Just when we were wringing our hands at the prospect of a blank medal tally at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Abhinav Bindra hit gold. Certainly, the gloom has lifted. But this is actually the perfect time to ask an unsavoury question: should we allow our sporting self-esteem to be linked solely to what a handful of our athletes do once every four years?
Don’t get me wrong. Bindra’s feat should make us proud. But should India aim for an outcome in which a fraction of Indians excel while the rest of us wallow in sporting mediocrity and are content to bask in reflected glory?
While there is much to admire in countries like China setting goals and methodically going about achieving them, are we beholden to adopt the same set of goals just to keep up with the Joneses? The bottomline: do we want lots of Indians to be fit and love sports, or just a few people who can bring us medals, while others remain impervious to any physical and outdoor culture? Maybe the two aren’t as ‘either-or’ as they seem.
So what could our goals be? Instead of pouring all our financial and other are sources into developing world-class athletes (which we don’t any way), why not start from the bottom up? Inculcate a love of fitness and sport among Indians from an early age by creating more open spaces, playgrounds and parks, with relevant programmes. More than China’s galloping medal tally, I admire the way its government has encouraged cycling as a preferred means of transport, which reduces pollution and allows a large number of people to keep fit.
We should also carefully choose the activities we want to encourage. These need not be competitive, a feature we seem to think is indispensable. We could help foster in children a love of hiking, by setting up various clubs in schools — the way another Olympic-underperformer Israel has done. Indigenous contact sports like kho-kho and kabaddi could be developed even if they aren’t part of international sporting events.
Above all, we should develop the self-confidence and self-belief to chart our own course. So, while we wait for more Abhinav Bindras, we could have a happier, fitter India.