make it to the Olympics, Phogat almost upset reigning world champion Tonya Lynn Verbeek of Canada. She won the second round in the three-round competition and had she not missed the clinch at the end of round one, Phogat could well have gone on to win a medal. Among the men, Yogeshwar Dutt and Sushil Kumar brought India some joy. Yogeshwar won three bouts in 55 minutes to win India’s fifth medal, while Sushil, India’s flagbearer at the Games, brought in the last medal for India, taking the total tally up to six.
In this, the concluding edition of the Open Olympic Conversations, BORIA MAJUMDAR speaks to NICCOLA ADAMS, England’s new boxing queen who beat MC Mary Kom, GEETA PHOGAT, LORD SEBASTIAN COE, YOGESHWAR DUTT and SUSHIL KUMAR.
‘I knew Mary would come hard at me’
Q You are Britain’s new hero. Even after Usain Bolt won the history-making 200 metres sprint, The Guardian printed your photograph on Page 1.
Niccola Adams: I have trained really hard for this day. I knew I was up against the world’s best. I faced Mary Kom in the semi-final and the whole world knows how good she is. I had beaten her by two points at the world championships and trained really hard since then for the Olympics. I beat her by five points this time. Then I took on the reigning world champion, Ren CanCan of China. She had beaten me at the Worlds and I really badly wanted to win the Olympic gold. I am delighted I have done it for my country.
Q You were a class act. Neither Mary nor Ren Cancan looked like they had a chance against you. Did you have specific strategies for each of them?
NA: I knew Mary would come hard at me in the first round. I was prepared. I had trained to counter-punch her and move away. Physically I am in my best shape and I also used my reach to advantage. She is a legend and a very smart boxer. I needed to be at my best to beat her. With Ren, I had a great second and third round and managed to knock her down with one of my punches. Crowd support at the Excel arena was just mind-blowing. With such support, your confidence grows. I was at my best and people were encouraging me to do better. It all worked out in the end.
Q You are 29. You have been boxing since you were 12 and have done well in all competitions. But this must be special.
NA: Absolutely. Winning the Olympic gold in front of my home crowd in London is the greatest moment of my life. I am an Olympic champion and nothing can compare with this feeling.
People in [my hometown] Leeds are very happy for me and I can’t describe the feeling in words. If there was anything I wanted really badly, it was the Olympic gold medal, and I have it now.
Q I’ve never in my life heard such noise in the boxing ring. And the crowd went wild during the medal ceremony.
NA: It was fantastic, you know. 5 pm, 9 August 2012, will always be a special time in my life. Walking out to the ring to receive my Olympic medal, having beaten two of the world’s best boxers in the semi-final and final, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. It was just incredible to see the national flag go up and the anthem playing. But I had put in a lot of hard work to get to this day. Trained for months and years, put in hours and hours of work.
(Royal Mail, the British postal service, has launched a special first-class stamp sheet to honour Niccola Adams. It has done so for all the gold medal winners of Team GB, but one of the most popular sheets features Adams, the British media’s new darling, adoringly dubbed ‘the smily Olympian’)
‘When I trained with male wrestlers, my parents were told no one would marry me’
Q Geeta, you almost beat world No. 2 Tonya Lynn Verbeek. Disappointed when you think of the one little mistake?
Geeta Phogat: Yes, I should have won the fight. When I got the clinch at the end of round one, I was very excited. I did not want to make a mistake and was overcautious. [Verbeek] is a defensive wrestler and I wanted to make sure I won the point and won the round. It did not happen and I was very frustrated. I had blown my chance and it was playing on my mind. I had prepared well and had just thrown it away. I did come back and won the second round but that one mistake cost me in the end. I can never forget those 15 seconds. Had I just done the basics right, I could well have gone on to win a medal.
Q But that doesn’t take away from the fact that you are already an icon in your village. It has been quite a story to make it to the Games.
GP: Yes, it has been hard. When I trained with male wrestlers initially, my parents were told no one would ever marry me. I was playing a male sport and it was very difficult for my family. But winning at the Commonwealth Games and then qualifying for the Olympics changed everything. Everyone is proud of me back home. I just wish I could have gone on to win a medal.
Q Your coach, Om Prakash Yadav, was telling me that you trained really hard for the Olympics. Were you under pressure when you went into the ring?
GP: Not at all, I was not under any pressure whatsoever. I am a very relaxed wrestler and I don’t think about who is on the other side. Whether she is world No. 1 or No. 2 does not make any difference to me. We both have to wrestle, and I know I have done all the hard work to beat anyone on my day. As I said earlier, I should not have missed the clinch at the end of round 1. I had fought a really good round, and had I won it, I would have won the bout.
Q What’s next? Will you start training for the Glasgow CWG soon?
GP: Absolutely. I will go back home, take a few days off and start training. I will use all the experience I have gained here to make myself a better wrestler. I have played the world’s best and have been competitive. I know I can do it against them. With the support of my family, my coach, the [national wrestling] federation and the government, I will soon start preparing for the next major competition. I want to be back at the Olympics and will do better for India if I get another opportunity.
‘I’d been saying all along it will all come together’
Q All speculation has been put to rest and your team has delivered.
