Now that the Olympics are over, the Indian media has predictably begun their analysis of why a country of one billion people wins so sparingly.
The 2012 Olympics has thus far been our most successful competition, with two silvers and four bronzes. Having been in India over the past month, it was refreshing to see attention given to athletes in sports as varied as badminton, boxing and shooting. The government loosened its purse strings and provided significant cash prizes to the winners, even promising permanent government jobs to each of the 81 competitors in the squad. The selection process was far more structured and fair than in the past. From most angles, this year’s Olympics was a leap, not step, in the right direction.
And yet, the dissection of what went wrong continues. How can one billion people produce so few medals? Why is it so hard to develop talent in a country where there is clearly an inexhaustible pool of young people? Why can’t we take a fraction of the resources spent on cricket and spread the wealth to other sports?
Nirmal Shekar, in a brilliant Op-Ed in the Hindu, hit the nail on the head by calling this constant questioning ‘nauseating’. I couldn’t agree more. Shekar is absolutely correct in saying that for three years and 11 and a half months, there is generally such little focus placed on any sport save a precious few. Cricket sucks up so much of our bandwidth, and the few other sports that fight for our attention – football, basketball and tennis – are distinctly foreign affairs.
The root of the problem perhaps lies in how we are raised. As children we are told to shy away from sports – studies are the utmost priority, followed by music or dance (this is definitely true in the case of Chennai kids!). Parents remain unconvinced that sport is a legitimate way of making a good living – although they are not entirely wrong in this regard. Schools and universities rarely have the infrastructure to seriously train and hone sporting talent. All taken together, professional sports remains a career choice way on the sidelines. This sort of environment can definitely impede a child’s desire to become an athlete.
I do believe however that the turning point is near – probably not by the next Olympics, but probably in the next decade. Being in India this summer, amidst all the noise about why we don’t do better, I felt, for the first time, an undercurrent of optimism. The images of the six joyful athletes wiped all the cynisicm and anger away. Yes, things aren’t great right now, but they are miles ahead of where we were 20 years ago. And with recent changes, potential private sponsorship and international exposure, there’s no reason to believe that it won’t be even better 20 years from now.
And let’s hope that in six months, the names Kom, Nehwal, Narang, S. Kumar, V. Kumar and Dutt still mean something to us.