I will start with a confession. If I had another life, I would choose badminton as my career. I have been playing it for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, like millions of other Indians growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I entered tenth grade and kissed my dreams of a sports career goodbye. For the past twenty years or so, I have been what Americans call a ‘weekend warrior.’ I still devote lots of hours a week to the sport, but I am not a competitive athlete. The enthusiasm for sports, though, spills over to quadrennial events like the world cups and the Olympics.
As a country, we should be proud of the fact that we sent our largest ever contingent of more than 100 athletes to the Rio Olympics. However, over the past two weeks, the skewed perceptions and unrealistic expectations of our nation of 1.25 billion people have disappointed me more than the valiant efforts of the Indian Olympic contingent regardless of whether they qualified for the finals or how close they got to winning a medal. Until the mid-90’s, we were an extremely poor country. And there are several studies establishing a reasonable correlation between per capita GDP and the number of medals countries win at the Olympics. When a country is struggling to feed its population, it is foolhardy to expect a huge medal tally at an event that celebrates ‘Fitter, stronger, faster.’
After the first generation economic reforms of the early 90’s, millions of Indians have moved out of poverty and into middle class. Globalization, disposable income and ease of travel have all made our society aware of what is going on in the rest of the world. Unfortunately, a country trying to claim its rightful place in the international political and economic order is expecting the moon from our athletes without showing any interest in building a sports culture. It is a huge jigsaw puzzle, but the three critical pieces of the puzzle are the government, corporations and the society.
The overall apathy of the government starts at the local level. While there are schemes and allocations for promoting sports at the district and taluka level, the situation on the ground is similar to any other government scheme. A friend of mine who teaches table tennis in a tier III city school recently mentioned that the government allocates money for annual inter-school tournaments, which is siphoned off by the ‘system.’ The tournament organizers have to scramble to get sponsorships, which are hard to find in smaller towns. As a consequence, they have to ask the kids to bring all the required sports equipment and supplies for the tournament.
At the highest level, the government has undertaken some admirable initiatives. The sports awards help the athletes get the much needed attention. Supporting medal prospects by providing them the equipment and training facilities is another good initiative. However, these initiatives serve only those who have beaten all the odds to reach the top of the pyramid. Unless the bottom of the pyramid is widened by cleaning up the system at the local level, we will keep hovering around the 3-5 medal mark at the Olympics.
Government is always the easiest punching bag. As a country, we need to realize that only about 3-4% of Indians pay taxes. When the government is preoccupied with basics like implementing mid-day meal schemes, boosting girl child education, building girls’ toilets in schools and enhancing graduation rates, it is a long way away from building world class sports facilities in tier II or III cities. This is where the corporations can step in. The government has created huge CSR mandates for corporations, which can be effectively used for physical education, spotting talent early and supporting promising athletes all the way from age 5-6 to the highest international level. Traditionally, PSU’s like Indian Oil, Railways, banks and conglomerates like the Tatas and Reliance have shown leadership in supporting athletes. A lot of sports leagues are springing up, which assure the top athletes decent remuneration if they reach the top of the pyramid. Unfortunately, most of this support comes after you have proven your mettle at the state or national level, which is a bit late in the life of an athlete. If big names like Sachin Tendulkar, Abhinav Bindra, Mahesh Bhupati, Malleshwari, Mary Kom and others can get together with the big corporations, implementing sports programs from the bottom up will not be difficult. Prakash Padukone proved it when he threatened a revolt against the badminton babudom in the late 90’s. It is important to note that it took us 20 years – an entire generation – to start producing world class badminton players. We see it happening in boxing, wrestling, archery and a handful of other sports, which is a good start. It is an extremely slow and arduous process, which now needs to expand to other Olympic sports.
In the end, the onus is on the society. It begins with us. The most basic building block of a sports culture is putting physical fitness on par with intellectual achievements or success in business. My generation mostly played sports in school or college as a hobby and then was compelled to start exercising again after age thirty or forty because of health issues. That needs to change. Let us prioritize physical fitness in our lives and build some appreciation for what it takes to run a 6 minute mile. If your cousin or nephew or son or daughter are showing a spark, encourage them to pick up the sport they are interested in. Tell them that representing our country at the Olympics is superior to getting into an IIT, clearing the IAS exam or building the next unicorn start-up. We need to support local initiatives like city marathons and sporting events. Even if you are not a sportsperson, just go volunteer for a marathon that your friend of family member is running. I bet you will be motivated to run the next one.
When interviewing candidates for new jobs, most of us do not care about achievements in sports, which is in stark contrast to the recruitment process in some industry segments in the United States, where sportspersons are considered better than an average candidate. The logic is straightforward. The tremendous dedication and focus required to excel in sports even at the state level easily permeate in other aspects of life. I was once told by a successful American businessman that he reads the resumes of the candidates from the bottom to the top. Beyond a certain threshold of academic grades, everyone is intellectually capable of getting the job done. What separates a candidate from the pack is non-academic achievements.
The Rio Olympics are over. Before the Tokyo Olympics come around and we lament another poor medal haul, let us begin by picking up some physical activity. Watch the sports you love on a regular basis, understand the nuances and try to inculcate them at your level. As a society, if we start today, it will take at least 2-3 decades to start getting a respectable medal haul at the Olympics. At the very least, instead of lamenting the near medal misses or criticising the athletes for not qualifying to the final rounds, we will start admiring their dedication, single minded focus, muscle tone, speed, agility and their athleticism. And then, if Sindhu wins gold at the Tokyo Olympics and lets out another primal scream, it will give you goose bumps.