LONDON/BRADFORD ~ Starting with this edition of the magazine, Open will be presenting a series of informal conversations with the stars of the Indian contingent, by many accounts the strongest ever that India has fielded at the Olympic Games. For the first in the ‘Open Olympic Conversations’ series, Boria Majumdar catches up with boxer VIJENDER SINGH, tennis stars MAHESH BHUPATHI and SANIA MIRZA and steel magnate LAKSHMI NIWAS MITTAL, whose trust for Indian athletes (MCT) has the distinction of backing 11 members of the visiting Indian team
‘London is just the beginning’
The setting was perfect. The beautiful Serpentine Gallery Pavilion inside Hyde Park in central London on 23 July, one of the best days of this fickle British summer. Lakshmi and Usha Mittal and the trustees of the Mittal Champions Trust (MCT) were playing host to the Indian Olympic contingent to wish them luck. Mittal made it a point to speak to every single athlete present, among them archers Bombayla Devi and Chekrovolu Swuro, boxers Sumit Sangwan and Vikas Krishan and tennis hopefuls Rohan Bopanna and Mahesh Bhupathi, who is also a founding trustee of MCT. Excerpts from a string of mini conversations through the evening
Q What led to the formation of the MCT and can you please outline its vision?
Lakshmi Mittal: My family and I (wife, son, daughter and son-in- law) were in Athens for the Olympics in 2004 and like everyone else were excited about watching the world’s greatest sports extravaganza and seeing the world’s best athletes in action. As Indians, we were looking out for our own athletes who stood out at the Games. However, we were bitterly disappointed as India won just one silver medal. (Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won the lone silver medal for India in double trap shooting in Athens). We had expected much better and were left wondering how we could correct the overwhelming sense of disappointment.
(Mahesh Bhupathi, who was standing by, took over at this point)
Bhupathi: After having participated in three Olympics—Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004—I was keen to change the dismal scenario of Indian sport and was thinking of what could be done. That’s when I went to meet Mr Mittal (in mid 2005) to discuss the possibility of doing something tangible for Indian sport. He was extremely encouraging from the start and asked me to come back with a blueprint. I did so soon after Wimbledon 2005, and all of them, Mr Mittal, Amit (his son-inlaw) and Aditya (son) were greatly excited by it. They immediately decided on endowing a substantial corpus of money and vowed to help India win our first individual gold medal at the Olympics by London 2012. Abhinav [Bindra] had not yet achieved his feat at the time and when he did so at Beijing 2008, our goal had actually been realised four years earlier. Mr Mittal had come to India soon after the Beijing Games and hosted a reception for Abhinav in Delhi and revised his initial target to the current target of winning five medals in London.
Q For the first time India has real medal hopes in six disciplines. Eleven of the 16 MCT athletes who have qualified have a good chance of winning a medal. If we do win 5-6 medals here in London, will you see it as fulfillment of your vision?
LM: It will just be the beginning. The aim is to go higher and higher and there is no doubt that the potential in India is just starting to get harnessed. I appreciate the work done by the team led by Manisha (Malhotra, CEO of the Mittal Champions Trust) and feel we can seriously raise the bar for Indian sport in the years to come.
Q I believe the trust not only funds the athletes but also takes care of their all-round grooming. Every requirement of the athletes is fulfilled by the trust. Could you say more about the scope of the trust’s work?
LM: A large number of Indian athletes come from extremely challenging backgrounds. Our aim at the Trust is to ensure that the athletes can just concentrate on honing their skills as high-performance sportspeople. From providing them with sophisticated high-performance coaching to looking into their diet, technical requirements and all round growth, we at MCT are interested in nurturing not only cutting- edge, high-performance athletes, but also men and women who are ready to take on the challenges of the world. With this aim, we have tried to give our athletes the best state-of-the-art coaching. Manisha, as you know, travels with them to several countries to ensure they have the necessary backing all the time.
Q So, will you be following the progress of MCT athletes at the Olympics and will you watch any of the events?
LM: Of course I will. I also want to attend events where our athletes have a chance of winning medals. This is my way of trying to contribute to Indian sport, and I will do all I can to help and inspire these very talented men and women who are here today. Amit and Aditya will also be attending a number of events.
