Here’s the billion rupee question to ask before you settle in front of your TV sets later today to watch the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics: will India defend its record of sending the largest Olympic contingent only to fetch the least number of medals? The answer — unless, of course, you’re the sort who believes everything in this world to be maya — is a pretty resounding yes.
But even if it’s in hushed tones, India does have medal hopes in its star-studded shooting squad and some skillful archers and boxers. That tennis aces Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have sunk their differences to join the medal hunt adds to the ‘optimism’. Unfortunately, this all smacks of déjà vu, doesn’t it?
Sixty-one years of nation-building later, India’s sporting credentials remain bleak. The statistics clang louder than the medals we have won: a total of eight golds — all in field hockey, including six in a row from 1928 to 1956. (We have also picked up two silver and five bronze medals since we began competing in 1920.) The gold haul, however, is not a patch on the rich tallies of even small countries like Cuba (44 golds), not to speak of giants like the US (with more than 800). You have to go all the way back to 1900 to find a non-field hockey medal won by an athlete from India: the two silver medals that India-based British soldier Norman Pritchard won at Paris.
We are still nostalgic about the bronze that Leander Paes picked up in men’s tennis at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics: India’s first medal in anything outside field hockey since 1952. Our most celebrated claims to Olympic track-and-field glory remain the heroics of Milkha ‘The Flying Sikh’ Singh, who came fourth at the 400 metres race at the 1960 Rome Games. More ‘recently’, P.T. Usha, the ‘Payyoli Express’, missed her bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics by a hairsbreadth.
So, in over a century, India has won just three individual medals — and none of them gold.
It is such a great mystery — and a greater embarrassment — why India doesn’t produce celebrated athletes, at least in direct proportion to its population. Sports officials have their excuses, ‘under-development’ and ‘poverty’ being perennial favourites. Never mind if even more under-developed countries regularly come up with respectable medal tallies.
If we want Olympic silverware, we have to develop a sports culture. Based on a catch-’em-young policy, sports must be made mandatory between ages 4 and 16. Sports should become a regular subject carrying marks in board exams. Elsewhere in the world, schools and colleges are the real nurseries of sports. But many schools here struggle to provide classrooms — forget playgrounds, swimming pools and gymnasia. Sport is considered an ‘extracurricular activity’ by parents and teachers alike. This makes sports a means to an end, with students participating with an eye on the ‘sports quota’.
Let professionals replace politicians in top elective sports offices. Otherwise, our athletes can only succeed despite the system, rather than because of it. International sport is highly professional, demanding not only absolute dedication, but also world-class support facilities. We have neither in our sports schools, which are the best hope for athletic talent from rural and impoverished India. Is it any surprise then that they don’t churn out champs the way rich cricket academies do?
Not that pumping in money alone will turn things around. Long-term planning is critical. China owes its sports superpower status to a decades-long policy aimed at gaining supremacy in world sport. While Indians half-heartedly try to clip seconds, the Chinese cut whole minutes. To change the face of Indian sport, we must first change our mindset. Infusion of new ideas, and hiring top notch planners and coaches are crucial — as is, of course, respect for our sporting heroes long after they have hung up their spikes. The upside: we have nothing to lose but Olympic shame.