The answer to why India does not feature in the league of countries with a culture of sporting brilliance is not simple. Like most things about India, sporting excellence is also a function of the larger factor of thought process.
Sport is one among the many components that mirror the existing socio-economic-cultural setting of a country or a region. People’s collective thought process influences the broad contours of a nation. The immediate environment, the historical context and the expectations about the future have a significant role to play in shaping people’s aspirations and ambitions. These are understated forces embedded deep in the social and cultural psyche of a nation.
I am tempted to ask: Why do most parents want their children to study medicine or technology? Why do most parents want their children to become doctors, engineers or business executives?
For example, if a choice had to be made between going on an overseas sports tour and appearing for the 12th standard board examination, most parents, I reckon, are likely to opt for the latter.
In my opinion, the answer lies in what people think about future opportunities. For any parent, the security of the future of children is paramount. In the final analysis, it boils down to the availability of jobs and career opportunities.
If most parents want their children to study medicine or engineering or pursue a course in business administration, it only mirrors their view that there will be more jobs available in these disciplines.
As a corollary, they believe their children stand a better chance of a secure future in these vocations. Sport as a professional pursuit continues to remain outside the matrix of mainstream career options in India. This probably means most people think a career in sport is not a likely stable alternative yet.
Physical strength is the most necessary attribute for sporting accomplishments. This brings me to a broader issue: Millions in India still have to think about earning enough to afford three meals a day. It is but natural that sport does not get priority.
This is contrary to what we see around the world, particularly among developed countries, where families do not have to worry about food.
This, in my view, is one of the key reasons why India continues to remain a sporting laggard, despite extremely intelligent people. This also explains that we see sporadic bursts of individual excellence matching up to the very best in the world.
This, if I were to say so, is largely because of the state of our development. The silver lining, however, is that there are signs of change. We are now a rapidly growing economy and, on many fields, beginning to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the developed world. It is now a matter of policies and priorities, before we catch up with these countries in the sports arena too.
It is sometimes pointed out that cricket enjoys too much focus and, therefore, attracts funds and mind space. This, in turn, it is said, has crowded out other disciplines. I could not disagree more with this line of argument.
There is a perfect example to borrow from the corporate world to counter this. The domestic software industry, which has fuelled aspirations of millions of families, has been emblematic of India’s entrepreneurial abilities. The iconic software services companies have shown how wealth and jobs can be created with integrity.
There is no gainsaying the fact that their achievements over the last two decades have attracted the best of talent. However, the premise that the successes of these companies and the attendant attention and talent these have drawn have hurt the prospects of other industries is fallacious. Industry, and sports, is not a zero-sum game.
The accomplishments in one discipline do not come at the cost of others. If cricket has managed to pull in money and people, it only goes to its credit and other sports can emulate the model for similar success.
What, however, is common among all sports is the need to professionalise the way the games are administered. Corrupt and unprofessional administration is at the root of many ills that plague India’s sporting world.
Like in politics, dynastic rule also exists in India’s sport administration. This has primarily to do with the way the rules were framed decades ago and the strong resistance towards any attempt at reforms.
There are many examples from the corporate world that sport needs to draw upon. By appointing Cyrus Mistry to the lead the Tata Group, the multi-billion dollar conglomerate has demonstrated how succession planning can be executed seamlessly in a professional manner.
I am not of the opinion that only sportspersons should be allowed to head sports bodies. Administration is a specialised skill. However, it is about time to consider measures that will help set new rules.
For one, the tenure of top sports administrators should be fixed at five years. This should come bundled with a cooling-off period, similar to independent directors of companies. A person, after serving the fixed tenure of five years as the head of a sports body, should not be allowed to hold any office for a fixed period of another five years.
Control should not be concentrated in a small group for decades on end. This will ensure new people bring in fresh ideas and keep the zeal alive. Sport, after all, is all about passion.
(Kapil Dev is a cricket legend who led India to triumph in the 1983 World Cup)