India's Olympic scene: A dearth of champions, but plenty of dreams
A sporting culture that preys on emotions
In the You Tube theme song for the 2012 Olympics made for Indian fans, one gets to see young kids boxing with bubble-wrap as a substitute for boxing gloves, rope-bundles for hockey balls and sarees for badminton nets. The video as usual appeals to the sentiments, with scenes of passionate people coming together in huge numbers with candles and tri-colour flags and cheering for our athletes to brave the odds.
Like supporting and cheering would ensure sudden medal-winning performances! Although it’s an inspirational video, it’s about time we Indians sat up and asked – how many more years should we have to endure images of our sportsmen coming through endless struggles, and take them as things of natural course? How many more years will we bank on last-moment finger crossing and an emotional fan-base to try and get some medals from the Olympics?
Lowest medal ratio
As a country, we are a big deal. Over 1 billion people, the world’s biggest democracy, the second largest population in the world! But we’ve been competing in the Olympics since 1900 and till now we’ve managed a combined tally of only 26 medals. Young Michael Phelps of the US alone managed nearly half of that from a single edition of the Games (2008).
With such a big talent pool and also being one of the biggest economies in the world – not to mention entering the race for being one of the modern superpowers – these returns are make us the laughing stock of the sporting world. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, India had the lowest ratio of medals won to population of any competing country: one medal per 383 million Indians. And that was supposed to be our best Olympic performance ever!
Adjusted to its gross domestic product, India’s medal haul is as disappointing, with the lowest ratio of Olympic medals to GDP size. Forget the USA or China, India is regularly outperformed by much poorer countries, such as Ethiopia, Kenya, North Korea, and all of the other BRIC economies. Russia, whose GDP is only marginally higher than that of India, had a return of 82 medals from the 2012 Olympics.
So what is that makes our sportsmen such regular non-performers on the biggest stage? Is it that our DNA make-up is completely different and non-conducive to sports? Is it poverty? Is it the culture? What is the main virus that bugs our sporting pedigree?
Well, it’s impossible to be sure and one comes across a multitude of debates on the topic, but here I’ve tried to summarize the crux:
1. Lack of infrastructure and talent-scouting: It’s easy to see where the main difference between India and countries like China lies. While richer countries would expectedly have better infrastructure, China – with a similar kind of economy and population as India, had put in place large-scale talent scouting and grassroots training plans roughly 26 years ago; efforts that are paying their dividends now.
2. Poverty: Despite being one of the biggest economies, India’s per capita income is amongst the bottiom quartile of all countries, with 22% people lying below the poverty line and the highest amount of malnourished children in the world. Huge swathes out of the 1.2 billion population are negated when it comes to effective athletic participation for India. Most of the poor rural kids wouldn’t even have heard about the majority of the sports played in the Olympics, let alone get proper training for them. So the supposedly vast talent-pool is not entirely a physical reality.
3. Budget allocation: Low budget allocation by the Government has a direct impact on our sporting fortunes. In the 2013-14 season, the budget allocation for our Youth Affairs and Sports Ministry was $202 million. Compare this with the budget of the University of Texas alone: $165 million. “The correlation between the amount of money invested in athletes and the number of medals is very strong,” argues Geet Sethi, a nine-time world billiards champion as well as head and founder of the Olympic Gold Quest, an organization that scouts and trains athletes for the Games.
4. Corruption: Everybody that’s an Indian citizen knows about this and has an idea of how hugely it affects sporting organisations too. Even the allocated funds are misused and siphoned out and the greatest impact of this is on the athletes who languish for lack of facilities and inspiration, and have to take struggle as a natural routine.
5. Politicians covering authoritative positions: These people know nothing of sports and what is required to extract the best out of athletes. Neither do they do anything for their betterment. What would keeping such ‘honorary’ positions serve for the good of Indian sport? Instead, isn’t it better to professionalize the governing bodies and put accountable people with technical expertise?
6. Cricket and Bollywood: Cricket is perhaps the only sport played with seriousness in the country. It’s a sport with very limited international representation and does not figure in the Olympics. That too has been brought to the level of entertainment to such an extent that it’s scarcely different now from the other big desi entertainment industry: Bollywood. Naturally, because of the irrationally immense coverage for cricket, other sports have failed to get any substantial attention.
7. Career option: For most people of our country sports is still not a realistic career option – specially sports other than cricket. The middle-class Indian parent (who make up large chunks of urban India) would not ideally want his/her child to carve out a career in any field other than engineering/medicine/management. Compare that with China, where there are many specialist sports colleges, or with the USA, where even failure in academics doesn’t mean a certain dead-end for your career prospects.
