By Asif Kalam
Tomorrow, the main cauldron at Maracanã Stadium will be lit by the Olympic torch, inaugurating the 31st Summer Olympics. From the 5th to the 21st of this month, Brazil will see over 10,000 athletes from 207 nations compete in the largest multi-sport event on the planet.
India is fielding its largest-ever team this time, arriving with 120 athletes, 37 more than the previous games’ strength of 83. It’s also the largest-ever number of women to head to the Olympics from India: this year it’s 54 (it was a mere 23 in 2012).
Only three women have ever finished at the podium for India, joining the nation’s sparse list of 12 individual medallists. Karnam Malleshwari, two-time world title winner, won the weightlifting bronze at Sydney 2000 to become the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal. A decade and a half earlier, in Los Angeles, 1984, PT Usha came agonisingly close to this dream in the 400m hurdles. She won the semi-final and made everyone sit up and take notice. Footage from the final race shows the athletes taking their positions, the camera cutting to Usha in turn and the commentator introducing her with the excitement of newfound awareness: “PT Yoo-sha, is the lady that some people think could win this race, from India.” She finished fourth, missing the bronze by a hundredth of a second.
Saina Nehwal and MC Mary Kom won the badminton and boxing bronzes at London 2012, in India’s biggest-ever medal tally of six. Five-time world champion Kom’s dreams of another Olympic medal ended prematurely when she crashed out in the qualifiers. Saina Nehwal is competing in her third Olympics and is one of India’s strong medal hopefuls. She comes to Rio on a high note, having regained form and won the Australian Open in June. For more on the Indian women who will be participating in the games this year, head here.
And now on to that highly-anticipated spectacle that kicks off every Olympics: the opening ceremony, with performances honouring the history and the cultural heritage of the host nation, the parade of nations, the appearance of greats from yesteryears, and the most dramatic moment of it all, the lighting of the main cauldron.
Enriqueta Basilio Sotelo was the first woman to light the Olympic cauldron, at Mexico City in 1968. At Sydney 2000, the last leg of the relay, from the Stadium’s entrance to the cauldron, was performed by a group of all-woman torchbearers. The flame was carried into the Stadium by Betty Cuthbert, who was pushed in on a wheelchair by Raelene Boyle. Then, athletes Dawn Fraser, Shirley Strickland, Shane Gould and Debbie Flintoff-King in turn passed the flame on to Cathy Freeman. She touched the flame to light a circle of fire around the pool of water in which she stood. The circle of fire rose slowly around her and the whole cauldron was raised to the top of the stadium. Watch that breathtakingly beautiful moment here.
Shooter Abhinav Bindra, the nation’s only ever individual gold medallist, will lead the Indian contingent and carry the flag in the parade of nations this time. In India’s twenty-three outings at the games, this pride of place has gone to only two women: Shiny Wilson in Barcelona 1992, Anju Bobby George in Athens 2004. In 2008 and 2012, the parade of nations has been held at the closing ceremony as well. Kom carried the Indian flag at the London 2012 closing ceremony.
The last opening ceremony had it’s lighter moments: Queen Elizabeth made a delightful cameo appearance, starting with a filmed prelude that shows James Bond (Daniel Craig), on Her Majesty’s secret service, picking her up in a helicopter. Then it cuts to a live enactment of the Queen (well, a stunt-double Queen) jumping off the helicopter and parachuting into the Olympic Stadium.
Another decidedly less majestic but amusing turn of events occurred when a mystery woman was seen marching with the Indian team, proud and beaming in a screaming red sweatshirt. The woman was later identified as Bangalore-based Madhura Nagendra, an amateur dancer at the Danny Boyle-directed opening who may have misunderstood directions to lead the athletes onto the track. She even enjoyed a short run as the subject of memes, with images of her gatecrashing all possible events from Mary Kom’s winning bout to the Moon landing.
This year’s opening ceremony has had controversy at its heels, what with talk of budget cuts and rumours of Gisele Bundchen being in a staged mugging in director Fernando Merielles’ show (which he denies). With reports of construction behind schedule and complaints about facilities from sports teams, perhaps this year’s Olympics will get off to a rather different start than anticipated.
The ceremony, will be held on Friday, 5th August in Rio — that’s 4.30 am IST on Saturday for fans in India. STAR Sports will telecast it live, beginning at 4 am. Don’t miss it!