Will India Rise At the Olympics?

India is a sporting minnow. The only game it has dominated has been hockey more than three decades back. Otherwise Indians eat, pray, play and sleep cricket. There is plenty of passion for football, especially among kids growing up on an overdose of European soccer on TV……

But, that has yet to translate into anything worthwhile in terms of India’s global soccer ranking. I think the Indian team just about manages to beat Nepal and Bhutan regularly. The country has usually drawn a blank in the Games except for a few surprise winners in boxing, shooting and wrestling in the last couple of editions. China, meantime, like its economy, has paced far ahead, competing with the likes of America, as in other spheres.

Expectations, however, from Indian athletes headed for the London Olympics are quite high. Indian contingents in athletics, badminton, shooting, archery, boxing and wrestling have been performing well over the last few years at international levels.

Vijender Singh (boxing), Gagan Narang, Abhinav Bindra (shooting), Saina Nehwal (badminton), Sushil Kumar (wrestling), among others are now ranked among the top in the world and considered serious medal contenders. The 2008 Beijing Olympics have so far been the best for India with three medals, including the first individual gold by Bindra.

Could London mark a sporting turnaround for India? This is not to say that the country will suddenly start winning medals like America or China. Yet, is it possible that India is going to be counted among nations that can compete at the highest levels in a few sports at least? Like the Cubans or the South Koreans in boxing or the Aussies in swimming or the central Asian countries in wrestling and weight lifting.

Chances are that India will do better this time. Over the past few years, an important change that has happened in India’s sporting environment is that achievement has translated to social and economic progress for the winners.

Successful athletes are awarded handsomely by the government, states, corporates and wealthy individuals. They are offered stable jobs by both private and state-owned entities. Sections of youth today thus link sports with sustainable livelihoods and fruitful profession.

It is unlikely that one will hear about stories of penury and sorrowful existence of today’s winners the way it became of many of our hockey and athletics legends of the past. However, the fact also remains that India’s upcoming sporting champions still need to grapple against odds that need a quite a bit of sorting. Individual brilliance, personal passion, investment, some dedicated coaches and talent create occasional heroes.

If India is to be consistently counted among the top sporting nations in the world an institutional mechanism that continually produces world champions will need to be created. This sadly is still missing.

It is good to recognize a champion when there is one, but the process of creating generations of world beaters, like America does for swimming or athletics, involves investment, vision, strategy and honesty of purpose. 

Invariably, coaches in schools and the few good private clubs lament that Indian kids are as talented as anybody in the world. But, only high sporting spirits are not enough in the tough grind of competitive sports. It is the transition from boys to men, from the amateur stuff to the professionalism of international sport that we falter, the coaches say.

For high success rates, young talent needs to be spotted, honed, exposed and offered world class coaching, training, facilities, opportunity, physical conditioning, right diet, scholarships, sponsors and more. In India this, unfortunately, happens at isolated levels by dedicated individuals such as P Gopichand in badminton or PT Usha in athletics. Infrastructure creation, in which the government needs to play a very important role due to the finances required has been poor.

Like the roads it builds, India’s sports facilities continue to be potholed, man holed and corrupted. This was well underlined during the countdown to the Commonwealth Games that turned into an occasion of organized loot by the coordinators led by Suresh Kalmadi and his cronies cutting across political parties and the bureaucracy.

The whole process reeked of corruption as contracts at every level from air conditioners to food catering were signed at prices that were massively inflated. Huge funds were spent on junkets by officials and politicians traveling abroad to supposedly acquaint themselves of sports facilities abroad. Indian sports bodies, meanwhile, have turned into hubs of power politics wherein the office bearers play games that promote their own cause rather than sportsmen.

The build up to the London Olympics has had its share of controversies too that reflect the rot within. Government funds for shuttle cocks for the badminton team headed for London have not been cleared. Meanwhile, the walkers have not been provided proper shoes. Funds have not been released on time to some athletes to participate in all-important qualifiers. All of this does not make for good reading at all.

Though there has been progress, India has a long and arduous way up on the medals tally table at the Olympic Games.

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