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That winning feeling

We are finally becoming competitive in sport. Presently, the desire to be the best isn’t matched by our abilities. We may want to win, but we don’t know how? Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Oct 06, 2009 15:03 IST
Samar Halarnkar

After many months of effort, I am now the proud holder of a “Morning walker Pass” to “Humanyu’s tomb (sic)”.

Slightly smaller than a passport, it doesn’t easily fit a walking-shorts pocket. I suppose the Archaeological Survey of India didn’t think of that — bless their souls though for allowing local residents the use of one of India’s grandest monuments (In his haziest opium-laden days, Humayun may not have imagined his tomb as an open-air gym).

Now that I’ve been given free entry into a world heritage site, I enjoy my modest 6-km morning run — 10 km is my equally modest goal — in incredibly romantic settings. I hear the gurbani from a neighbouring gurdwara, the screech of parakeets, the ghostly call of peacocks, the long hoot of locomotives on the mainline to Mumbai. As I huff along a medieval gravel path, I nod at the 60-something jogger and the portly neighbourhood chemist and watch the sun spill over the stone battlements.

You cannot miss the flood of people who are out at daybreak across India: running, walking, skipping, doing yoga, cycling and anything else to keep fit or lose fat. When I’m in Mumbai, I’m always struck how packed Marine Drive is at 5:50 am with silent walkers, runners — there goes Anil Ambani, jogging alongside his Mercedes — and the hordes of Gujarati kids on roller-blades and bicycles. I’ve watched young men in khaki shorts run along roads in Maharashtra’s backcountry lanes, and I’ve seen women in burqas and heavy southern sarees shod in sneakers, furiously try to master the art of fast walking in my home town, Bangalore.

The Indian proclivity towards diabetes and cardiac disease is, obviously, great motivation for the fitness revolution. So too is the relentless imagery of fit, fab bods on television, in movies and in the daily newspapers.

But there’s more to it than a desire to be healthy.

Indians want to be champions — even if they don’t consciously know it.

As the masses of young and middle-aged preparing for marathons in our cities reveal, we don’t just want to run. We want to run faster, longer, harder.

We want to do better, and then do better than that.

We want to win.

Perhaps the greatest boost to our sporting ambitions is how Indians are finally equating sport with national glory. No country can get enough of sport as national glory. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dying sport, like cricket in the UK.

“[The] Ashes victory was a feel-good moment that we really needed. Even the outrage over the release of the Lockerbie bomber was pushed briefly off the front pages as the nation was gripped with excitement,” noted Conservative MP and shadow British opposition minister Jeremy Hunt recently. “Understanding the power of sport on a nation’s psychology is a powerful tool in developing both national identity and national pride.”

I’ve never been a fan of the shallow, pop patriotism that emerges from our cricket-and-television factory. But India now realises glory can come from any sport. So, we embrace a Baichung Bhutia (soccer, global), a Vijender Singh (boxing, manly), a Saina Nehwal (badminton, popular), a Dipika Pallikal (squash, superfast) even a Pankaj Advani (billiards, er, flat?).

We are finally becoming competitive in sport. Presently, the desire to be the best isn’t matched by our abilities. We may want to win, but we don’t know how.

So, we struggle to understand how the Sri Lankans often give the boys in blue a hiding; when Bhutia’s boys beat Kazakhstan, then struggle to beat Syria; when Saina beats a Chinese player but two other Chinese then beat her; when Vijender gets a bronze medal — and then gets another when this time we thought he’d get gold.

A country that boasts just one individual gold in 113 years of the modern Olympic games cannot hope to produce a champion overnight.

And let’s understand that India isn’t China. The government of a functional anarchy cannot turn out sporting heroes. Especially when female wrestlers are made to serve tea to officials. Especially when the grand, old men who run Indian hockey casually lie that our new Spanish trainer quit because he’s getting married, when the incredulous trainer says he was tired of unanswered emails and ignored requests for training equipment.

The tipping point will be when the wave of competitive sport — I don’t mean cricket — inundates our schools. The ripples have started: visit a school to check the popularity of games as diverse as basketball, tennis and rugby. As that happens, as sporting facilities spread, as the sprinkling of individual trainers — responsible for creating Sainas, Vijenders and Marykoms — becomes a flood, India will reach critical mass.

I give it five years.

The important thing is to get out there.

Jogging along the Charles river in Cambridge, Japanese writer and marathoner, Haruki Murakami, once watched smart, young women from Harvard University overtake him. “They seem to be used to passing people,” he says in his delightful book What I talk about when I talk about running. “They all look so bright, so healthy, attractive and serious, brimming with self-confidence.”

Those are the kind of people who used to spook me once. No longer. When fit, young people — or fit, older people, for that matter — pass me now, I barely notice.

I follow Murakami’s mantra: “I have my own pace, my own sense of time.” One day, I will have my 10 km.