For me, there is one Asian Games achievement that is rather close to home, for a few reasons – the gold of heptathlete Swapna Barman. Swapna is a fabulous, resilient athlete. She embodies the very spirit with which Rahul Dravid suggested we design the mentorship programme under which she has been supported by our team at the GoSports Foundation. But, we will come to that a bit later.
Swapna’s event, the heptathlon, is quite poetically emblematic of her own journey as an athlete and the journeys of many of her peers. These journeys include overcoming obstacles on the run, jumping high and long when required, running fast, running far and throwing all you’ve got in the face of headwinds and other challenges off the field. These are metaphors for athletes’ lives and careers on the way up (and down).
Swapna’s personal story is now widely known and does not bear repeating. It has always been her story. But, her achievement allowed it to be told to others who might not otherwise have had the exposure or the inclination to listen to it. Importantly, it also allowed it to be heard by those situated similarly to her, people dealing with the sorts of things she has had to deal with in her life.
Every athlete stands shoulder to shoulder at the starting line of an event. However, the journeys they have travelled to get there are rarely ever the same in nature or complexity. The stories of most of those journeys will never be told in the din of our daily lives and the demands of productivity, which require us to be willfully blind and deaf to much that goes on around us. The stories may even not matter to many. However, sports achievement provides an opportunity to cut through this clutter. The stories, when told, will be heard, and perhaps even celebrated and emulated in ways known and unknown to the athlete.
Pain is the best motivator. Glad to have won a historic gold medal in Women's Heptathlon in the @asiangames2018 for my country.Thank you everyone for the endless love and support! #AsianGames2018 #TeamIndiaAthletics pic.twitter.com/Mcsw6oHbSW— Swapna Barman (@Swapna_Barman96) August 30, 2018
It is very easy to ‘otherise’ an athlete, even without knowing her back story. As someone more than normal in aptitude, willing to work harder than normal, having access to more training resources than normal. Yes, athletes are not ‘normal’ in many ways but what connects us to their achievements, and also their travails, is just how much they are like us rather than how different they are from us.
We are fascinated by what their bodies and minds are capable of, because we broadly share the same faculties as those from the same species. World Champions from any country are revered, the closer they are to our homes, both physically and metaphorically, the more we associate with their achievement and are willing to internalize their impact. If someone like me can do amazing things, why not me? Often, this one moment, commonly termed as ‘ignition’ in the sporting world, is all it takes to start a journey.
In this paradigm, the personal stories of our athletes are many – whether physical disabilities faced by our para-athletes, penury and limited means that many athletes start from, social struggles to be overcome for the right to participate at sport, battles against power that must be fought in courts by putting everything on the line, or for that matter any of the other challenges that are common to athletes, and all of us. Whether to treat these stories as curiosities or as powerful social tools is entirely our choice as a society.
The achievements of a person who has dealt with challenges along the way can potentially inspire ‘others’ to action – such as an industrialist who wishes to genuinely help with technical support, a corporate who might rethink a CSR budget to include support to athletes, a federation that might recognise that ‘good’ governance is for its own good.
That said, the unique off-field stories of the fights put up by a Swapna Barman, a Dutee Chand, a Manjit Singh or a Varsha Gautam (and, for that matter, the story of any other athlete who participated in the Asian Games) land very differently when told to those persons similarly placed and encountering similar challenges in any walk of life (i.e., in their ‘circles of influence’), be they large or small. In these circles, these stories can deliver hope when there was previously despair and inspiration that the battles are worth fighting (and can be won!).
They transform from stories to be retweeted, shared and liked to potential catalysts and blueprints.
This brings me back to the discussion we had with Rahul Dravid some years ago when we established the programme under his mentorship – The Rahul Dravid Athlete Mentorship Programme. This programme supports athletes like Swapna, gymnast Dipa Karmakar, fencer Bhavani Devi, shuttler Kidambi Srikanth and numerous others.
Rahul’s advice to us then was to think more broadly about sport, to redefine and reestablish our notions of success, to support athletes from across the gender and economic spectrum, select them from disciplines like gymnastics, fencing, para-sport and others that had potential but have not yet seen success.
Presciently, he said that when achievement comes, as it is bound to, the value will not be in the achievement itself but in the impact it can leave behind in its wake. Our focus with Swapna was on preparing and supporting her body towards the Asian Games. As a result of her medal, her story will now perhaps be read by or told to a future heptathlete in some small corner of India or a young girl who wishes to dance, or paint or simply aspire to be better at what she does despite the realities she sees before her in her daily life.
"I am building a fire, and every day I train, I add more fuel. At just the right moment, I light the match."#ThankYou #ManjitSingh for the priceless #MomentOfTheDay! #IAmTeamIndia pic.twitter.com/T9TeYEXRmF— Team India (@ioaindia) August 28, 2018
In its recent review, Sport Australia has defined the focus of its Olympic and Paralympic campaign to encompass more than just winning medals. The review recommends that “the measurement of success must now also include the impact of athletes as role models, their engagement with the community, and delivering a respected system.” This is music to my ears, as new metrics such as these will soon be normalized in the global sports conversation on high performance programmes and elite sports. A similar review would be timely from an Indian perspective and would provide an opportunity to redefine our nation’s notions and metrics of sporting success.
Sports excellence has the potential to positively impact lives of individuals, communities and even large countries like us. Winning more medals will require sustained involvement by a few but capturing the full value of sporting achievement is something every single person can participate in, gain from and contribute to as a national project. Given the obvious potential and need for social and economic change, this is one aspect in which India as a sporting nation can win and win well.
(Nandan Kamath is Principal Lawyer at LawNK and Managing Trustee of GoSports Foundation, a non-profit that works with and supports Olympic and Paralympic aspirants through CSR-supported programmes.)