Every four years, the Olympics takes me back to my younger days and the Bombay School Sports championships, the ultimate test to determine which school was top of the pops in sports in the city. The championship was usually held at the Brabourne Stadium (subsequently moved to the University Stadium adjoining the Wankhede), where Bombay’s best young athletes would vie for medals and honour.
Competitive spirit in adolescence and teenage is readily manifest in a kind of gawky chauvinism, especially when it relates to sports. Pride in school and `our’ athletes would reach a crescendo in the period leading up to this gala. Weeks before the event, trials would be held, timings of star athletes from other institutions procured through a diabolical `spy network’, plans and ploys worked out on how to beat the competition, especially the arch rival school.
Championship day would be riotous. Rivalries would play out on the track and in the stands. But after the event, camraderie and bonding would heartily follow.
An important highlight was athletes clamouring for photos with each other during the championships. Cellphones and `selfies’ didn’t exist then, so getting people together and arranging for a photographer could be tedious, but was pursued aggressively nonetheless.
Being part of such championships – at whatever scale and in any era -- means you belonged to a different league. It simply had to be recorded for posterity!
What we obsessed most about was the magnificence of the Olympics; and India’s lack of prowess at this level led to a lot of heartburn and debate. Apart from hockey, there didn’t seem to be hope of winning a medal in any other discipline, always a matter of dismay that a country of a billion-plus had nothing to show for it.
Over the years, this lament acquired different dimensions; cynicism and self-pity becoming dominant, making for a schizophrenic understanding of the issue, as I’ve understood it.
Blaming poor infrastructure, coaching, sports is labouring an old point. When the country was poor, this was paramount concern, but is not entirely true now.
More money has been pumped into sport in the past decade – government and private sector put together – than in the 60 years before that. This is showing up as achievement statistically, even if readily not as medals. For instance, 118 athletes have qualified for Rio compared to 81 for the London Games in 2012. This shows a substantial expansion in the number of Olympic-worthy athletes which is significant.
It will be argued that such expansion has not led to proportionate increase in the number of medals: in 2012, India got six, and at Rio we still have to open our account which is a sore point currently. But rise in medals doesn’t necessarily rise proportionately, rather gradually, more so with a country that is just starting to make its mark. Hurdles and obstacles will arise because other countries too are improving.
It is also foolish to believe that all athletes will win medals. The most evolved sports nations – USA, China, Australia, Russia, Russia to name a few – have a success rate of 20-25%. But if the number of qualifiers increases, so do the chances of getting winners, depending on processes of developing winners – talent spotting, nurturing – being done with a very high degree of efficiency.
Fundamentally this is India’s problem today, and not linked only to maladministration, inadequate financial resources, sub-standard infra, or poor coaching. At a socio-psychological level, the issue is of creating a sporting ethos, which we don’t have.
Undermining Olympic athletes who qualify with blood, sweat and tears over years, sadly, still comes easily when in fact just being part of an elite group – in the top 20-25 in the world – is great honour in itself. Appreciating this should fill us with pride, medal or not. Only when the mindset changes will we become a sporting nation and the medals we desire become reality.