Indian sports pedals towards Olympic disciples that offer a bulk of medals

Next week, a seven-member Indian cycling team will travel to Antalya, Turkey, for a 53-day, first-ever, training-cum-competition stint.

A tour of this nature, routine for most sports, would usually go unnoticed but this outing for the country’s mountain bikers marks a significant policy change for Indian sports that is now targeting disciplines that offer a bulk of medals.

“It is a sort of an investment,” Pushpendra Garg, the CEO of the government’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) told The Indian Express, adding that approximately Rs 40 lakh will be spent for the 53-day tour. “If they perform to a certain level, then we can go the whole hog.”

Cycling is one of the six sports which account for almost fifty percent of the medals at the Olympics, according to data crunching by Impact Analysis. In Tokyo last year, cycling had the third-highest number of gold medals on offer (22) after athletics and swimming. The high number of medals on offer means some countries have focused disproportionately on the sport to fuel their rise in the medals table, most notably by Britain which rode on the cycling wave for their rich medal hauls in the last three Olympics.

No Indian cyclist, however, has even come close to qualifying for the Games, let alone challenge for a medal. The last time an Indian cyclist competed at the Olympics was in 1964, and the only time the country finished on a podium in the sport at a multi-discipline event was at the 1951 Asian Games.

The government, which funds a major portion of India’s Olympic preparation, has finally begun to focus on one of the marquee sports at the Games. “Cycling is one of our priority disciplines,” Garg said. “For last five years, since the starting of the cycling academy at the Indira Gandhi velodrome, we have been focusing on cycling a lot. In three years of good training, we were able to produce world junior number 1.”

Garg is referring to Esow Alben, the prodigious talent from Andaman who topped the junior rankings chart in 2019 and also led the Indian team to a team gold medal at the junior track World Championship in the same year. Esow and his teammates, Laitonjam Ronaldo Singh and Rojit Singh Yanglem, have transitioned smoothly to the senior level, with the Indian team ranked world number 20 while Ronaldo and Esow ranked inside the top-100 despite having last competed six months ago.

The junior team’s exploits became a catalyst for the growth, with centres of excellence and academies now being set up in different regions. Garg and cycling federation chief Onkar Singh are confident that the track cycling team will make the cut for the 2024 Paris Olympics, the qualification for which will begin in September this year.

The track cyclists will hit the ground running from mid-February, set up a base in either Belgium or Slovenia and compete in tournaments in March and April. “In 2024, we don’t want them to just participate. Our KRA for them is finals qualification in the team event and in individual, at least the second or third round,” Garg said.

While those may seem ambitious, lofty targets, the expectations from the mountain bikers are modest as they take the first step into a dizzying world of where every millisecond matters. Mountain biking has been at the Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Games. But an Indian team did not exist until six years ago.

It was only in 2016, that the country started competing continentally in the cycling event, when two cyclists took part in the Asian Championships. Even then, there were no coaches, no technicians and barely any certified competitions where they could take part – the first mountain biking race that got featured in the International Cycling Union (UCI) calendar took place only in 2019, the year when the team also had its first-ever national camp.

“Even the equipment we used was very basic; sometimes, not even that. Like when I started, many of us did not even use cleats, which is a basic requirement in the sport,” says Pranita Soman, one of the seven Turkey-bound cyclists. “The scenario is changing very rapidly now.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by the national champion, Shiven, who managed funds on his own to compete in private tournaments abroad and hire a sports scientist from Germany, in absence of any support in the past. “I knew if I continued doing my bit, work hard, perform well, things would change,” he said. “And they have.”

After years of neglect, it might be too soon to expect results at this year’s two biggest events – the Commonwealth and Asian Games. They aren’t even on the radar of the cyclists, who are looking at the long-term picture, with a focus on the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

“This year, we will just come to know the timings and other data,” Garg acknowledged. “This is a long-term investment.”

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