There is this intangible thing called sports culture. It’s not about the amount of money that’s spent – if it was then the Middle East countries would not have been importing athletes. It’s also not just about overall sporting infrastructure or Kenya would not be 15th in the standings.
Possibly, it’s got more to do with just how many people show up for local sport. For instance there are black people across the world but somehow Jamaica seems to produce the best athletes. An insightful NYT article attributes this to the fact that their annual athletics meet is the most attended sporting event of the year and how athletics is so huge in the educational system.
Parents in India turn up for the academic evaluation by teachers for sure, they needn’t when the kid plays inter-school sport. Our cities are concrete jungles, playgrounds aren’t a priority. Little things add up to this culture thing. It’s not something chimerical, it needs to be built. Local teams and local leagues are its bedrock.
For India to breed Olympians with regularity, we have to have a huge change in mindset -- respect our athletes more and not just pander to the winners. Most importantly of all, we have to get our achievers involved in the process of nurturing the next generation. As of now, they take their laurels and scoot from the bog that’s our sports administration.
To be the best you have to get the best. That costs money. We don’t invest in the best brains as the thought that a coach would get $10,000 (about Rs 6.7 lakh) per month sends our sanctioning authorities into convulsions. Access to the best equipment stays a fantasy as lobbies ensure imports stay expensive. The emphasis on ‘Make in India’ is superb but by the time our sports goods industry reaches world levels in Olympic discipline equipment, a couple of more Games would have passed.
When it comes to sport, we are a knee-jerk nation with a decided proclivity towards hyperbole. A case in point is the Khel Ratna for Dipa Karmakar. Her first good performance at the world stage came this April and she followed that up with a credible fourth at the Olympics. But the heavily babu-dominated committee that decides these awards chose to go with popular sentiment rather than cold logic. Fourth place finishes must be applauded, they needn’t be excessively celebrated.
When mob-driven decisions are taken, we risk anarchy and that’s just the state that our national sports awards are in. Your correspondent was a member of the selection committee last year and realised there is little that an independent voice from outside can achieve.
Take for instance the Arjuna criteria. It’s a convoluted nightmare. Take the dull ceremony where athletes’ parents are relegated to the back while babus and their families sit in the front two rows. It just kind of puts the priorities right out there. A fine mess it’s going to be this time when there are four khel ratna awards. What better way to belittle the nation’s highest sporting honour than by handing out the most ever in a year.
If the pinnacle of our recognition of sports achievements is so skewed, the rot below is but logical.
The government’s Target Olympic Podium scheme (TOPs) has been a spectacular flop. But the same heads that came up with this and other such bureaucratese that suffocates Indian sport will continue to meander along bumbling at their jobs.
Will Sports Authority of India (SAI) and its bigwigs be held accountable? Names can be taken but then this is a collective failure. We as a nation have failed. There is no point in singling out individuals. But if people at the helm get away with underperformance there can be no progress.
Indian sports administrators are bad. They work on the principle of preservation rather than assertion. Take the case of mixed doubles in tennis. Leander Paes and Sania Mirza may have been a far better combination and would have certainly got in as an Asian exempt but tennis administrators went with Mirza’s wishes and not tennis logic.
That all our administrators are too thick skinned to resign is something that we know. That they can’t be sacked is a fact as they are not accountable. India can change all of this by radically altering the way sport is governed. China did, didn’t it? But nothing happens for the political class is so heavily a part of this set up.
The excessive influence of the administrators compels athletes to kowtow or else their funds are stopped, their exposure trips taken away. They learn that you have to be subservient to babus, officials and heck, even the press. Every time a medallist calls me ‘Sir’ I cringe but you get the point, don’t you? The ji-hazuri (yes sir) derides even our best of the necessary killer instinct from an early age. Later, when confronted by the in-your-face aggression of the world, they baulk.
Coaches are the bedrock of a sporting nation. In our case it’s usually the profession of those who can’t do anything else. The SAI is the parking ground for political appointments, not the best sports brains of the country. All schools have sports periods but do our school instructors have a basic blueprint for grooming athletes? The huge gap in knowledge at the grassroots ensures our players begin to figure what’s required far too late in their careers.
Then there is this entire clamour to get things radically right in time for Tokyo. The lack of perspective is astounding. It takes decades to make a champion. As the pundits say, it takes at least ten years of deliberate, consistent, perfect practice. That’s been proven for excellence across human activity and not just sport.
The bus for Tokyo has already left, we may hasten and try and hang to the tailpipe. If we are to look at Olympic glory, think 2024, think 2028.
But then knee-jerk is what we do, not planning, not vision.
MAKING OF A CHAMPION10,500 athletes from 206 countries competed for a total of 2488 medals in Rio. Or, only one out of every 2.8 million stands on the podium. An Olympic champ is made of solid fundamentals, sweat and support. We try to break down the factors:
NEED TO START EARLY
Michael Phelps, the most successful Olympic athlete ever, took to swimming at the age of seven. Diagnosed with ADHD and scared of putting his face underwater, he prevailed over both hurdles. Influenced by elder sisters and US swimmers at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he began full-fledged training and at 10, held the national record in the age group before Bob Bowman took him to North Baltimore Aquatic Club. ‘World’s greatest athlete’ Ashton Eaton — who defended his decatholon title in Rio - wanted to be a Ninja Turtle (specifically "the purple one" aka Donatello) and decided to take up Taekwondo as a fiveyear- old and got his black belt eight years later. Stints in football, American football, basketball and wrestling followed and made him a well-rounded athlete. Usain Bolt and Mo Farah played cricket and football as kids respectively — the two sports’ losses athletics’ biggest gains. It is not just about finding and focussing on that one sport, as long as a child picks up any sporting discipline early enough.
EFFECTIVE SUPPORT SYSTEM
Then there are the factors out of an athletes’ hands. An individual’s talent can be easily recognised, but nurturing and harnessing it to be competitive at the highest level requires support. The raw talent needs a coach, infrastructure, equipment and facilities - all of which depends on the the country that individual has been raised in. Nations with planned economies and robust sporting culture will almost often do better. India, where many still live by the words ‘padoge likhoge banoge nawab, kheloge kudoge hoge kharab’, needs to learn that ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’
PUTTING IN HOURS
Starting out early helps athletes reach freakishly high levels, especially in sports that involve extensive handeye coordination and fine motor skills. But the skill sets are merely the building blocks. An elite athlete needs to practice and train the skills past the point of autonomy - where the mechanics become muscle memory. And there are no shortcuts, the more hours you put in, the better you get. An elite archer will often shoot up to 400 arrows, silver-medallist PV Sindhu’s coach Pullela Gopichand revealed that the duo can go through as many as 1000 shuttles per training session. The exact same number of Produnova vaults Dipa Karmakar claims to have executed in the run-up to Rio. The hard yards in training, when combined with mental toughness, give one the best chance of succeeding.