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India's Olympic problem

Oindrila Mukherjee

Updated: August 10, 2012, 3:07 PM IST
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Michael Phelps - 22, India - 24

I frequently complain about the broadcasting of sports in the US, about the focus on American football, basketball & baseball and events that are played between different cities or colleges. I make fun of how America christens its important events the World Series even though only one country in the world participates in it. I get quite frustrated about having to pay extra for Tennis Channel and not having access to soccer and other global sports. Many Indians routinely make fun of America for its apparently self-absorbed sporting culture. Recently, when the US TV network NBC decided to telecast the opening ceremony of the Olympics not live but delayed which meant all of America watched the event hours after the rest of the world, it seemed like another instance of simply not tuning in - quite literally - to the rest of the world.

Four years ago, when I watched the Beijing Games on my TV in Houston, I was disappointed at being unable to watch most of the events where Indians competed or won medals. No shooting or wrestling where India acquired a bronze medal each, no badminton or archery or table tennis or any of the sports where Asians traditionally shine. The first ones to pounce on this "weakness" in American media are Indians who never fail to remind me of how dumb, ignorant, and self absorbed Americans can be.

But then the Olympics begin and the nation that doesn't really care about international sport wins medals in so many international events that all jokes about America start to fall flat. All the jokes are on us.

With a population of 1.22 billion, India has won a total of 24 medals in the 23 Summer Games they've taken part in (9 Gold, 5 Silver, 10 Bronze). These have come in 8 sports: field hockey, shooting, athletics, wrestling, weightlifting, boxing, tennis and badminton. An article published last week in The Atlantic reminds us: "At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, India had the lowest ratio of medals-won to population of any competing country: one medal per 383 million Indians. And that year was their best Olympic performance ever. If you rank countries by the total number of Olympic medals they've ever won, India places 55th in the world, tied with Morocco and Thailand though India has participated in twice as many Olympic Games as either country."

These are some stats that Indians are well aware of. Sport, outside cricket, is not a field where India's newly found bravado is easy to sustain. Compare this to our northeastern neighbour and the only nation with more people than us. They've already won 80 medals (37 Gold) at these Games at this point of time that I'm writing this, with three days to go.

I've been wondering why we criticise other countries for showing only their athletes on TV. The truth is that the TV networks in India also show all the Indian athletes' events. But because there are so few of them who qualify for the later rounds, ESPN, Star Sports, and DD Sports run out of South Asian athletes very quickly. The rest of the time is devoted to watching other things. Whereas in the case of America, they never run out of athletes to root for and so we watch endless contests where there's an American medal contender. What people like me have essentially been complaining about, then, is the sheer number of excellent athletes America sends to the Olympics. How inconvenient!

India's drought of medals has unfortunate consequences. We tend to overreact to the slightest sign that one of our athletes is not finishing last in a contest! When tennis players Leander Paes and Vishnu Vardhan lost their second round match, they were interviewed on Doordarshan. The analysts in the studio used superlatives like brilliant and wonderful to describe their losing performance. While it's true that the modestly-ranked Vardhan played better than what most had expected, the fact is that this pair lost in the second round. How quick the media was to forget the drama surrounding the tennis pairs just a few weeks ago, a drama that effectively put nails in our tennis coffin.

When Saina Nehwal managed to wrest the bronze in badminton from an injured opponent who was leading by a game when she fell, her father made one of the most shocking remarks I've ever heard from someone belonging to a professional athletes' camp. He said, "Upar wale ki meherbani se woh gir gayee! (Due to God's grace, her opponent fell down)." Mr Nehwal clearly needs some help in the PR department. But this is a country where we are so starved for sporting glory that we take what we can and are grateful for it.

Instead of being quick to gush about mediocre performances and being even quicker to attack individual athletes when they fail to rise to out blown up expectations, it's time Indians took stock of their sporting failures. When the world's number one archer fails to make it to the quarterfinals and smiles happily throughout the contest, there's no use in condemning her. Because our concern isn't with a Deepika Kumar. It's with the entire sports system in this country. The question is not small and specific such as why did x or y fail today? The questions are much larger with consequences for the long term - such as what is wrong with our sporting machinery and how can this be remedied?

