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How fair is it to blame Cricket for our lack of medals at the Rio Olympics?

Is it just Cricket or should all of us take the blame as well?

PV Sindhu

Halfway into the Rio Olympics, the surge of interest in the greatest sporting event of the year predictably led to a spate of heated debates on social media. The pattern of social media debates is quite impossible to predict but it is not difficult to imagine that such debates would break out when any sporting or political event of considerable significance is on.  

While some expressed disappointment at India's dismal medals' tally and even put forward the ludicrous proposition of not sending so many athletes from the next time as it is a wastage of tax-payers' money, others came up with disingenuous drollery to emphasize on the pathetic condition of sports in our country.

Amidst the furore however, the spirit was largely one of celebration, taking pride in the mind-boggling achievements of our athletes who had braved the odds and fought a largely unsympathetic system to get to Rio in the first place.

A more distinct trend was, however, beginning to emerge -- the celebration of the indomitable spirit of our athletes who had overcome seemingly insurmountable hurdles was punctuated with a new-born disdain for cricket. In a country where cricketers are worshipped as demigods and money is lavished upon them, it is truly unsettling to believe that most athletes who have chosen any other sport should suffer for funds and proper training facilities.

It was this disturbing reality that people had suddenly woken up to which led to the castigation of cricket as the root cause of all evil. The most baffling thing, however, was the fact that the people who watched or followed hardly any sport other than cricket were strangely leading the bandwagon when it came to ridiculing the gentleman's game.

Passion versus plenitude

sakshi malik
In a country where children grow up dreaming to be the next Tendulkar or Kohli, it would be heartening if they ever start dreaming of emulating the likes of P.V. Sindhu or Sakshi Malik

The 2016 Rio Olympics was a watershed moment in Indian sporting history in so far as the likes of P.V. Sindhu, Sakshi Malik, Dipa Karmakar and Lalita Babar - just to name a few - became household names across the country. The kind of enthusiasm and frenzy that their performances attracted could have easily rivalled the most high-profile matches in the Indian cricketing calendar.

But enthusiasm and excitement over what is trending can be but a transient phenomenon in this day and age of social media activism. The greatest worry for these athletes, one wonders, is if they would again be consigned to general irreverence in public consciousness when the spotlight shifts and the media attention moves to the next trending topic.

Cricket of course will always be a permanent crowd-puller -- in a country where children grow up dreaming to be the next Tendulkar or Kohli, it would be heartening if they ever start dreaming of emulating the likes of P.V. Sindhu or Sakshi Malik.

But such idle remonstrations would not get us anywhere. The dream to be the next big cricketer is actually the dream to be loved, followed, worshipped and idolised. In India, where comparisons between cricketers and fictional superheroes are aplenty, it is essentially the childhood fantasy to be a Batman-like figure whom you dream of.

Unless other sports in India have funds, fan-following and this myth associated with them, it is largely unlikely that more children would dream of taking up other sports as a career choice.

Beyond the intense debates and bourgeois theorising that we indulge in, it is essential to remember that most of these actual sportspersons, often taking part in these death-defying sporting acts, are from working class backgrounds with meagre means.

With an acute lack of funding and training facilities, a podium finish in the Olympics is their only means of getting noticed to vindicate their career choices.

So, while our cricketers have deals amounting to crores for the brand of bats they use, Dipa Karmakar was using a scooter seat not so long ago to practise her death-defying Produnova. And while our leading cricketers are 100-crore brands in themselves earning a fortune from Karbonn-Kamaal catches in the IPL, we do not have enough money to provide an air-ticket for the physios of our athletes taking part in the Olympics.

In an atmosphere charged with passion and national pride for our athletes, it is difficult to not give in to the temptation of resorting to such easy binaries. Such comparisons, which often have a unidirectional understanding of squarely laying the blame on cricket, come from a lack of understanding of how sports is administered and how it holistically functions in the country.

More seriously, it lacks an understanding of our own responsibilities as spectators who play an active role in building a sporting culture in the country.

How cricket became a multi-million dollar business

jagmohan dalmiya
Jagmohan Dalmiya's decision to open up the broadcasting to private broadcasters proved to be a game-changer

Any sport which rakes in millions of dollars in revenue today has primarily television deals to thank for filling their coffers. The main reason why the English Premier League is such a resounding success with astronomical wages and market prices for the players is the bumper television deals it has attracted.

Only last year, the television rights were sold for £5.136bn which had made it possible for the top English clubs to price out their competitors when it comes to acquiring new players.

The BCCI was hardly a rich body in the late 1980s as it had to pay Doordarshan which had a monopoly over broadcasting matches in India. Things changed after the economic liberalisation and Jagmohan Dalmiya's decision to open up the broadcasting to private broadcasters proved to be a game-changer.

