What’s the Tokyo Olympics story Indian media should be telling?

The games are a cathartic vehicle for the pandemic-scarred humanity to compete, excel and push the boundaries of possibility.

ByAnand Vardhan
What’s the Tokyo Olympics story Indian media should be telling?
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In 2008, when Beijing was hosting the Olympics, the sports editor of a leading newspaper lamented how a special event like the Olympics was being robbed of its sense of occasion. The same degree of media build-up for a number of sporting events throughout the year wasn’t leaving much mind-space to absorb the scale and sanctity of the Olympics. More so because, unlike other major solo sport events, a huge number of disciplines and athletes in the multisport event basked in global attention only once in four years. In the intervening period, the sporting calendar was too demanding to leave public memory uncluttered. In some ways, it was also a comment on the effects of information overload and narrow attention spans on the historical register of our sporting engagements.

Sifting a quadrennial mega event like the Olympics from other sporting fixtures is as much an exercise in scale as it’s in having a historical sense of topnotch human endeavour. For countries such as India, perennially starving for Olympic glory, the despair could easily slip into indifference, but it didn’t.

Even by the 1980s, when India had entered the medal-drought phase after having lost its sole hope in hockey, the lamenting editor rightly recalled devouring the one-hour Doordarshan feed from the Seoul Olympics of 1988. While the awe, halo and the sanctity of the great event remained intact, the absence of the world’s second most populous country from the medal tally was a rankling reminder of a serious gap in the national personality. In almost three and a half decades since the Seoul games, much water has flown down the Sumida, even if a lot remains unaltered.

For starters, Kunal Pradhan has become one of the very few journalists in India to graduate from the sports pages to a top editorial role at a leading Indian daily, the Hindustan Times. That may partly explain why, among the several publications of the English press, the Hindustan Times is going the extra mile in covering the Tokyo games and looking for depth in analysing the event. However, unlike some of the recent Olympics, the Tokyo show already has more reasons to beat any concern about a dwindling sense of occasion in a world of channel-surfing and click-driven sports consumption.

As the world reels under the Covid pandemic, the Olympics offer one of the few shows of solidarity, competitiveness and resilience, bringing together over 11,000 athletes from 206 countries. In the 125 years of the modern Olympic movement, the Tokyo Olympics has perhaps one of the most defined historical contexts for serving as a cathartic vehicle for a converging humanity to compete, excel and push the boundaries of possibilities.

Perhaps, except the second world war, the tryst of the Olympics with a historical purpose wasn’t more obvious. The fact that most of it would take place in empty stadia and arenas brings as much somber tinge to it as it adds urgency of cautious purpose to the biggest sporting stage on the planet. Pradhan would be the first to take note of what new meanings the five rings of the Olympics have acquired in a pandemic-ravaged world, 13 years after he was worrying about the symbol being mixed up with myriad other events.

“The Great Symbol faces its greatest test in Tokyo over the next two weeks. The challenge is tougher than when it was put in abeyance during the second world war,” he wrote recently. “If the world ever required a Great Symbol to turn to, that time is now.”

Besides the pandemic, India has other reasons to view the current edition from a different prism. While a few trickles starting from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and a few more in successive editions ended the medalless drought of 1976, 84, 88, and 92, India still remains far from making its presence felt significantly in terms of the medal tally. Even if that isn’t likely to change drastically this time, the 127-athlete Indian contingent participating in 18 disciplines is the largest the country has sent to any Olympics. More significantly, the contingent has a number of names who raise hopes of making Tokyo India’s best shot yet at bettering its medal haul. India has more than a mere competitive presence in wrestling, boxing, badminton, weight lifting, and archery, while it would continue to fancy its chances in hockey.

In the past, the Indian media’s presence at mega events such as the Olympics has largely been shaped by how far Indian athletes go. Even within these constraints, the correspondents have largely been from public broadcasters providing live feeds, private news broadcasters, or the leading English news dailies and magazines. Barring a few exceptions, the regional media’s presence in the Olympic village has been marginal. The Hindi press, home to some of the most-read newspapers in the world, has more often than not avoided using its resources to report from the Olympic venue. Even when it has, it has hardly gone beyond the Indian leg of participation.

The economy of sports reporting is a bit different from other reporting beats. And when it comes to reporting sports from foreign soil, the reporting budget can be demanding. Unlike a foreign summit or conference, covering sports is spread over weeks, sometimes months. No wonder the reporting budget-conscious newspapers develop cold feet when it comes to stepping out of the country.

The India-fixedness of how the Delhi-headquartered media reports on the sports landscape isn’t different from its limited engagement with a large part of global affairs where it depends on syndicate or agency feed.

“Indian media suffers from limitations: it engages only fitfully with the rest of the world and tends towards analysis on issues international strictly in terms of India’s perspectives and interests,” David Malone, Canadian diplomat and scholar, writes in Does the Elephant Dance?

This, however, isn’t limited to covering world politics, events and issues. The same could be said specifically about how the Indian media goes about covering global sports events. Going by its India-specific Olympic gaze, the large Indian contingent and the hopes of a better medal haul may see more Indian journalists reporting from Tokyo.

The Tokyo Olympics might be tempted to use one of the many everyday metaphors as it has an Olympian feat to achieve in a pandemic-scarred world. While seeking a blend of quest for excellence and national glory, the Tokyo games would probably be the most global of all efforts to showcase inspirational resilience and resilience. All subtexts to the Tokyo story – individual effort, national aspiration, global solidarity – need a historical register of great scale. The media could do well to pick all these strands while telling the story of how humanity met to pick up the threads, to compete and excel at the great games in Tokyo.

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