With another Olympics over, India has returned to the questions that we ask every four years: why do Indians fare badly at the Olympics?
A lot has been written about this, and I don’t wish to add to it. While some columns have been insightful, some have bordered on the bizarre – such as one that claimed Indians are poor sportsmen because we have never been fond of the outdoors! The author doubtless forgot that not all sports are played outdoors.
Perhaps the most insightful comment on this comes not from a sports columnist, but from social researchers. A column in the EPW pins this down to access to sport, but not in the way it was articulated earlier.
According to this view, the ‘effective’ population that produces sportspeople is not one billion (as we repeated endlessly to ourselves), but only a few thousand. That is, we must count as our sporting population only those people who have access to sport. Seen from this perspective, and even if we assume (in exaggeration) that a million Indians have some access to sport, six Olympic medals is not a bad tally at all.
Looking at the medals table, we come to these conclusions:
Apart from seven countries (USA, China, Great Britain, Russia, South Korea, Germany and France), 71 countries have failed to get more than ten gold medals. Indeed, a majority – 44 out of the total of 79 countries, have failed to get more than one gold medal. If the countries are ranked in terms of total medals won (rather than just the gold count), India will be ranked higher than countries like Norway, Switzerland, Bulgaria, and other sports-friendly countries.
But we have to remind ourselves to stop obsessing about Olympic medals. What is more important is to improve public access to sport. As more people play sport, competitive athletes will emerge of themselves. Medals are only one indicator of the state of sport in a country. But can a ‘developing’ country such as ours find the resources to fund sport when there are livelihood issues at stake? Here are some thoughts, in random order:
- Since athletics is the base of most sports, it must be mandatory for every Panchayat or government school (wherever possible) to have a small field with a synthetic running track and changing rooms/ toilets. Functional toilets might seem a small and unnecessary detail, but they are critical, especially for girls to participate in sport.
- The government must announce cash incentives based on the needs of a sportsperson, as seen from his IT returns or income certificates. A World Cup-winning cricketer does not need an additional Rs 2 crore from the government. Nor does he require prime residential plots. Those resources need to be used to promote sport and local sportsmen. The government should build at least one multi-purpose sports hall on its vacant residential plots in each locality.
- Promote traditional sport. Kerala, for instance, has all but ignored its traditional martial art form of kalari, which is seen more as a tool to promote tourism. Traditional ‘kusthi’ in South India too has been killed due to negligence. But these community-run centres can produce excellent sportspeople without a recourse to expensive gyms. Whether or not the trainees go on to take up an Olympic sport is irrelevant.
- One is unsure if the ‘quota’ system for athletes in universities work. At the moment, athletes use their sports certificates to gain admission to universities and then give up sport. Three years are crucial in determining the sporting career of an athlete: the period between 10th standard and 2nd PUC (or 12th). A less punitive system than the one at present might help to stop the attrition of athletes from sports to academics.