As an Indian watching the Olympics, there is not much to look forward to. The best in our one billion-strong nation don’t make it past the qualification criteria for most sports. And, when they do, they are usually found at the bottom of the standings - forming a solid base from which, every Olympics, we moan the dearth of infrastructure and the deluge of corruption in India.
The list of medals won per capita at the Summer Olympics has India finishing last in Total Medals per Capita, Gold Medals per Capita and second-to-last (woot! woot!) in Weighted Medals per Capita, finishing ahead of that great Olympic nation - Iraq, who were nice enough to only win one bronze medal ever.
Of course, a well-read mind will point out that Iraq has been mired in wars since the ’80s whereas most of India has not faced similar troubles. To that, an Indian may say, “Well, they have never lost to us at football, so surely the wars are no excuse!” - a statement that is likely to leave him feeling both proud and abject at the same time, an emotion the Indian has perfected over years of experiencing our athletes finish just outside the medal spots. So, with this in mind, we travel back in time to 2004 to a house called Kottackal in Sasthamangalam, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala (the Indian state of names unpronounceable).
Kottackal was home to my maternal grandparents, whom I was visiting for the summer holidays. As the 2004 Olympics were in full swing, my family and I spent most of the month-long break from life in Dubai glued to the TV. As viewers, we were prepared - which meant everyone had two things picked out. Firstly, a political party to criticize for this mess that our contingent was in and secondly, an Indian sportsman to praise for making it this far despite said political party’s best efforts.
This particular day, the lucky Indian sportsman chosen was a man called Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. The event was some sort of a shooting event. Double trap. We had never heard of it, but, for this one day, for these few hours, like all good Indians, we had reincarnated ourselves as avid followers of the sport. Shortly after making quick work of the rules (you shoot a target), we figured out that the “2” next to the Indian shooter’s name stood (surprisingly) for his rank and not his score. We knew he would win nothing, but, we felt hope surging in our hearts - a feeling that many Indians know better than they know themselves: being simultaneously hopeful and pessimistic. This is due, in no small part, to our national cricket team that - for the entirety of the 90s - gave us front seats in an emotional rollercoaster that involved a tremendous amount of emotion rolling and absolutely no coasting.
Slowly, the seconds ticked and the minutes tocked, and it looked like hope might just blossom into reality. That’s not something we were used to - was India really going to win a medal!? Turns out, we were! How truly blissful! Finally, the many years we spent singing praises impartially to any Gods that were willing to listen had paid off. It seemed like nothing could bring us down to earth and that’s when I noticed it…
An Emirati. The winner of the event, was an Emirati! The tiny country of UAE, with fewer than a million people. The country we had left to come to India (and would soon be returning to) had won its first-ever medal at the Summer Olympics. And of course, it had to be in this event, and of course, it had to be a gold. So, we all sat there, watching the medal ceremony, looking at the silver medal around Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s neck as the familiar UAE national anthem played. Once again, we were not sure if pride was the right emotion to feel and if it was, how much of it would be appropriate.
Fast forward to 2010 and the Commonwealth Games are in full swing. No one usually cares about the Commonwealth Games, but this time, it is a little different. India is hosting. I took it upon myself to lend my support in whatever way I could to our contingent. Unfortunately, I was in Pilani. A town so remote that you had to drive 200km to get to the nearest McDonald’s (my preferred way to measure the remoteness of towns). Living in Pilani meant that all I could do was follow the games online.
Given the fact that India had claimed another individual medal in shooting (a gold!) at the 2008 Olympics, it seemed only reasonable to try and make sense of how our shooters were doing. An article I found online said that our hero from the previous anecdote - Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore - had, unfortunately, not qualified. Oh, well! He had done his part when he won us that silver medal, I thought to myself and went on with my day.
The next day, I notice a Twitter account making comments on various Indian shooters and the federation. The profile photo seemed familiar - wait a second, someone was posing as Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore! This incompetent fraudster didn’t seem to be trying very hard to seem authentic - for one, his Twitter handle was @Ra_thore, a name only a spammer could come up with, and two, his account was (obviously) missing the blue checkmark of verification. This charlatan had convincingly fooled a few others into thinking he was the silver medalist and was freely voicing his opinion on India’s shooting contingent. How truly disgusting!
The dedicated one hour of fandom I expressed as I watched the Olympics back in 2004 meant that I had no choice but to take this personally - someone besmirching Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s name was as good as any personal affront. I couldn’t stand by and watch the names of one of our great sportsmen (and an army man to boot) get dragged through the ditches of Twitter. I tweeted at the account, calling the fraudster out:
@ra_thore You're a fake! You missed out on qualification, the federation had nothing to do with it.— Afref Fetter (@IngridMorstrad) August 2, 2012
A few minutes later, to my surprise, I got a reply! Aha! Now, there was no doubt in my mind - not only was this guy a cheat, he was a poor one. No elite sportsmen has time to tweet and reply to nobodies like me.
@ra_thore Just verify your account if it truly is Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore...— Afref Fetter (@IngridMorstrad) August 2, 2012
As this dragged on, I began to wonder… My convictions gave way to doubts and I felt there may have been a slight chance that I was very, very, wrong. So, backing off a bit, I asked him to get his account verified - if it really was him, that is (note: I refused to address him in the second person “you”).
@ra_thore Cool man, had no intention to disrespect Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore...— Afref Fetter (@IngridMorstrad) August 2, 2012
When I opened Twitter a few days later, I saw his account had changed slightly. It now had a small blue check mark next to his name. His account was now verified. Great! Incredible. I had done it - I had helped an Olympic silver medalist. Not in a truly notable way, but also in a way that would be noted by his 100, 000+ followers. Not only had I helped him, but, in the process of doing so, I had called him a complete fake. Though, to be fair, as an Olympic medalist, I’m sure he has had to face bigger challenges.
And, to this day, when I look at Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s Twitter page, I feel like I am truly Indian. Not because he won us an Olympic medal. Not even because he was in the army. But, because when I see that little blue check mark, I feel - yet again - that weird, uniquely Indian emotion: abject pride.