Q British sport underwent a transformation after the National Lottery Funding was made available to high-performance athletes in 1997. At the Atlanta Games of 1996, Britain had won just one gold. Within a decade, at Beijing, they had managed to raise the tally to 19 golds. This was largely due to the money made available to British athletes via the National Lottery. Do you think growing corporate involvement can bring about a serious transformation of Indian sport?
LM: I absolutely hope so. To develop and nurture a good number of highperformance athletes in a country, you need a proper system. That’s what we have tried to create at MCT. You can have one very talented individual come up the ranks, but in the absence of a system you can’t have a crop of champion athletes. That we are on the right track is evident from the presence of a large number of medal hopefuls from India here in London. I am sure more corporates will follow MCT’s lead if these men and women do well, and Indian sport will surely benefit from such involvement.
‘I like the double-decker buses...’
It was 2.30 am in London when my phone rang. Boxer Vijender Singh was at the other end of the line, and he was calling, as agreed, to give me his address at the Bradford training facility. It was a perfectly reasonable 7 am in Delhi, where he was boarding a flight with the Indian boxing contingent. The next time we spoke, he was on his way to Bradford from Heathrow, where the boxing team camped for a week before moving to the Olympic Village on 20 July. We have been speaking at least once a day since, before or after his training under the watchful eyes of Chief Coach GS Sandhu
Q Does the weather surprise you?
Vijender: It is cold and has been raining continuously since we stepped out of the airport. I had thought this place, Bradford, was only 20 or so kilometres from London, but now I hear it is more than 200 km. We are driving to our camp and it will be a 3-4 hour drive.
Q Bradford is in West Yorkshire. It is far but has very good sports facilities.
Vijender: That’s what we’ve been told as well. We will be in Bradford for a week, and will then move to London on the 20th. Our trip to Ireland in the last two weeks of June helped a lot because we got a taste of the English weather. It was chilly and raining in Dublin all the time. Very similar to what we have here, so it is not something we weren’t expecting.
Q Huge hopes from you this time, unlike in Beijing. No one knew Vijender Singh then. Your medal was totally unexpected. This time things are different. Does that put you under a lot of pressure?
Vijender: Training and preparation have been going well. The facilities are very good. Dekhiye, pressure tab bhi thha, ab bhi hai. Pressure is a very individual thing. It depends on what you expect of yourself. When I go into the ring, I don’t think about what people back home will be thinking or even what the media will be saying. All I am concerned about [then] is to give my best. I have trained hard and done everything I could to get ready for the Olympics. Now it is time to go out there and deliver… on the 28th when the competition starts.
Q Tell me about your training routine
Vijender: We are training really hard. Each and every boxer is in good shape. Done a lot of work to build stamina, worked on technique, we are in the best possible physical shape and have also worked on mental training. I have done a lot of work to discipline the mind, and I can tell you I could have done nothing more. Now it is time to perform.
Q You will have massive crowd support at the Excel arena. Does that help?
Vijender: Of course. It gets you going. Support is always fantastic and to see the Indian flag from the ring is always a great feeling. I know I am not alone, there are millions back home who want me to win and do well and there will be thousands inside the stadium who will want me to do well and wish me well. Every athlete wants to be in this position.
Q How is the Olympic village and how is village life treating you?
Vijender: The village is huge. I like the double-decker buses that are taking us around. They give a feel of Central London. Food is very good and it is a very different kind of environment compared to normal sports competitions. I have been telling the other boxers to enjoy every moment, for these are very special moments in a sportsman’s life. Staying in an Olympic village with the best athletes of the world doesn’t happen to everyone and we need to enjoy our two weeks here.
Q Wish you all the best, Viju. I will be at the Excel arena on the 28th, cheering for you.
Vijender: Thank you so much. Please pray for us.
‘Not something I’d bargained for, but that’s India for you’
Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza, two of our tennis medal hopefuls, arrived from Hamburg and San Diego on 21 and 23 July, respectively. Bhupathi was in Hamburg playing a clay court tournament and Mirza was playing doubles in San Diego besides spending time with husband Shoaib Malik and celebrating his return to the Pakistan T20 team for the September World Cup in Sri Lanka. Excerpts from ongoing conversations since their arrival here
Q Why Hamburg? Why clay in the run-up to the Olympics? Wouldn’t a grass tournament be better preparation for Wimbledon?