By 2006, when Nimbus got the television rights for a staggering sum of $549 million, the BCCI was an exceptionally rich body which could afford to award its players with hefty contracts. India winning the inaugural edition of the ICC World T20 in 2007 led to the birth of the IPL, the ultimate cash-cow which fetched US$ 723.59 without a ball being bowled.

The BCCI has been criticised quite rightly for a series of questionable decisions when it comes to cricket administration in our country. As an organisation committed to monetising the sport, it has historically been riddled with conflicts of interest and charges of corruption.

Though politicians have till now held administrative posts within the BCCI, it is important to remember that is a non-governmental body that runs and controls cricket in the country. If cricket is flush with funds today, it is because the administrators possessing keen business acumen have monetised the sport perfectly.

It has now become the perfect ground for the leading industrialists and corporates to invest in because it’s a viable option financially.

Therefore, while it is perfectly logical to criticise the way cricket is administered, it is illogical to blame the financial security and lavishness enjoyed by cricketers for the plight of other Indian athletes. Though it seems to be immensely unfair that the kind of stability and support enjoyed by an Indian sportsperson depends on whether or not s/he chooses cricket as a career choice, we must delve deeper to understand why other sports in India still remain ignored.

Why the lack of sporting culture should take the blame

dipa karmakar
Dipa Karmakar was using a scooter seat not so long ago to practise her death-defying Produnova

A popular conspiracy theory suggests that if Kapil Dev had not taken that famous catch in the final of the 1983 World Cup, and India as a nation had not been so struck by the cricket frenzy, the nation would have given other sports a brighter chance. But the truth of the matter is something else.

A quick reminiscing down the memory lane would remind us that India won a single non-hockey medal between 1948 and 1966 in the form of K.D. Jadhav's bronze in wrestling in Helsinki in 1952. Till the 1980s, India's performance in the sporting arena remained disappointing until cricket captured the nationalist space in 1983 and the BCCI riding on the wave of liberalisation made it the behemoth that it is today.

A lack of sporting culture and insufficient public interest have never ensured the necessary investment for the athletes to flourish.  Lack of investment at the grassroots level means most athletes in India who even qualify for the Olympics lack basic training facilities.

Abhinav Bindra recently tweeted, "Each medal costs the UK £5.5 million ($7.13 million). That's the sort of investment needed. Let's not expect much until we put systems in place at home."

Sadly, sports has never been a priority for the Indian government and sufficient funds have never been allocated for the development of athletes. In the absence of funding, there is a reluctance for youngsters from the affluent classes to take up sports as a career choice.

Administrative corruption also remains rampant as funds continue to be syphoned off by corrupt politicians. The 2010 Commonwealth Games led to the arrest of Suresh Kalmadi and millions of dollars were believed to have leaked out in awarding contracts for excessively high amounts to chosen firms.

More recently, it emerged that Anil Vij, the sports minister of Haryana led a nine-member delegation to the Rio Olympics costing the public exchequer the sum of Rs.1 crore, but were caught holidaying in Brazil as they hardly came for any of the sporting events.

Thus the problem of scarce investment is compounded by misallocation of funds and a lack of transparency when it comes to asset management. The central and state governments have now lavished money and awards on our medal winners but such appropriations of our athletes for political ends have to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Any sincere government should need to invest more generously in the first place to ensure that our athletes have proper funds and training facilities -- this would automatically guarantee better performances and many more podium finishes.

It is understood that all sports are not spectator-friendly and that is where the government has a role to play given the fact that such athletes from such events backed by proper resources continue to do well around the world. Despite the popularity of baseball in the US or football in the UK, other sports are hardly neglected because of a resounding sporting culture.

We as spectators who claim to love the world of sports also have a role to play. The lack of public spending and insufficient investment is possible largely due to a lack of sporting culture that we all participate in.

It is here that the general interest and discourse become largely cricket-centric so much so that a general aura of ignorance prevails about other sports in our country. How many of us can claim to have followed or even known about the likes of Dipa Karmakar and Lalita Babar before the Rio Olympics?

How many of us can deny having secretly googled for the rules of golf to understand better Aditi Ashok's performances?

In the absence of general interest, the media focus on them is understandably sparse and it is also our inability to go beyond the mainstream media narrative that leaves us complacent in our ignorance. All of us who never watch, follow or care for our athletes beyond the Olympics are complicit in the system that makes and mars them.

It is a further testament to our ignorance that we instead of trying to understand the heroics of our athletes despite the system are comfortable criticising their inability to win a medal.

The Rio Olympics was a moment of self-reflexivity and shame -- as our athletes churned out glorious performances, we were all inwardly left red-faced about knowing so little about them and their struggles. Guilt and reparation followed by denial necessitated the shifting of blame from ourselves.

Cricket as always was made the convenient scapegoat. What emerged more powerfully from such comparisons was a further testimony to our ignorance about the way the world of sports functions.   

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