Sharda Ugra: Cheer on our athletes, but flag-waving can wait till Tokyo

Laser mapping displays a message outside the observation deck of the Tokyo Skytree. Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP

Hello peeps, tweeps, presidents of nations and conglomerates, prime and other ministers, elected and non-elected netas, sportspeeps, businesspeeps, spokespeeps, movie stars, celebrities and tens of thousands of the other good, honest, tax-paying/evading janta. Those thousands who sent out emotional, supportive and teary messages to our athletic wunderkind Hima Das for winning her fifth gold medal in 19 days.

Are all of you seeing her on a Tokyo 2020 podium already, a soft focus tricolor fluttering behind her noble profile? Or are you fearing that she may miss her and India's medal by a whisker, becoming another one of our so-near-yet-so-far Olympian heartbreaks for the ages? Are you annoyed by the mood-dampening assessment of anti-nationals who are citing "timings" and "quality of field" and throwing around words like "Balance and Perspective" (B&P) instead of highlighting "Pride and Joy" (P&J)?

Not to hurt any proud-feels here, but #justsaying. Yes, Hima rightly and deservedly is one of India's P&Js, a track gold medallist in the World Junior Championships, an athlete of sass and one hell of an afterburner.

Yet, with exactly a year to go for the 2020 Olympics opening ceremony (8pm Tokyo time), it is B&P at hand that will be more useful instead of outpourings of P&J. Most certainly for athletes like Hima who are trying to make the Indian contingent.

It is extremely unlikely Hima herself does not know the difference between the five gold medals she won in Europe these few weeks, and what she really needs to do to qualify for the Doha World Athletics Championships in August. To use a cricket analogy, every player knows the distinction between centuries and five-fors in internationals, and those in inter-districts.

Ideally, Hima is better off living, breathing and competing outside the delusional rings being run around the Indian public by her social media managers who are aware that the mass of India's sports lovers suffer from chronic metal obsession. Where the word "gold" makes them loopy.

Over the next 365 days, the best that Indian athletes aiming to get to Tokyo can do is hunker down and keep themselves far away from ambient noise. They must navigate the best road map set down by their coaches, not their portfolio or image managers. It is what the athletes achieve after a year that has the best chance of keeping their financial planners busy, rather than what they do in 2019.

Already, 13 Indians have already qualified for the Doha Worlds: 400m runner Mohammed Anas, 400m hurdler Dharun Ayyaswamy, marathoner Gopi Thokanal, 3000m steeplechaser Avinash Sable, long jumper M Sreeshankar, shot-putter Tejinder Toor, 1500m runner PU Chithra, javelin throwers Shivpal Singh, Anjali Devi and Annu Rani, and walkers KT Irfan, Ganapathy Krishnan and Devinder Singh.

There are no potential Olympic medallists among them and they know it. All they want to be able to do is do better than they ever have.

In real terms, Hima could be using these weekend races in Europe to suss out her post-injury rehab and still hope to make the qualifying grade for the 400m in Doha. Its 51.80s qualifier standard is slower than her personal pre-injury best 51.79s from the Jakarta Asian Games. Hima is 19 and can go faster but how much faster depends on how far she is willing to run away from the noise of her own publicity.

With a year to go, in some Olympic disciplines, like athletics, progress like Hima's is measurable. On the IAAF website, under the heading of 'records and lists' there is a ranking list of the season's best in every event across the globe, and by nation.

India's best javelin thrower this year is not Neeraj Chopra, who is recovering from surgery and readying for Tokyo, but Shivpal Singh with the year's eighth-best throw at 86.23m. Had Neeraj been around and produced his best throw this year - 88.06m - that would qualify as 2019's fourth-best so far.

Of all the Indians, Neeraj in prime fitness could be a dead cert for a spot in an Olympic final and push for a medal. India have done far better in field events at their last few Olympics, with Anju Bobby George (2004), Krishna Poonia and Vikas Gowda (2012) making the finals. For the rest, including Hima, personal bests and national records will be mighty achievements in themselves.

With an eye on Tokyo, another Indian who can call herself world class is weightlifter Mirabai Chanu. Her sport, too, is quantifiable and she will be trying to get herself into the best shape of her life to grab respectability and new opportunities for Indian weightlifting again.

She has moved up weight categories from 48kgs to 49kgs, and the World Championship gold medal weight at that event is 209kgs as opposed to Mirabai's best of 199kgs. It is that number she needs to get close to at September's World Championships in Pattaya, Thailand for her to have a better idea of how Tokyo could go. Like it is with track athletes and the clock, or field athletes and their measurements of jumps and throws, there are no ifs and buts in Mirabai's sport. Success is objectively measured through kilograms lifted.

For others trying to qualify for Tokyo, like shooters, wrestlers, boxers, badminton and hockey players, there is no quantifiable measure of how close they are to their best. Assessments are made on the basis of their performances against the highest level of competition. In terms of where they finish on the podium, how many medal rounds they make or their team's final place on the points table. Success and progress or stagnation and regression can only be disguised or spun until the Games actually begin. There, the finish will always define you.

"Over the next 365 days, the best that Indians aiming to get to Tokyo can do is hunker down and keep themselves far away from ambient noise. They must navigate the best road map set down by their coaches, not their portfolio or image managers"

Elsewhere, there are many others who are trying to inch their way ahead with far less notice. In the week of Hima's fifth gold, fencer Bhavani Devi entered the round of 16 at the World Fencing Championships. She is the first Indian, male or female, to go that far. Her target is to become the first Indian fencer to qualify for the Olympics. During this giant leap for her sport and herself, the magic word - gold - was of course not to be found anywhere. It does not mean her achievement is worth any less. In sport at every level, not all that is gold can really glitter. In her place in her sport, though, Bhavani Devi always will. Like Dipa Karmakar did in Glasgow 2014 and Rio 2016.

A final survey of Tokyo hopefuls offers us a more measured idea of where Indian sport stands in the midst of the flag-waving. The 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships - swimming, diving and water polo - is currently on in Gwangju, Korea with 11 Indians competing. As of now, in three days of heats and finals, no national records have been broken. The Indians finished middle of the pack in the heats, some close to milliseconds from their national marks, others a good distance away.

The aim of the best among them: to get to Tokyo with the Olympics Qualifying Time (A-time) which is a direct entry into the event rather than via the B-time (Olympic Selection Time, relatively easier to match) which forms FINA's drive to have a diverse range of nationalities in the 878 swimmers taking part.

In the history of the Olympics, only seven Indians have made the B-time qualification: Nisha Millet (2000), Shikha Tandon (2004), Virdhawal Khade, Sandeep Sejwal, Rehan Poncha, Ankur Poseria (2008) and Sajan Prakash (2016). With the countdown to Tokyo begun, and sports nationalism already in the air, what would be utterly fabulous is if an Indian swimmer makes the A-time cut and finds their Twitter feed ringing with proud-feels from across the land.