Once every four years, the world unites to humiliate Indians. Cities even bid with great aggression years in advance to host the torture and billions are eventually spent to achieve the end. No other nation is as shamed by the Olympics as India is. Among nations that have won at least one medal, Indians are indisputably shown as the least talented, strong, competent, hardworking, productive, useful… you get the drift.
An attempt to find comfort in identifying other losers like us only converts a sense of civilisational failure into a sense of racial failure. For the other losers are all browns. The whites, blacks and yellows are generally exquisite. Far worse would be the immense pride some news anchors would exhibit when a handful of Indians do win some medals. There are times when what makes us happy is an indicator of how far behind we are.
Forget the medals, we do not even qualify yet to host the Games. A consortium of private and public federations does not consider us good enough to let us waste billions of our own money on an event that some wise cities around the world do not wish upon themselves.
But the fact is we need not feel so wretched. There are some good reasons why.
In the first place, most top-level sports are a measure of physical abnormalities and freakiness, including oddly large lungs and feet, and high testosterone levels in some women that can lead to medical complications. They deserve veneration, no doubt at all, but it is amusing that a measure of human strangeness should contribute to nationalistic chest-thumping. What a sport says about a genius athlete is not that the others of his tribe are a bit like him but that the rest are nowhere close to him. Even the elite Ethiopian or Kenyan marathoners, a small fraction of the populations, only represent a genetic propensity and not, by any stretch of imagination, national or tribal character.
But surely, genius athletes are groomed by their nations, so is there room for some chest-thumping? But that leads us to a fact that casts Olympic nationalism as a daft emotion. Almost all medals truly belong to the West, especially the United States. In most sports, an athlete, however gifted, has no chance to reach to top if he or she has not adopted American or European training, equipment and science. The finest Indian athletes, too, are beneficiaries of Western methods and science. Usain Bolt, too, would have remained an ordinary runner if he were not a part of a movement that Americanised Jamaican sprinting. The best African distance runners are groomed by Western science and coaching.
Even so, the nationalism of America and Europe is as confused. Some of their finest athletes are simply procured through economic migration. Professional sport is a measure of economic inequalities, too. One can argue that the West then has excellent reasons to be proud of its sporting achievements. That’s like saying India’s rich should be proud of their talents in squash and tennis. It would be a muddled pride. In any case, the Olympic message for Indians is that we do not need the Games to feel low. The Games are only a reflection of the prevailing world order, and our inferiority is certainly not quadrennial.
There is something to cheer though, at least one legitimate cause for celebration. Most Indian athletes face all the adversities of India – malnourished childhood, impoverished and hopeless adolescence, poor coaching, scarcity of systems, role-models, facilities and adequate sponsorship. Yet Indian Olympians are almost as good as or better than more fortunate athletes. In a more truthful world they would be wearing jerseys that says not ‘India’, but ‘Despite India’. So, contrary to the notions of sports nationalism, it is not India that should make us proud but the ingenious ability of Indians to survive India.
Over the years, the prestige associated with hosting the Olympics has greatly diminished. Several nations now consider it a wasteful expenditure. The citizens of Boston aggressively defeated the city’s bid for the Games. We need not be so embarrassed anymore by the fact that we have never been considered good enough to host the Olympics. But some people look at the situation very differently. They sense that in the coming years it would become easier for an Indian city to make a successful bid for whatever it is worth.
In recent times, host cities have behaved in a manner that would greatly interest Indians because they have exhibited qualities that are very familiar to us. Even London in 2012. There was much self-flagellation. Londoners griped and lamented their civilisational inadequacies in hosting the event. Rio more so. A section of Brazilians have said that their nation is not good enough to host the Olympics because it is not good enough to create great infrastructure or to control air and water pollution, the zika virus and crime. They have stated very clearly that they are broke and inefficient.
It is always fascinating to listen to your nation’s voice through the mouths of foreigners. The Olympics remind us that when it comes to self-loathing we are not alone. In fact, if it were an Olympic sport, we would perform well, but come third after Britain and Brazil. Third is still a medal.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The views expressed are personal