Can India win 20 gold medals in the 2020 Olympics?
A preposterous suggestion, most would argue. After all, the tally in Beijing in 2008 was a paltry three, with a solitary gold for shooter Abhinav Bindra. To believe there could be a 20-fold increase in the matter of a decade defies good sense.
Yet there have been encouraging indications in the latter half of 2010 that India may finally have woken up from its slumber where sports is concerned, and that multiple gold medals in subsequent Olympics may not be the pipedream it seems now.
"We are targeting three golds in London in 2012," says Viren Rasquinha, former India hockey captain and chief operating officer of Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), a not-for-profit initiative started by billiards champion Geet Sethi and badminton champ Prakash Padukone, which now also features tennis pro Leander Paes, chess Grandmaster Vishwananthan Anand and table-tennis champion Niraj Bajaj on its board.
"For 2016, the target is seven or eight golds," says Rasquinha, but desists from raising the tally to even 12 by 2020. "To get that far, we would have to target the 12-to-15 age group right now. I don't think enough is being done for them to believe that we can throw up so many champions," he says.
Now, Rasquinha is obviously a hard-nosed realist, but a sportswriter can afford some hope-filled speculation. What if everything fell into place over the next couple of years? Could Indian sport make a belated sprint to 20-gold glory in 2020?
Far-fetched still, but juxtapose the achievements of Indian athletes in the Commonwealth and Asian Games with the diabolical antics of officialdom and an unconcerned government and you get an idea of what is possible.
Badminton's Saina Nehwal, shooters Tejaswini Sawant and Gagan Narang, boxers Mary Kom and Vijender Singh and wrestler Sushil Kumar - to name a few champs from the past two years - have revealed not just rich talent, but also the ambition and hunger to excel despite heavy odds. Imagine if more youngsters like them could be spotted, harnessed and given the best facilities, coaching and support.
So what needs to be done? I would propose a far greater role for the private sector, whether through initiatives like OGQ or the direct involvement of corporates - even if only as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes, as was Reliance's recent Rs 700 crore largesse for football and Mahindra's tie-up with the US NBA to nurture basketball at the grassroot level.
This does not absolve the government of its responsibilities. While the private sector model would be the most hassle-free, it is not necessarily the most effective in India at this point, because neither the economy nor the social milieu is evolved enough to bear such an onus.
The government must continue to play a major role to the extent of increasing sports funding and loosely overseeing progress made by the federations, without actually trying to run the sport. I'll come to why this is necessary and how it can work, but for the moment, let's understand what clicks for various countries.
The three most productive systems today - as reflected by medals won in multi-discipline mega-event events like the Olympics - are China (state-funded), the US (privately funded) and Australia (a mixed approach where the Australian Sports Commission receives funds from the government but also generates money from other sources).
India should, I believe, lean towards the Australian model till the economy matures and the ethos of the country becomes 'sporting' enough for private funding to become more readily available. In any case, the Aussie system combines the best of the state-funded and private-funded systems and has produced better results than either.
While the US won a total of 110 medals in the Beijing Olympics, as a ratio of the total population, this works out to a modest 0.36 medals per million, compared to Australia's tally of 46 medals, or 2.150 per million. By this equation, incidentally, the best performer at Beijing was Jamaica, with a whopping 3.93 medals per million.
Jamaica also shows that a country with a low GDP - a paltry US$ 3,829, as per 2008 figures, compared to the US's $45,295 and Australia's US$ 38,408 - need not be a laggard if there is a strong sports ethos in the people and the government.
However, since comparisons with China matter most to India, it is interesting to note that, despite a whopping haul of 100 medals in Beijing (most of them gold), the dragon state's medals-per-million-of-population ratio is still as low as 0.075. What is dismaying, however, is that India registers a measly 0.003 on this scale.
Moreover, China's performances must be seen in context: At Atlanta in 1996, China had 16 golds and was fourth in the medals tally; in 2008, it won 51 golds, the most by any country showing, revealing the planning and effort that had gone on behind the bamboo curtain. India, meanwhile, has languished at bootlace level.
So am I being foolishly bullish? I don't think so. Demographics and the projected economic growth, if achieved, should set India on the path to becoming a sporting giant. Public-private partnerships in creating sports infrastructure, massive tax sops for private funders, and public campaigns to get the country 'physically active' would also go a long way towards fast-tracking such growth.
As was evident in the CWG scam, low accountability has been the bane of Indian sport - at the government and sports federation levels. Indeed, most federations have either become redundant or turned into malaise-laden power centres where sporting excellence is rarely on the agenda.
A radical approach to this problem would be to scrap the sports ministry, which I believe is an irrelevant leftover of the old-fashioned Leftist state. In any case, federations and associations in India - right up to the Indian Olympic Association's topmost office - don't care two hoots for its directives.
The sports ministry is a political sop at best, and not a very coveted one at that. A few past ministers have even confessed they saw it as a punishment posting. Meanwhile, Australia and the US have no sports ministry and have done brilliantly - perhaps because of that.
The government's job should be to provide vision and adequate funding (supplemented by contributions from the private sector) and thereafter leave matters to a National Sports Council that could report, perhaps, to the President.
An audit and compliance cell under this council could monitor the progress of federations that have received government funds. Non-performing federations would lose out on grants, which would be disbursed in accordance with standards and best practices spelt out at the start. No hanky-panky.
Meanwhile, 'catch them young' would have to be more than just a populist slogan. Talent would need to be identified early and nurtured well to become medal-worthy. A National School and Collegiate Sports Council that focuses on these aspects is imperative; an Indian Institute of Sport, like the country's famed technical and management institutes, which could report to the HRD ministry, would be a logical next step.
Sport feeds on passion, but thrives if it is also seen as a livelihood. But why is being a 'sporting nation' so vital, you might ask? Apart from obvious benefits to the health index, it also reflects the soft power of a state, and this has been true in the old and modern worlds. Transforming Sport
What usually stymies such development is indifference - of the public as much as of the state. There is a strong feeling of achievement and pride in the Indian psyche now. Young India is ready to get, set and go. But are the powers that be?
(Ayaz Memon is a veteran sports writer)
The views expressed by the author are personal