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Saturday, Dec 07, 2019

Why we are so Olympicky

There might be a selfless reason why India insists on doing so poorly on the Olympic stage. For, in Beijing, our poor show could firm up closer relations with the host country, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 14:32 IST
Pratik Kanjilal
Pratik Kanjilal

Yolumpicks (n Punjlish)

Olympics. International sporting event in which we lose at almost everything except the blame game.

Guess you’ve caught the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, calculated to inspire shock and awe and project China as a proud nation simultaneously ancient and modern. Or maybe you caught the curtain-raiser last month, when a wily Korean TV journalist marched into Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium and illegally filmed a rehearsal, dodging securitymen who have built an information firewall around the site. Can’t blame the Beijing cops for the leak. They have their hands tied. Even if they find a foreign devil journalist chatting up a Falun Gong counter-revolutionary, they are not to start beating everyone up. The word is out: Beijing 2008 must erase the memory of Tiananmen 1989.

This is no ordinary Olympic event. For the Chinese, it’s an opportunity to showcase their country as a mature world power, not just a maker of cheap chips and squishy toys. For the rest of the world, it’s a referendum on Tibet. For India in particular, it’s an occasion for sport diplomacy, apart from incidental objectives like winning some medals. We have a healthy dread for China owing to its hobby of claiming chunks of India as its own. It’s a powerful neighbour that burned us badly in 1962. Some international understanding here would soothe our nerves.

Thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru’s far-sightedness, India was an early mover in sport diplomacy. Before Independence, ace cyclist and filmmaker Jankidas (from whose Mumbai estate Sanjana Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatre now operates) raised the Indian flag at the World Sport Congress in Zurich. In the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Indian delegation led by hockey champ Dhyan Chand famously refused to give Hitler the Nazi salute.

India has invested heavily in sport diplomacy by under-funding all but a few sexy sports. So we have won only 17 medals since we joined the Olympic fray in Paris in 1900. This endears us to our enemies. Who knows, if we perform badly enough in Beijing, maybe the Chinese will be so pleased that we can end the India-China standoff.

So far, we haven’t handled it well. Most governments skirt the issue, pretending they can’t see what former Defence Minister George Fernandes called “the elephant in the room”. Only the NDA government was proactive about China, by using George like a wildcard. In essence, they told Beijing: we’re all very nice people here and won’t push any buttons. But there’s George, you know. He’s capable of anything, so lay off.

So let’s see what we bring back from Beijing. Some medals would be nice. But if it’s only Peking duck, at least we’ll have contributed to world peace.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine