India’s aspirations of becoming a world economic power may materialise in the near future given the strength of its market and the entrepreneurial drive of its people, but the sheen could fade a bit if it lags behind in sporting achievements.
India, home to more than 100 million people, has won only a handful of Olympic medals,that includes a lone gold medal, a record that should be more of an embarrassment than a matter of pride for a country that celebrates its cricket victories with hysterical zeal.
When we talk of our march forward, we always look at China as a competitor, though fully aware that they are far, far ahead of us in economic indicators as well as sporting achievements.
Should we despair, tear our hair, wallow in self-pity and blame everyone else but ourselves for this wide gulf between potential and results? Or should we take solace in what we have achieved and create conditions for improved performances in the future?
Pragmatism is the best cure for all diseases and the best way forward is to celebrate what we have and set goals to improve upon them. In the 1960s, we found great solace in the achievements of our hockey team, talk of Dhyan Chand as the pride of the nation and celebrate our lone Olympic medal (excluding hockey) post-Independence, a bronze won in wrestling by KD Jadhav, without feeling dejected at the generally abysmal sporting standards of the country. It was a nation then, very aware of its limitations and the widespread poverty that was a speed-breaker for its growth.
Sports, obviously, was a low priority and those who did well despite the odds loaded against them, were admired and respected. Milkha Singh, whose best achievement is the 400 metre fourth finish at the Rome Olympics, was the one iconic figure of those times and even today he is almost revered.
The success of the film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, made a couple of years ago, just goes to show how little we have achieved in the field of sports, where even today a man who did not even win an Olympic medal remains our most loved ever.
His story — a heart-rending tale of a Sikh, orphaned in the Partition, a penniless vagabond on the streets of Delhi in 1947, who became one of the best-known figures in India — is also the story of a nation’s early struggle and growth against many odds.
Today, India is not what it was then. It has achieved much in many fields and even in sports we are improving. The list of sporting icons is growing. Milkha is no longer the lone figure burning bright. Today, the list of sporting icons is growing and when Abinav Bindra shot gold in the Beijing Olympics, a nation discovered that there is life beyond cricket as well.
If Prakash Padukone was our best sportsman ever at one time, scaling peaks in badminton, we now have a score of players who are making waves in the world. Saina Nehwal is a true world beater and the likes of PV Sindhu are not far behind. It can be said without any doubt that India has the potential to become the China of badminton.
Similarly, India has had an outstanding tennis legacy, beginning from Ghaus Mohammad, taken forward by the Krishnans, the Amritraj brothers and now Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza collecting Grand Slam trophies in doubles by the dozen to induce a cricket-like hysteria among the public.
Wrestling and boxing are the other bright spots of a nation otherwise starved for long of sporting achievements. But the question to be raised again is, is this enough? Do we need to be satisfied with these victories and is enough being done to build upon these success stories? Do we really think that our tennis heroes have become the torch-bearers of success just because they are winning in doubles that most of the top players shun?
Among the many requirements for a uniform growth of sports is mass access to playing fields, training facilities, coaching and an administrative set-up that is fair, transparent and sensitive to the needs of sportspeople. If one carefully studies the growth of all sporting nations, the one thing that stands out is
that most success stories come from small towns and villages and not big cities.
Unless there is a collective government and private effort to address these anomalies, it will be difficult for India to become a sporting power. The plethora of sporting leagues that have mushroomed of late will help, but only up to a point. It is the grassroots we need to nurture and build. Unless that is done, we will continue to have stray individual successes, but in today’s India that is not enough