Mahesh: I needed to play some matches to be more match-ready for the Olympics. We have practised a lot but there’s nothing like match situations. We did not have a good Wimbledon, so it was important to play a few matches before we came here. Hamburg was the only tournament where some of the best doubles teams were playing. Yes, it was clay, but there was nothing on grass in the week beginning 16 July, so we decided on playing the Hamburg tournament to get into match rhythm.
Q You had to fight a lot to be here. Both on and off the field. You fought the hardest!
Mahesh: No doubt. I desperately wanted to play my fifth Olympics and give it my best shot. I have been representing India at the Olympics since 1996 and had come really close to a medal at Athens. I know what an Olympic medal means to my countrymen and to me personally. I didn’t want to miss out on giving it one last shot. Rohan and I have done our best to be in our best shape and we will give it everything we’ve got.
Q But you could have taken the easy way out and played doubles with Leander and mixed doubles with Sania. That way you would have had a better chance. Don’t you agree?
Mahesh: Let’s not revisit the controversy anymore. From my standpoint, Rohan and I have been playing together since late last year with only one goal in mind—the Olympics. We are the number 7 ranked doubles team in the world. We have made five semi-finals this year. There was no way I could have left Rohan in the lurch and walked away. Sport is all about ethics and that would have been the most unethical thing to do. At the same time, I had never thought it would be an either-or. Sania and I won the French Open, we made the semi-finals of the Australian Open together, and still we are not playing mixed doubles at the Olympics. Not something I had bargained for, but that’s India for you.
Q We are fed up of the tennis controversy. We now need some results from you guys.
Mahesh: Look, all of it could have been avoided. Two doubles teams, the best mixed doubles team and the problem would have been sorted. We don’t take the most reasonable route to issues and end up complicating things.
Q So you will forever feel discriminated against for not being allowed to play mixed with Sania?
Mahesh: Of course, I will. Why did we play all round the year? We did so because we wanted to play the Olympics. We won a Grand Slam, made the semis of another… at Wimbledon, it was like playing with guns to our heads. How can we be judged on the basis of this one performance? And it is not about me or Leander. It is about who is comfortable playing with whom and whose playing style matches the partner’s. Sania and Leander are very similar players and one of them will have to play from a side where they are not at their most comfortable. That’s the point. When you have a player who has done well with Sania, why don’t you pair the two and give a medal your best shot? Anyway, let’s leave it for the moment, I don’t want to get started again.
Q Tell me about doubles. You will have many teams with one top singles player in it. Does that make it harder? For example, you lost to Federer and Wawrinka in Beijing.
Mahesh: It’s a three-set competition, and if Rohan’s serve starts working, we can beat any team on our day. We have good camaraderie on court and are very confident of playing our A game here. You can’t predict results, but I can tell you we will be no pushovers, whoever the opponent.
Q I’ll be there. Hope you have a good draw.
Mahesh: Yes, that’s very important. It will help us ease into the competition if we get a good draw.
Sania Mirza’s preparation for the mixed doubles, where she will be pairing with Leander Paes, has been far from ideal. The two hadn’t spoken to each other since CWG 2010, not until 23 July 2012 when Sania got here. And they are going into the Olympics with just seven days of practice
Q Not ideal preparation by any means...
Sania: That’s true, but this is the best possible scenario, and I hope Leander plays the way he always has for India. He is a proven performer and I hope he will play to potential at the Olympics.
Q How determined are you in the middle of all this controversy?
Sania: I couldn’t be more determined. And I feel we have a real good chance if we play to potential. It is the world’s greatest sporting stage, and like every other athlete, I want to do well here and win a medal for India. I have won medals in all other multi-discipline events except the Olympics and this is perhaps my last chance.
Q You have a few days before the mixed doubles. Will you practise? And why aren’t you staying at the Village?
Sania: Of course, we will practise. Leander had a good Wimbledon and I won the French Open. Individually we have had good seasons. Now we need to do it together. I am staying close to Wimbledon to avoid the commute from the Olympic village in Stratford. The frenzy of the Olympic village can be distracting. It is a splendid experience, no doubt. Just that it might break one’s concentration and I want to be in the best possible mental space going into the competition. I will go to the Village for sure, if we win a few matches, to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the experience.
Q All the best. Just give it everything you have.
Sania: I will. That’s a promise.