India’s Debacle at Sochi Games

With the curtain now down on the 2014 Winter Olympics amid a blaze of pyrotechnics at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, India has suffered yet another round of utter humiliation.

Not only did India not bag a single medal across 98 events in 15 winter sports disciplines, the world’s second-biggest country of 1.3 billion people was represented by a meager three athletes. But it isn’t the first time. Overall, India has won just 18 medals since 1928, with field hockey contributing 11 to that tally. Russia won nearly twice as many – 33 – in Sochi alone.

India had skated on thin ice, so to speak, all along. To begin with, its three sportspersons – alpine skier Himanshu Thakur, cross country skier Nadeem Iqbal and luge Shiva Keshavan – were barred from marching with the national flag at the Games’ opening ceremony. Top officials of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) – the central body which manages the event – were embroiled in a messy corruption scam for violating the Olympic charter.

With its athletes forced to march under the standard flag of Olympic rings as "independent Olympic participants," the mood in the Indian camp was gloomy.

"It was a bad feeling to be at the opening ceremony because I was under the Olympic flag," Himanshu Thakur told the media after finishing 72nd, 26 seconds behind gold medalist Ted Ligety of the United States. "It hurt that I was not representing my country.”

India’s lone medal hope, Shiva Keshavan, was more succinct: “People around the world now know about the failure of our systems and about corruption and bad governance in sports. It’s so embarrassing!”

For the uninitiated, “independent Olympic participants” signifies athletes who come from a country that is either going through a political transition or is unable to officially send athletes to the games due to diplomatic sanctions. At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, an athlete from South Sudan competed independently as the country was still being formed.

Although the ban against the Indian Olympic association was lifted later after the body scrambled to hold fresh elections for its top officials, which allowed Indian athletes to wear their country's colors at the closing ceremony at least, the damage had been done. Global media dubbed the cignominy as India’s “Walk of Shame.”

Despite its huge population, genetic diversity, IT prowess, growing heft at the global geopolitical high table and position as Asia’s third largest economy, India continues to have an astonishingly bad run in international sporting events. It’s a well-established fact that the world's largest democracy wins fewer medals per person than any other country.

According to a Secretary in the Ministry of Sports, India's subpar performance has more to do with the "country's ethos where sports is always at the bottom of the pyramid. It's easy to lay all blame at the government's door," the official said. "Nobody highlights the good schemes we launch, the financial assistance we provide to the underprivileged. If we want to progress in the sports arena, as Indians we need deep introspection in terms of how we can engage genuinely with sports."

India’s Olympic history has been especially dismal. To be fair, records were set in London in 2012 for the number of athletes sent and medals won – six across four sports including a silver and bronze in men’s shooting, a silver and bronze in men’s wrestling, and then two bronze medals for the women. But in field hockey, which is the country’s official national sport (many presume it to be cricket, a non-Olympic sport), the men’s team finished last among 12 countries.

Athens 2004 was no better. The Indian contingent brought home a single silver. In Beijing 2008, the tally was one gold and two bronze medals.

Not that talent is scarce. Indian cricket and field hockey teams are routinely ranked among the world's finest. Keshavan, India's most prominent Winter Olympian, and its only luge athlete, set a new Asian record of 49.590 seconds at the 2012 Asia Cup in Nagano, Japan. Sochi was Keshavan's fifth time at the Winter Olympics. Yet the athlete had to raise his own funds to buy equipment and develop his own luge with no government assistance.

Two other talented athletes fared worse. They had to pull out due to a fund shortage. Reportedly, the government didn't release funds on time. "We’re still awaiting funds from the government because we do not have money to buy expensive clothing and equipment," Winter Games Federation of India President Surendra Singh Patwal told media on the eve of the Indian contingent’s departure to Sochi. "Each equipment has to meet Olympic specifications. We do not get them in India, they have to come from abroad. Unless the funds come, we can't even place orders for clothing and equipment.”

The myopic vision and misplaced objectives of the officials at the top of Indian sports bodies, are already well-documented. The introduction of a radical Sports Bill – that intends streamlining selection procedures and puts age limits for officials in sports bodies and the number of years they can stand for and hold office – has been languishing in the Indian Parliament for decades due to vested interests.

Entrenched corruption means that athletes are often not chosen on the basis of their talent or capability, but their capacity to bribe selectors. Athletes deprived of basic infrastructure and training facilities often have to give up promising careers to support themselves and their families.

Recently, the The Times of India reported on mountaineer Ram Lal, 24, from the northern town of Fatehabad, who had scaled Mount Everest in 2010. Lal is currently selling fruits and vegetables as a roadside vendor to fend for his family and take care of his bedridden father. He has yet to receive the cash award of US$5,000 promised to him by the Haryana government for his feat.

The situation isn’t helped by the lack of a sporting culture. In Russia and China training is rigorous and begins early. Even Slovenia, the tiny Balkan nation that became independent in 1991 (and has a population of just two million), boasts of 40,000 registered athletes. The country’s strong sporting culture ensures that it hosts over 4,000 sporting associations and most Slovenian adults play some sort of sport.

“People perceive normal jobs to be far safer than a career in sports because sportsmen don’t enjoy any special benefits from the government unless they win medals for India. Even then there’s no guarantee that the athlete will be respected,” said Ram Prakash, the father of wrestler Hari Ram, who gave up his career at age 21 due to tardy government support.

Instead, in this land of Cricket and Bollywood, where cricketers and film stars are worshipped as gods, the younger generation clamors to enter the twin portals of cinema and the gentleman’s game to earn fame and fortune.

It doesn’t help that bureaucratic apathy and dirty politics form the overarching narrative in the sports arena. “In India, there’s more politics in sports than in politics itself,” said Prateek Bhambri, 36, a former state level badminton player who opted out of the game due to lack of government support. “Not once in my 11-year career did the government offer me a scholarship, job or accommodation. Ultimately, I had to quit the game because my shopkeeper father couldn’t afford to invest in my career after a point."

The list goes on. Infrastructure is poor, athletes are deprived of basic facilities like heaters, AC’s, indoor practicing arenas, nutritious food or good medical care. All these facilities cumulatively lead to lower quality of athletes. And of course, no Olympic medals.

Sports today is aptly described as the real soft power of a country. China’s clout was magnified after it put up a spectacular Olympic show in 2008. Russia’s stellar show at Sochi was for all to see. India, on the other hand, struggled to even host the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Construction of stadiums and games venues was so far behind schedule that livid inspectors who came down from the Commonwealth office threatened to scrap India as the venue. Unfortunately, even four years later, New Delhi doesn’t seem to have learnt its lesson.

(Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist)