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Has Indian sports regressed in the last 4 years?

People say that India has regressed from London 2012 to Rio 2016. But is it regression if there was no progress in the first place?

Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu
India had to be content with two medals in the Rio Olympics: Bronze from Sakshi Malik and Silver from PV Sindhu

 (pic credit: NDTV)
 

Well, judging by the performance of our contingent at the recently concluded Rio 2016 Olympics, it is hard to argue it hasn't. But then technically to say something has regressed, it should have first progressed. When a country of 1.2 billion people has won less medals in 30 years than a single American swimmer has won in his career (Michael Phelps, by the way), it hardly qualifies as progress.

It is true that the medal tally has fallen sharply from 6 in London 2012 to just 2 medals in Rio. But then the question is - were the 6 medals in last Olympics really progress or just a result of random acts of individual success. Trust me - it is not my intent to belittle the achievement of individual medal winners who have brought glory and source of inspiration. But at the same time, it would be incorrect to conclude it as a sign of progress in sports for the nation as a whole. Such wrong conclusions can send us in the wrong direction - as it results in drawing of misleading inferences resulting in the wrong solutions to address these problems. It would make us assume that something was going right 4 years ago and has suddenly changed. And that’s just not true. If we want to really address the root cause of the problem one must admit the hard truth that the previous medal tallies were indeed random specks of individual heroism.

Leaving the technicality of whether or not something has regressed or not, the fact remains that sports in India has not made any significant progress. That needs to be addressed.
Now let us examine why. Analysts, economists, and eminent thinkers have already attributed multiple reasons - Genes, lack of funds, general poverty, the attitude of society, politics, role of Government etc. Which of these is true? Well, I think all of it, perhaps acting at the same time. Let us examine them closely.

Genetics is perhaps little controversial - nevertheless it is true that Indians do have a slightly different genetic disposition than Africans when it comes to muscle power and strength. But then it has also been shown that we are 50% nature and 50% nurture. It is always possible to overcome the genetic disposition through training and technique. We need to keep in mind that genetic disposition only talks about average - An average African is likely to be taller than an average Asian. But then winning medals in sports is not about average. It is about excellence.

Lack of funds and general poverty is the second most commonly argued reason. It is absolutely true and also only partially correct. According to published reports, India spends an average of $0.005 per head compared to $0.30 spent by the US. That is almost 60 times lesser. India spends about Rs. 900 crore on sports on a population of 1.2 billion compared to Rs. 576 crore that Australia spends on a population that is less than 200 million.

True that lack of sufficient funds is a problem. But it is also where we spend the money that is an issue. More than 2/3rd of the money is spent on upkeep of old and broken infrastructure rather than creating new, modern ones. It might surprise one to know that there is not a single international quality badminton
court that is owned by the government. Even more impactful is the fact that less than Rs. 5 crore is spent on talent search.

Sporting excellence is like diamonds - hidden deep inside tons of earth and dirt. One needs to mine deep and hard to unearth them. Then one needs to clean, cut and polish them before they can truly shine. It is especially true in India where 90% of the population lives in its villages with little or no access to infrastructure. That is exactly what tournaments like IPL have done for cricket. Thanks to TV reality shows, similar talent mining has already started in the field of arts and entertainment. We need to do the same for all the other sports.

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Another undeniable contributor to the situation is the lack of sporting culture in the country. Most parents focus all their attention on imparting academic skills to their child. They want their children to be accountants or engineers or doctors. With a success rate that is next to negligible, the parents are hardly to blame. It is true that once there is success, sportsmen have an opportunity to amass unprecedented wealth through cash awards and corporate endorsements. But that is after the person has demonstrated success. It is not enough if we just celebrate success - we must also nurture and protect potential.

By ‘protect’ I mean providing basic insurance for people seeking a career in sports irrespective of whether or not they reach great heights in their respective field. Students and parents need to be assured that they will be able to afford a basic minimum lifestyle. It may be worthy to note that such schemes already exists in the form of sports quota in jobs and college admissions. But it is fraught with bureaucracy and corruption. This needs to be cleaned up.

Finally, there is also the role of the government. Unlike the United States, where sports is almost entirely funded by private enterprises or the United Kingdom, where sports funding is largely routed through private universities, in India sports is almost entirely dependent on government funds. Unfortunately, government funding comes bundled with bureaucracy and politics. There is an urgent need to clean up all the national sports authorities along the lines recommended by the Supreme Court for BCCI.

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So in conclusion, whether sports has regressed is a moot point when it has not made any significant progress. Need of the hour is to fix the issue. Borrowing partial words from Swami Vivekananda I say, “Arise, Awake or befallen forever.”

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