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Wednesday, Sep 18, 2019

What a thrill to be aiming better, higher in sport: Flip Side by Kunal Pradhan

A new fortnightly column looks at the landscape of sport in India, and how much greener it’s got.

columns Updated: Nov 24, 2018 17:11 IST
Kunal Pradhan
Kunal Pradhan
Hindustan Times
Silver medallist athletes Mohammad Anas Yahiya, Hima Das, MR Poovamma and Arokia Rajiv at the Asian Games in August. Never before have we fired across sports at the same time.
Silver medallist athletes Mohammad Anas Yahiya, Hima Das, MR Poovamma and Arokia Rajiv at the Asian Games in August. Never before have we fired across sports at the same time. (Shahbaz Khan / PTI)

For a former sports writer who abandoned the green fields of familiarity for distinctly browner pastures, this article marks a strange homecoming.

Though I’ve had the opportunity to dabble in a few pieces over the last six years, they were only forays that had to be made because the events were too big to ignore - Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement, an Indian gymnast almost winning a medal at the Olympics, a near-cleansing of the Indian cricket board.

Six years ago, when I regularly wrote a sports column before entering the dark alley of crime, politics and policy of my own volition, the landscape I left behind was dramatically different from what it looks like today. Here is a lay of the land: cricket grounds in India still reverberated with chants of ‘Sach-in, Sach-in’; Michael Schumacher was in the cockpit of a Mercedes, not winning any more but still living life in the fast lane; LeBron James was a turncoat who had abandoned Cleveland; Lance Armstrong was not a certified drug cheat; and Virat Kohli’s highest Test score was 116.

It was a time, not long gone, when the Indian sporting horizon began and ended with just one sport. Sure, Abhinav Bindra had already won a gold medal at Beijing 2008, and London 2012 had given India a record six medals, but the larger story of Indian sport revolved around the bat and the ball (more bat than ball).

The tales that filtered in from outside the cricket ground were about sports administrators going on luxury foreign trips as Chefs de Mission and observers; squatting as federation chiefs for decades while athletes struggled to make ends meet; young players living in abandoned railway compartments instead of hotels during training camps; and international sportspeople being treated as second-class citizens when they should’ve been hailed as heroes. 

Back then, the only way an athlete could get noticed and be marked out for elite training was by achieving a dramatic result in an international competition, which was difficult because they weren’t given the facilities needed to achieve it. It was a Catch-22.

Today, non-cricket Indian sport is in the middle of a revolution. Evidence of this lies not in how many medals are being won -- the nature of sport is such that a victory is never guaranteed – but in how many athletes are getting into contention, day after day, event after event.

Proof also lies in how the Indian sporting arena is expanding from traditional fields of strength. Over the years, India has witnessed mini-movements in various disciplines at different times – weightlifting in the ’90s, badminton in the ’80s, shooting in the early 2000s, boxing and wrestling in the early 2010s, and athletics in two or three bursts between the 1950s and 1980s.

Never before have we fired across sports at the same time.

Two years ago, on the sidelines of an event where former all-England badminton champion and India’s national coach Pullela Gopichand was speaking and I was moderating a session, we got into a discussion on what was needed to propel Indian sport forward.

Gopi drew an isosceles triangle and then drew two horizontal lines across it, dividing the triangle into three parts. The largest section at the base, he said, was the number of people playing sport in India. The middle section represented those playing competitively. And the small tip represented the elite athletes — he called them “the cream that had risen to the top”.

To get more elite athletes, he said, the triangle needs to become larger so that the top also grows in proportion. “It’s simple mathematics,” he said.

The base may not be as large as it could be — there is a long way to traverse — but there are signs that it’s growing for the first time in a long time.

Which begs the question: What is behind this change? There is no one answer. As some point over the last decade, cricket became more meaningless than before; and outside the pitch, excellence bred excellence and we were able to string together success stories — PV Sindhu to follow Saina Nehwal, Yogeshwar Dutt to follow Sushil Kumar. Perhaps most importantly, at some point all of us, the stakeholders and the fans, started to care.

So this new fortnightly column brings a former sports writer to a world that is only vaguely familiar, for it is greener than ever before.

First Published: Nov 24, 2018 17:11 IST