The pivotal role of sport in an aspirational India
Abhinav Bindra writes about the importance of sport and why India should rethink its model of governing various disciplines
A nation is defined by its people, and people are defined by their character. And one discipline that not only builds character but reveals it is sport. The value of sport cannot be overstated for a deeply aspirational country such as ours, not just because of the soft power it wields, but more importantly, for the essential values it instils in those who follow it.
At 75, we are a vibrant, young democracy that has steadfastly made its ambitions known to the world. From the days our legendary hockey teams ruled the world to the present, when supremely gifted and committed athletes are asserting themselves on the world stage, our collective pride has been intricately linked with sport.
A quarter century from turning 100, the import of sport has never been more pronounced in our history. It pleases me no end to see more young people engaging with sport — not just pursuing it at an elite, professional level, but also being made aware of its primary and tertiary benefits.
Still, we are a fair way from becoming a sporting nation in the true sense. This can happen only when our children are introduced to sport in their formative years. Sport is a lot more than winning and losing. Going forward, our development programmes for young athletes must go beyond providing them with a platform to compete. I feel that from a young age, athletes should be sensitised towards the larger values of sport, integrity and anti-doping.Take the Youth Olympics, for example. More than a competition, it’s a grand celebration of sporting endeavour, which is what young athletes need at that age.
Further, as a nation, we put a lot of premium on results rather than processes. It is one significant change I’d like to see in our sporting ecosystem. Winning medals is great, but more important is to do it the right way. We must tell our athletes that it is okay to fail. I may have won an Olympic gold, but I have lost more than I have won in my career. Of course, the memories of winning India’s first individual Olympic gold will forever stay with me, but at the end of the day, it is a piece of metal that I barely look at hanging on my wall.
What has instead stayed with me are the relationships I built and the values I learned through sport. Sport taught me to lose, and this is perhaps the greatest teaching one can get. It taught me patience, it taught me to respect my opponents, to win with humility, and to lose with grace. It taught me to stand still. To all the youngsters reading this, these values — more than the numbers you log on the score sheets — will make you a better person.
Thanks to sport, I developed a very special relationship with my coaches — even the ones I didn’t quite like. There was a coach who I detested for the rigours he put me through, but at the end of the day, I knew his strictness was coming from the right place. And this is why I remain friends with the people who shaped me.
My relationship with all my coaches was analytical, and I believe that athletes must have healthy communication with their coaches. Culturally, we are a society that is dissuaded from questioning. I’d like that to change. We must provide an enabling environment for our athletes, so that asking questions is not discouraged. Athletes must know why they are being asked to do certain things, and coaches must be equipped to give a scientific explanation. It’s a very delicate relationship that shapes a sportsperson’s career, and there’s no fixed framework, but an open channel of communication always helps. It’s also about time we start grooming our athletes for their post-career lives. Currently, if one has to pursue sports full time in our country, they often have to let go of formal education. That not only hinders their overall development, but leaves them at odds with life after their sporting careers have ended. In any case, a sportsperson’s career lasts no more than 10-15 years, so if he or she can be imparted some vocational training within their areas of interest, they will be ready for the world once they hang up their boots.
India is primed to be a real sporting force in the next 25 years. We have a young demographic that is actively interested in sport, and our recent success at the Olympics and Paralympics must be leveraged to take sport to the masses. We have seen the effect of Neeraj Chopra’s medal in the javelin throw. We have seen it in shooting over the years as well. I think our grassroots programmes have to continuously leverage our success at the highest level.
Still, seven medals in a single edition of the Olympics should not satisfy us. There are several areas of improvement that we must not lose sight of. Performance in sports is always very dynamic, and I think you have to keep oiling that machine. We still have a very long way to go, and the next 25 years must be spent bridging the gulf between promise, opportunities, and performance.
One big challenge in sport continues to be governance. The way sport is run in our country needs a serious rethink. Sport administration must rest with competent people and steps must be taken to weed out institutional corruption and opacity. Our national federations and our national Olympic committee must conduct their elections on time, stick to the spirit of the sports code, and bring in reforms in their respective constitutions to ensure that the interest of the athletes remains at the heart and core of all decisions. Autonomy without good governance has, time and again, proved disastrous.
Finally, we need to be smart and invest in the new disciplines that are coming under the Olympic fold. Sport in India presents a fantastic opportunity for us to develop a sound base and gun for greater success. You don’t want to suddenly wake up 10 years down the road and say, “Okay, let’s start here.” There is no better time to invest in Indian sport. The time is ripe.
Abhinav Bindra is an Indian Olympic gold medallist and retired shooter
The views expressed are personal