Barely 2 days into the Olympics, and already there is a growing perception, back home, of Indian athletes performing poorly yet again, in the Olympics.
The Men’s and Women’s Archery teams have been the biggest disappointments so far. Both were expected to win medals, given their impressive performances over the past two years at various championships. The Men’s team crashed out in the very first round, and the Women’s team followed soon after, despite the presence of World No.1 Deepika Kumari.
It was a similar story in the Mixed Badminton Doubles, with the Indian pairing of Jwala Gutta and V Diju losing consecutive matches in their group, and crashing out in the very first round.
Heena Sidhu, Commonwealth Games silver medallist, and Shiva Thapa, the youngest Indian boxer, also crashed out in the first round.
What is the reason for such repeated failures of Indian athletes on the biggest sporting stage on the planet ? A look at the U.S. or Chinese, or even Australian athletes gives us immediate answers. It is not talent or ability that Indian athletes lack. It is the lack of quality competition that prevents them from moving on to the next level. This, in turn, is due to a lack of strong sporting culture in the country.
The U.S. is the best example of how strong domestic sport support systems produce the best athletes for the country year after year. Sports like NFL, NBA, Swimming, and Athletics are all immensely popular in the United States. They have also been effectively integrated to co-exist with the academic system. The strong professional leagues give students a good incentive to follow a career in sports. This leads to the development of a quality pool of athletes who are always motivated to keep getting better. The country, in turn, can select the best from this pool, and reap the benefits.
In contrast, India still remains a sleeping giant in the sports field. Although, in recent years, there has been a strong push to develop athletes capable of winning medals, the problems remain at the grass root level. Sports is a still a long way away from being integrated into the academic system. Sporting abilities are sometimes even used as a backdoor entry into prestigious academic institutions. In other cases, the lack of professional leagues force promising athletes to quit.
The case of Girish Koushik, 2006 World Youth U-10 champion, is an effective example of the sorry state in Indian sports. Due to lack of funding, the promising 15 year old is now looking to become a software engineer. The story doesn’t change much for many others across the country.
This leads to a lack of talent for the country to select from. A few are chosen to represent the country again and again. This leads to situations where star names are preferred over young talent. The fact that we still don’t have an effective Men’s Tennis Doubles team after Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi speaks volumes. Or, we end up pushing promising athletes into the limelight before they have polished their skills. And when they fail, they get dumped for no fault of their own.
Although dedicated sports programmes which pick young talent, and train them for major events in the future, are a step in the right direction. Major changes in our culture, starting with a change in attitude, are needed to ensure we can succeed on the biggest sporting stages, and not be continuously disappointed.