The aforementioned essay in The Atlantic tries to examine just why India fares so miserably at the Olympics when poorer countries in Africa have managed to carve long distance running niches for themselves, when much smaller nations like Kazhakstan and Jamaica have made some events their very own. You can read the entire article here.

It points out an interesting fact. Since the surface of field hockey contests in the Olympics was changed from natural to synthetic turf, India has only managed to win a single medal in the sport it once dominated. For people of my generation who're always hearing of India's great hockey tradition, it's beginning to sound a bit like a myth. There's obviously a cash crunch which prevents us from building synthetic fields where our hockey players can practice. The priorities in a developing country as big as ours is on providing basic necessities to our citizens rather than developing sporting infrastructure.

But it's not simply about cash or the poorer nations wouldn't win more medals than we do. All arguments about lack of finances begin to unravel when we consider that Indian obsession - cricket. How much corporate sponsorship is poured into that sport? How much do our cricketers get paid in prize money and endorsements? One of the most baffling things is this discrepancy between our cricketing success and the mediocrity (to be kind) in all other team sports.

While mothers of little boys can be sighted escorting their sons to cricket practice and investing much time, energy and money in their training in wild hopes that they will grow up to be the next cricketing star, such enthusiasm is rarely seen in other sports.

Traditionally Indians have prioritised formal education over other occupations, particularly sport. The other day, on ESPN, Vijay Amritraj tried to explain why our tennis players are not as successful as others by saying: "Indians mature late physically and early mentally while people in the West mature early physically and late mentally." I thought at first that he was messing around with his British fellow analyst but he repeated himself and sounded quite serious. Not sure if there's any scientific evidence for this kind of racial distinction. If there was, it might pave the way for a new wave of colonialism. I thought it rather unfortunate that Amritraj, a man of high intelligence, would choose to make an excuse like this for our dismal sporting record.

But genes apart, it's undeniable that Indian parents typically emphasise the importance of studying. The more ambitious parents in particular would rather see their children go to medical or engineering school or complete some other form of higher education. Education is seen as the only way to secure a good job, a steady income, a decent quality of life. In order to become a world-class athlete, education must be sacrificed or at least highly compromised. The risk, to Indian minds, is simply too great. In India, people don't go back to high school or college in their thirties or later. You do everything in the set linear way or not at all. There no second chances. There's no social security for the unemployed. There are few safety nets for those who fail. And most fail. Like with anyone trying to be a painter or a musician or an actor, the ratio of failure to success is massive. Neglecting one's studies in favour of sport is perceived therefore as potentially suicidal.

But even when individual families do decide to take the plunge, how much support do they really get from the government? A couple of months the Indian media discovered that two Indian walkers, Basant Bahadur Rana and Irfan KT, did not have proper shoes for the Olympics. Sponsors reportedly stepped in at the last minute but how could they have been in this appalling situation in the first place? Given Indians' breezy self-confidence in recent years about the country's growing GDP and how India is all set to become one of the world's greatest economies soon, such poor support of our athletes is unforgivable.

It must be pointed out amidst all this doom and gloom that the state of Haryana is setting a strong example for the rest of the country. It has sent 18 athletes to London, including all the top boxers and wrestlers. The state offers cash reward programmes and has recently made participation in at least one sport mandatory for school children. Such initiatives are bound to bear fruit in the years to come but much more aggressive change has to happen at a systemic level if we are to see real change, i.e. more than 4 medals (and no gold) in a single Olympics.

What's most tragic about our sporting failure is how we love sport. How passionate Indians are about football for instance, a sport in which we've never had a global presence. Indians love to watch sport and the several sporting networks in this part of the world, between them, end up broadcasting a wide variety of sport. Without a doubt our exposure to world sport and knowledge of it is greater than the average American's.

And yet, watching the Olympics in India this summer has led me to a newfound respect for America as a sporting nation. Indians should ask themselves: "What would you rather do? Watch a wide variety of sports from all over the world? Or win them?"
First Published: August 10, 2012, 3:07 PM IST

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