He forced himself to jump off a plane: hoping to train his mind to work under extreme conditions, attempting somehow to simulate the pressures of the shooting range and the way his instincts would react under duress.

If he had actually gone on to win in London, we would all have been going gaga about the special craziness of Abhinav Bindra, his single-minded pursuit of perfection and the precise attention to every detail.

Just as we did about his commando- type rock-climbing and his zen-like approach in the lead-up to Beijing that won a gold.

Except, this time he didn’t win. Does that make him less of a champion, less of an Indian hero? Does defeat, especially an honourable one, give us the right to scorn the sheer effort a sportsman or a woman put themselves through?

The difference between victory and defeat is sometimes thin enough to invoke Kipling’s immortal line about both being impostors and half-way through the Olympics as cries of despair about the state of Indian sport well up again, a reasoned stock taking is in order.

First, there is enough evidence now to prove that India is now entering a new stage in its sports development. Three medals in Beijing were a surprise. The fact that people are already disappointed that we have only won three until this point in London is proof enough of our progress.

Almost all credible analysts of Indian sport before the Games predicted that we have medal chances in 5-6 disciplines. To expect anything more was always going to be foolhardy.

Halfway through the Games, we are now a little more than half-way to achieving that realistic expectation and are still standing in enough disciplines to be on track. Of course, there is no question that certain athletes (women’s archers, Ronjan Sodhi) have underperformed, overawed perhaps by the grand occasion.

But it is equally true that some of the lesser lights of Indian sport have overachieved: P Kashyap’s unexpected quarter-final finish in badminton, the unheralded Joydeep Kamarkar’s fourth place finish in the 50 meter rifle prone, Armyman Swaran Singh Virk’s gritty repackage-driven fighting in rowing and the best ever walking time by an Indian by Irfan Thodi who finished a credible tenth.

And best of all, the silver that now graces the neck of the quiet spoken Army sharpshooter Vijay Kumar. Saina Nehwal’s raw grit and fitness, Gagan Narang’s composure and Vijay Kumar’s calmness have saved India the blushes with face-saving medals.

India needed these to break through the glass ceiling, to prove that Beijing was no flash-in-the pan but London is also proof of incremental improvements across disciplines and a general uplift in the quality of bench strengths.

Second, this improvement accrues in large measure from the fact that for the first time an Indian contingent has gone to an Olympic Games with no dearth of money for training and with access to the best training facilities.

Historically, this is the first time that money has been spent systematically on a large scale on elite Indian athletes in the run up to an Olympics Games.

So poor has the governmental focus been on sport in independent India that this was first done only for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and then for the 2010 Asian Games, both of which yielded good results.

This time Rs 258 crore was spent in the last two years on elite athletes, most of which was for training and foreign exposure, which has always been our bane.

Without a serious programme to unearth new grassroots talent you won’t create a pipeline of new earthy champions but by spending on elite athletes you can at least reduce the gap and give them their best chance.

Third, government money has been supplemented with private sector initiatives. In 2008, only 6-7 of the 57 athletes who made it to Beijing had private sector support. In 2012, 10 of the 81 are being supported by the Mittal Champions Trust, 16 by the Olympics Gold Quest (OGQ) and most of the others by other sponsors.

This has brought a new talent pool into Indian sport and London was a serious litmus test of the new experiment. All three medal winners so far have been supported by OGQ and it shows that the new privatepublic model that is emerging is working.

We are never going to create a Chinese-style sporting factory based on authoritarian models of sporting excellence and the medal winners will be a huge fillip for our new experiments with sporting organization based on more government money, support from existing centres of excellence in the Army and from the private sector.

Nothing succeeds like success though, as Vijendra’s Beijing bronze and what it did for Indian boxing showed. The challenge now is to build from the lessons of London and capitalise on them to make this a real turning point.

It will be a long, slow grind but two things are certain: we should no longer be surprised at winning medals and we should be patient in rewarding effort, not just victory.

(Nalin Mehta is co-author of Olympics:The India Story)

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