8. Visibility across sports channels: As a sports buff consuming most of the sports channels that are aired on TV, I can confidently say that the amount of coverage that sports other than cricket (specially where the national players or regional up-and-coming players are participating) get is really negligible, with DD Sports being the only channel that even makes an attempt at it.
Sports where we have comparatively better prospects and up-and-coming talents
Hockey: One has to mention the sport which wizards like Dhyan Chand graced at one point of time and in which India has won as many as eight Olympic golds. Quite clearly, there’s a supreme resource pool of talent, but the moment hockey switched from natural-turf to astro-turf and became more technology oriented, India started falling behind because of poor infrastructure and planning. Nowadays, the federation is happy to just appoint one foreign coach after another as if that alone would solve all the problems! It’s another matter that most of these coaches leave mid-contract, complaining of unprofessional treatment.
Tennis: We have two of our biggest ever sporting icons in tennis in Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. Still, top 100 singles players are few and far between. We finished runners-up in the Davis Cup thrice, but since 1987 we’ve struggled to go beyond the group stage. Tennis remains an elitist sport in the country and Somdev Devvarman and Sania Mirza – two of our biggest successes in recent years – learned most of their tennis abroad. Recently, the likes of Bhupathi and Paes have installed large-scale talent-scouting and grooming programs, but it would take a few years for them to properly take effect.
Badminton: According to statistics, badminton is the second most played sport in India after cricket. We’ve had All-England winning greats like Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand in the past and in recent years we’ve seen the Saina Nehwals, the PV Sindhus and the Ashwini Ponnappas bring glory to the country. China continues to retain the monopoly of the No. 1 rankings and wins the biggest trophies, but with devoted grooming we have enough prospects of breaking through that barrier.
We’ve also seen a lot of promise in sports like boxing, wrestling and shooting. Basketball remains one of the most popular sports and table tennis doesn’t lag far behind.
Some steps we can take for starters
1. Investment from corporates and private parties: Nowadays we do see some of our millionares and corporate bodies investing in sports, like, say, the Mittal Champions Trust of G.D. Mittal. But there need to be many more such ventures. Only then will we find the capital for investing in grassroots training, without which there’s no hope in most of the Olympic sports.
2. IPL-style leagues: Recently we’ve seen the Hockey India League (HIL), the Indian Badminton League (IBL) and many other such glamour-coated national level leagues coming up. The involvement of celebs and corporates attracts some of the top-notch international superstars, which is one way to generate popularity, publicity and broadcasting. Recently, the thing that’s attracting most excitement is the Indian Super League.
Surely there’s a Herculean amount of work to be done to improve India’s current ranking of 150 in the most popular sport in the world, but this seems to be a refreshing way to go. Now is a particularly good time to bring this on as the popularity of the EPL (English Premier League) and UCL (UEFA Champions League) is extremely high amongst our youth.
3. Increase collaboration with successful Ssorting bodies like NBA: Organisations like the NBA and some of the top football clubs like Liverpool and others have sensed the vastness of the market that exists in India. Consequently, they have expressed willingness to invest in talent and infrastructure out here. We should make maximum use of this and give them proactive encouragment. We can’t wait forever for our systems to change and for facilities to improve. Instead, we should make the most out of the interest shown by foreign organisations who have the experience of success.
4. Replace politicians with technical men: This applies to almost all the sporting bodies of our country. I’m not suggesting that all the officials be changed, since that’s impractical. But we should look to professionalize organizations. This applies even for the BCCI. There should be positions like CEO and high-performance managers, and every official has to be accountable to the public. The technical aspects should be handled only with the men with the requisite technical expertise and experience of having played the game at the highest level. More than anything, there should be a process of regular communication with the media through which the fans and the public get feedback.
Suggesting anything else at this point is totally useless, because most likely it won’t happen. But one hopes that with time, if there’s a decent inflow of money and generation of public interest, the other hurdles can be countered. Maybe at last we would see a proper structure put in place, talents identified and groomed from a young age, young people encouraged to play a variety of sports, not just cricket, and middle-class parents starting to see sports as a viable career option. At this stage, these are nothing more than dreams.
One can also do a lot with our women’s teams and women athletes and actually encourage females to come out and take part in sports.
Currently, the amount of youth interest that’s generated for interational sports (outside of cricket), mainly due to media coverage and broadcasting, gives one hope. Therefore, the solutions that look like dreams now are at least not too distant ones! Hopefully we won’t have to go on accepting videos showing the relentless struggle of our athletes, or bank on a billion people’s emotions to get us some medals.