Sebastian Coe: Thanks for saying that—you people are the ultimate judges. But it has been truly special. Fantastic performances, fantastic athletes, great venues, the entire country got behind the Games and the entire world enjoyed the action. That’s all you can ask for as an organiser. I am delighted, but the work is not yet over. We will now turn our attention to the Paralympics and only after the Paralympics flame leaves for Rio on 9 September can we take a breather. But no doubt it has been a fantastic spectacle that the entire world has enjoyed.
Q The last week leading up to the Games was tumultuous. Security fears, the weather, transport, everything seemed to be coming apart. But you got it together in time. Even the weather gods smiled on you.
SC: I’d been saying all along it will all come together. We have a very good team and the entire country wanted the Games to be a success. Everything came together at the right time and I am grateful to every volunteer who contributed to making the Games what they eventually turned out to be. The media response was fantastic, the broadcast was special and we were all witness to some special performances by the world’s greatest athletes.
Q A word on India’s performance here. We have won six medals, our best ever.
SC: Indians were assured of home support here with 6 per cent of London’s population being Indian/South Asian. I am delighted they have done well at the Games. I have a lot of friends in India and without doubt, India is a key member of the Olympic movement. I’d heard this was a really strong contingent, and it is great that these Games have turned out to be the best in India’s history.
Q Some great performances from the host nation too, and, of course, legends like Bolt.
SC: Absolutely. I have already said Mo Farah is perhaps the best distance runner in British history. Brad Higgins, Sir Chris Hoy, Niccola Adams, we have so many champions doing the country proud. Twenty-nine golds and an overall third in the medal standings are far more than we had expected. Coming to Bolt, the world has enjoyed him perform, and I am delighted 80,000 spectators inside the Olympic Stadium and billions watching it on TV have seen some of the best races in history. It is ultimately about enjoyment and people have enjoyed the action all the way.
Q Seven years of preparation. It must be incredibly satisfying to see it all come good in the end.
SC: It is, but as I said earlier, the work is only half done. We can enjoy our moment only after the Paralympics are over and the flame has left our shores on 9 September.
‘Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar’
Q Tell me what you felt when you lost to the Russian and were walking back to the change room and how things changed from agony to ecstasy with the repechage.
(The conversation was originally in Hindi)
Yogeshwar Dutt: When I lost the pre-quarters, it seemed my whole world had collapsed around me. As I was walking back, I was saying to myself ‘Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar’. No one will remember how hard I have worked; I had to win for my efforts to be recognised. And then when the Russian made it to the final, I got an opportunity via the repechage. I was determined not to squander this opportunity even if I died in the process. I knew I was up against tough opponents from Iran and North Korea, but I was confident I could beat them all.
Q You won three bouts in 55 minutes, which was sensational.
YD: It was all a daze. I wasn’t feeling anything much and just wanted to be out there and chase that medal. I wanted that medal desperately. At Beijing, I had come really close and then lost my chance. I had been injured thereafter, and the only reason I came back to the sport was to win the Olympic medal that had eluded me in Beijing.
Q Describe the sensation when you actually just turned the North Korean opponent over in the third round of the bronze medal fight.
YD: As I said, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. I realised this time it was my turn. I’d lost one round but came back well in the second. I was exhausted but banking on all the years of hard work to keep on. I had a really good third round and the medal was mine.
Q Tell me about your training. Your mentor, Satpalji, was saying you train from 4 am.
YD: At this level, you have to train hard. I have been playing the sport since I was a teenager and it was always a dream to win an Olympic medal. I gave it everything I had to get myself ready, which included getting up early and training all day. This is all I have done over the past few years.
‘I wanted to change the colour of my medal’
Q Sushil, you are now India’s most decorated individual Olympian ever.
Sushil Kumar: I just wanted to do it for India and I am delighted I have managed. It feels terrific to have won a second Olympic medal, even better to have done one better this time. I really badly wanted to win gold, but on that day the Japanese was better. But I am really happy I have managed to do my country proud.
Q You are regarded as India’s most hardworking athlete. You trained really hard to get where you have. Talk about winning all three bouts to make it to the final.
SK: I had a really difficult first bout. Sahin was the Beijing Olympics gold medalist and was also the 2007 world champion. I knew if I beat him, I could go all the way. I lost the first round and I knew I had to come back really well. It was then or never for me. I managed to beat him in the next two rounds to make it to the quarter-final. The next match against the Uzbek opponent was harder than I’d expected. I could have finished it in two rounds, but a challenge went against me and he won the second round. In the third round, I made sure not to give him a chance. In the semi-final again, I lost one round but fought very well in the third round. I was determined to make the Olympic final and this semi-final is for sure the highlight of my Olympic career.
Q …and to see the tricolour go up thanks to your efforts?
SK: I have always wanted that. As an Indian sportsman, it is my duty, and nothing beats achieving it at the Olympics, the biggest sporting stage of all. I was honoured to be asked to carry the national flag at the opening ceremony, and by winning the silver, I have justified the faith reposed in me.
Q Your medal will have a big impact on wrestling back home.
SK: That is most important. You need to encourage the next generation, for only then will the sport grow. I am happy that my medal will inspire the next generation of Indian wrestlers, and I will do my best to help them get to the top. That will be really satisfying.