As a country, we are fond of rags-to-riches stories.
We love hearing of the success of “raw talent”. There is nothing more romantic, for instance, than a woman who went from carrying bundles of wood as a child to lifting her way to a silver medal at the Olympics. We will interview her coaches, speak briefly about the sports club culture of Manipur, and then wait for the next flash in the pan.
It so happened to be quite a brilliant flash at Tokyo 2020, a gold for Neeraj Chopra in the men’s javelin throw event. It was only the second individual gold for India in Olympic history, and unlike with Abhinav Bindra — who was privileged enough to be able to afford to pursue an elite sport — this provided a romantic story too. Here is a boy who joined a gym because he was bullied for his childhood obesity, happened to see javelin throwers at play, and went on to pursue the sport. It also helps that he had joined the Indian Army, which can now be given some credit for his success.
Even as Chopra is showered with praise and money, we read about the enormous cost of his training and his miserable hunt for sponsors and the frustrations of having to deal with a visa rejection and the fact that the Sports Authority of India came to his rescue, facilitating his travel to Sweden for honing his skills at a cost of $50,000.
This has been one of India’s best shows at the Olympics. However, if we look at the history of the country’s participation, we will find that India has won a total of 35 medals at the Olympics. Of these, 8 were won by the men’s hockey team, which dominated the sport until it switched to using synthetic surfaces, which the Indian sports authorities could not afford to build to train them. This time, they won the bronze. In individual sports, bronzes went to PV Sindhu for badminton, Lovlina Borgohain for boxing and Bajrang Punia for wrestling, while Ravi Kumar Dahiya picked up a silver for wrestling and Mirabai Chanu for weightlifting. All of that was topped by Neeraj Chopra. These are the podium results from a 124-strong contingent, the greatest number ever sent to the Olympics from India.
The subject of money being poured into cricket rather than other sports is a popular one. However, the fact remains that cricket will draw the public. It is a thing of fascination and obsession, and every generation of men in blue will be heroes for the corresponding generation of children — sometimes for adults. And despite the money in cricket and the marketability of its ambassadors, it wasn’t until the advent of the Indian Premier League that a horde of talented cricketers found a platform and steady employment.
Pursuing a sport professionally is a long-term commitment, and one that requires enormous economic resources. Bringing about a change at the grassroots level will not be easy. At the systemic level, sports federations cannot afford to build and maintain state-of-the-art training facilities in every state, or even every region, without private investment. In some cases, they cannot even afford to send athletes to the Olympics. Take the case of luger Shiva Keshavan, who crowdfunded his way to the Winter Olympics.
There is a far more insidious problem at play — our inability to blend sports into school curricula. Most schools only have a couple of hours for P.T. classes a week, and it is treated as an “extracurricular activity”. Students must make a choice between sports and studies at a very early age, and the gamble may not pay off. Unlike the United States, we don’t have a healthy varsity sports system, which provides sports scholarships and career options if one doesn’t reach the pinnacle of one’s chosen career. This is true of cricketers as well. Imagine what would have become of Parthiv Patel if not for the IPL.
We must reflect not on Olympic success or the lack of it, but what it really says about the state of sport in our country, and the position we have given it in our lives. If we look at international sports championships as not so much a target for professional sportspeople, but as a reflection of the sporting competitiveness of countries, India’s performance over the decades points to a grave problem.
Even as students, we are fast losing touch with our bodies and moulding ourselves into sedentary positions, destined for careers behind desks and before screens. We often speak of success in sport as “inspiring”, particularly for children. But what does it inspire them to do? And how long will the inspiration last, when sport is seen as “play”, a relief from academics — which is seen as “work” — and not as a counterpoint?
The imperative for us now is not to pump money into sports infrastructure, but find a way to integrate sports into education.