What makes a nation a ‘sporting’ country?
Is it the number of Olympic medals it wins? Is it the money that government and the private sector invests in sport? Is it the number of big stadiums in the country?
Or rather, is it just how easily you and I, as common citizens, can play a sport?
I walk into a government-run leisure centre in Purley, which is part of the London borough of Croydon. Most of the people using the gym appeared to be over 60. The pool too had several senior citizens and mothers with infants. I scan the notices. By local standards, the facility is quite inexpensive. An hour’s swim for an adult costs £ 2.5 – the equivalent of our Rs 25 (direct pound-to-rupee conversion doesn’t make sense because you cannot buy most things for less than one pound.) Swimming sessions are free for those above 60. There are classes for children and adults with physical and learning disabilities. Every notice urges you to belong there.
Of course it would be unwise to compare Bangalore or Hyderabad’s challenges and resources with London’s, but it won’t hurt to see what passes off as normal here. The Purley leisure centre is one of five government-run leisure centres in Croydon, which has a population of 3.6 lakh. The government website reveals, among other things, that Croydon has 14 libraries, 77 parks, 14 multi-games courts and seven tennis facilities. In the government centres one can choose to swim, play badminton, trampoline or table tennis, or register for gym sessions.
There are also several venues for tennis, football and cricket. Apart from these government centres, of course, there are private centres, which are slightly more expensive, but offer more activities.
We will not dwell on the difference in the scale of challenges of a London borough to that of Bangalore or Hyderabad. These are too well known to bear repetition: the numbers of our population, the relative importance of addressing hunger, housing and water rather than recreation, and so forth. But in the same breath we can ask ourselves: Is sport too much to ask in India? Should not our national priority be to become healthier citizens? Why is there a
dismissal of the rights of our senior citizens and disabled? Why must one be well-off to play indoor sports in India? Is sport only meant for competitive athletes?
If state governments can gift prime plots to already-wealthy cricketers, surely a wiser thing instead would be to use the same plots to build small sports halls that benefit more people. Why must a millionaire cricketer be further buttered up with a plot of land or a couple of crores of public money? Those very resources can be better used for the public.
The freedom to play is as essential to our spirit as the right to education or a livelihood. The body needs outlets for physical expression; otherwise that expression takes dangerous forms in crime or abuse.