Kheloge kudoge to hoge kharab, padhoge likhoge to banoge nawab (if you play, you will be wasting your life, but if you study you will be a king).
That oft-repeated Hindi saying has for decades typified the Indian approach to sport. Yes, we like the idea of our son finishing first in the school athletics competition, but would rather he got into IIT or medical college. Yes, we revel in watching a Usain Bolt complete a hat-trick of golds at the Olympics and a Michael Phelps making swimming history, but how many of us would seriously push our children into professional sport? Cricket maybe. But athletics, boxing, football, or even our ‘national game’ hockey? Not if you are an urban middle-class parent for whom job security still matters above all else.
And yet, times are changing even if there is despondency at our failure to win many medals at the Rio Olympics. That sense of gloom may partly be explained by a “virtuous cycle of rising expectations”. After all, we won three individual medals in Beijing, then six in London, so naturally the hope was that we might now end up with at least a dozen in Rio. In particular, shooter Abhinav Bindra’s gold in Beijing 2008 was a breakthrough moment: Till then, we really didn’t look beyond hockey for Olympic glory, and even that was a dream more soaked in nostalgia than realism. A Rajyavardhan Rathore whetted our appetite with a silver medal in 2004, Bindra left us hankering for even more. But while no Indian since has come close to scaling the peak, there is reason to believe that a silent sporting mini-revolution is finally underway in the country. Which might explain why a record 120 athletes are competing in Rio after going through an arduous qualifying process.
First, while the metropolitan elite are primarily couch potato sports-watchers, sport has now broken the class divide and moved well beyond the metros. It’s the geographical ‘democratisation’ of sport that has seen a Dipa Karmakar emerge from almost nowhere to put Tripura firmly on the sporting map of this country. We became true world-beaters in cricket when the Mumbai monopoly over the sport was broken. We have become competitive in the Olympics once we discovered talent outside the traditional centres for sport.
Second, sport may still be seen as a pastime for the old order, but it is truly ‘aspirational’ for a new India, upwardly mobile and determined to succeed at all costs. You only have to meet boxer Vijender Singh, the bronze medallist at the Beijing Olympics, to realise how ‘aspiration’ is driving him forward. Vijender has turned professional, lives in Manchester, a universe apart from Bhiwani in Haryana he grew up in. The weather is cold and wet, he still struggles with his English, he misses his ‘ghar ka khaana’, but he is pushing himself harder to become part of the wealthy professional boxing circuit. “I want to be a world champion,” he says in his Haryanvi-accented English. Whether he does or not, the steely focus is unmistakeable as is the scale of his ambition.
Thirdly, we now have role models in more than one Olympic sport. By reaching world number one, a Saina Nehwal, for example, has sparked off a badminton renaissance. One only has to visit the Gopichand badminton academy in Hyderabad to realise just how Saina has ignited dozens of teenage dreams to become the next champion. That former world champions like Geet Sethi, Prakash Padukone and Vishwanathan Anand have come together to create an Olympic Gold Quest platform is itself a reflection of the changing times: There is a genuine desire to push the idea of India as an Olympic sport nation.
Finally, the media, too, has discovered life beyond cricket. The advent of intensely competitive 24 x 7 sports channels has created an ecosystem where cricket may remain the staple diet but the thali is no longer complete without other sports being added to the menu. Just look at the way a Star Sports, for example, has rediscovered kabaddi for a new generation: A traditional Indian sport is now creating its own superstars (of course, it might help our medal race if we could add kabaddi to the Olympics!). The televised hockey league, too, has added a fresh dimension to the sport: The best in the world now come to India, thereby gradually improving domestic standards. Indeed, despite losing in the quarterfinals, there were enough signs in the Indian hockey performance in Rio that the fear of European teams is now gone.
Sadly, what hasn’t changed dramatically enough is the attitude of most corporates and officials to Olympic sport. Yes, a Hero Group, for example, has steadfastly stood by hockey at a time when most others were abandoning the sport. But the fact is that most corporates still chase after the eyeballs and glamour of cricket. Why can’t our 10 richest corporates adopt a potentially medal-winning Olympic sport each, not just by organising high-profile leagues but also by promoting grassroots endeavours in those sports over a 20-year period?
As for the Indian State, it isn’t enough for the prime minister to ensure desi food for the teams in the Olympics village. The fact is the mindset of many officials is still trapped in the ‘mai-baap’ era, when sportspersons were expected to dutifully stand and wait their turn. When you hear that sprinter Dutee Chand travelled economy class to Rio while the officials were in first class, or that Dipa Karmakar’s request for her long-time physio to accompany her to Rio was deemed ‘wasteful’, the nagging question remains: Yes, yeh dil maange more medals, but do our netas and babus really know what it takes to be a champion?
Post-script: Celebrity author Shobhaa De crazily blamed athletes for travelling to Rio to only take selfies. As it has turned out, it was the sports minister who seemed selfie-obsessed during the Olympics. But then again, why blame the hapless Vijay Goel? He too is playing a national sport: It’s called ‘follow the leader’!