The story of Indian cricket is all too familiar. Typifying Indian sports, the individual cricketer’s achievements are record breaking while the team’s are far from it. There was a time when the Olympic hockey gold seemed like a birthright. But today we play for the fourth and fifth slots in the Asian Games. And who won the hockey gold in the last edition of the Asian Games? China, which till the other day did not know the difference between a hockey stick and a golf club.
What is it that China has and India doesn’t? The answer is that China fosters talent through training, aided by the best equipment and facilities, and sustained by the will to win. The Indian lifestyle and educational system have not been conducive to the development of sports talent. The pride of wearing the country’s colours, playing for one’s captain, team, region and country has been lacking. Even hockey, in which India have won a string of Olympic golds, is an import from England. Very few countries played hockey (field hockey, to distinguish it from ice hockey). None can, of course, belittle the achievements of Dhyan Chand and other hockey greats. Again, take football. The passion generated by this game in Kolkata, for instance, is almost as much as in Rio or Sao Paulo. But where do we stand in world football? A hundred and more countries are ranked higher than us. In athletics and other Olympic events, India’s pathetic performance is well known.
What needs to be done? A total makeover. Replace the army of officials with younger, committed people who should be asked to show results or face the axe. Politicians and bureaucrats entrenched in positions of authority in sports bodies have bred parochialism. A new breed of sports administrators needs to come forward, preferably from various disciplines, so that a spirit of professionalism prevails at all levels. Also, the whole gamut of sports awards at the national level needs scrutiny; there should be a more stringent regime and a more selective approach, with only outstanding sportspersons being given the Arjuna Award, Khel Ratna or Padma Shree.
For long, Asians have been convinced that their genes do not favour in track and field events. It was believed that the nimble, compact Asian build is better suited for sports that require dexterity and precision. That perhaps explains China’s dominance in gymnastics and diving; Japan’s in judo, or South Korea’s command over archery and taekwondo. Today, the Olympics medals are almost evenly shared between industrialised and developing countries. Jacques Rogge, International Olympic Committee President, declared that Athens marked “the Games where Asia had awakened”. Rogge was counting China (32 golds, up from 28 in Sydney), Japan (16, up from five in Sydney) and South Korea’s tally (nine golds more than Sydney).
The Chinese did not compete in the Olympics from 1952 to 1984 in protest against Taiwan’s participation. Since their return in Los Angeles, in less than two decades of Olympic participation, China has sprinted ahead from five golds in 1988 to 28 golds in 2000, and 32 in 2004.
In the mid-1990s, China revamped its training regime, which was patterned on the Soviet model, compelling millions of children into veritable sports servitude. Some 400,000 young hopefuls in 3,000 sports schools in China today toil to bring glory to their country. The Shichahai Sports School in Beijing is reported to have produced 25 world champions. The Weilun sports school in China’s southern province is credited to be an Olympic cradle with 1,000 full time students. China looks far beyond the horizon, keen to pluck the stars. The US 400-metre star, Michael Johnson, travelled to China to work with its athletes. Pat Cash’s tennis academy will host Chinese trainees. China’s basketball team is coached by Del Harris, an American who worked with the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA. China has set for itself another goal: to prepare younger athletes for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
All this is reminiscent of Japan’s story of sports successes. An ascendant economic power, it yearned to show how spectacularly it had risen from the ashes of war. Japan spent $ 3 billion on the Tokyo Games and edged past Germany for the third slot. Once again, Japanese athletes discovered the joys of victory. Japan vastly improved its gold haul from Sydney and ranked third in the overall gold medal tally at Athens, behind the US and China. There is thus this scintillating success saga of some Asian neighbours, a paradigm for India to emulate. The outlook just now is bleak and dismal, but it has to change. We have hit rock bottom, and the only way now is up.